All people—regardless of who they are, their education, net worth, or any number of other attributes—have at least one shared quality in common: a unique way of understanding and interpreting human experiences. No two people see the same thing exactly the same way. I’m sure you can easily think of examples of the differences between your recollection of an event and another person’s memory of the same thing.
The uniqueness of the individual is a gift from God; a manifestation of God’s grace at work in the world; a result of the creative energy and power of God. Diversity surrounds us, helping create the pulse of the universe, the energy of all life. We should never tire of experiencing and praising the many gifts of God.
Because each individual is unique, experiencing life in diverse ways, it is quite possible for two people to arrive at the same conclusion after taking different paths to get there. Two different interpretations of the same experience also are possible, if not likely.
But what happens when an individual’s primary source of decision-making information is faulty? If one’s perceptions are “out of whack” or even slightly unfocused, the decisions that result will become a concern. The person’s unique, faulty way of understanding and interpreting experiences may cause trouble and, if they are far off base, lead to a conclusion of disordered behavior. That is a problem for the sufferer and the people who are in relationships with them.
There is a crucial distinction between “diversity” and “disorder.” People with diverse perceptions might simply view the same event in different ways. Disordered perceptions, often a problem for people with scrupulosity, bring unfortunate feelings into play.
Our perceptions drive our thoughts, beliefs, and acts. Experiences can confirm our unique belief systems, but if our perceptions are disordered, our belief system will be disorientated. The persistent fear and anxiety scrupulous people experience trigger disordered thinking and often result in them making unfortunate decisions.
I believe faulty information keeps people with scrupulosity from correctly perceiving experiences, interpreting them in a healthy way, and acting with positive consequences. Scrupulous people have disordered perceptions, not diverse ones. Their perceptions must be understood, managed, and—hopefully—healed at some point.
When experience is “confirmed” through life encounters rooted in a faulty information system, what gets confirmed is the disorder, not diversity of experience. The strong emotions of fear and the anxiety block or distort the reality of experiences, causing interpretations that fit the disordered system of belief.
For example, let’s say a person has a random thought that suggests a sexual response. The natural sexual feeling produces an interpretation. For a person unburdened by a psychological disorder, the feeling may be interpreted as pleasurable, appropriate, or inappropriate, but it is quickly dismissed and forgotten.
For a person with the disorder of scrupulosity, whatever feelings may be a natural part of the erotic are also overwhelmed by feelings of fear and anxiety. Strong feelings, filtered through a faulty belief system, suggest the presence of mortal or venial sin. Since sexual “sins” are, by definition, always to be considered “serious,” sin is inescapable in this person’s mind. With sin comes the obligation to confess. With confession comes the demand for firm purpose of amendment, and the list goes on. All of this creates an energetic whirlpool of suffering, unfortunately strengthening the faulty perception that sin has to be present since the suffering is so great.
Faulty information, which provides a filter through which experience passes on the way to interpretation and the identification of value, also is important to understand when seeking healing. If a spiritual director or confessor places his energy and expertise on trying to correct the understanding of sin by the person he’s helping in the hopes of assisting the individual with his scrupulosity, such counsel is misplaced. The effort should be focused on the emotional imbalance that is at work, not on sin. The correction of faulty information—in this case a misunderstanding of sin and forgiveness—is counterproductive and not helpful.
Profound emotional suffering is at the root of the scrupulous disorder. Catechetics is not helpful, no matter how fervent or committed the confessor may be. The scrupulous person must undergo therapy. Professional expertise is crucial and necessary.