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Stepping from the Shadows

We begin almost every spiritual-direction meeting on our ministerial website,, with a compliment. It acknowledges that every person who has joined the group has made an important statement: everyone at the meeting is no longer willing to struggle with scrupulosity in isolation. No more lurking in the shadows of human relationships, or standing at the back of the crowd, or choosing not to interact with others because of scrupulosity. Group participants make the brave, freeing choice to acknowledge their disorder and take steps to become more healthy, more engaged, and more thankful for their lives.

Scrupulosity isolates, and in the isolation it thrives. When you have only your own thoughts and experiences as your guide, it is easy to believe the falsehood that you are hopeless and helpless. When you emerge from your isolation and hear the stories of others, you begin to come to a healthy awareness. When you end your isolation, you grow to accept how the disorder affects you and how it challenges others, too. You do not struggle alone. You can be understood. You can learn to manage the disorder and live a healthy and a holy life.

But if you continue to live in your head and only experience your own interpretations of the events of your life, the disorder takes over. Anxiety wins. Fears become more terrifying. Hopelessness is deeper. And it is easier to believe in the bad and give up most hope for the good. While not a sinful choice, the unnecessary decision to isolate with the scrupulous disorder enables you to accept what you may think is “natural” for you.

The scrupulous disorder offers many false choices, preserving your isolation by inviting you to believe you can remain alone but still find the help you need. This disastrous choice leads you away from health and wholeness and deeper into the fear and anxiety of the disorder. The sinless but harmful choice to remain isolated leads to other choices that also fail to promote your spiritual and mental health. Such harmful choices are abundant.

One such choice is the belief that you can find relief and a sense of fulfillment if only you discover clarity in your choices and decisions. You think, I will find relief if only I can come to a firm conviction that I understand the difference between a mortal sin and a venial sin. This is a false promise and a useless path. No person always feels clear about every choice. Doubt is normal, confusion is natural. Life has more questions than answers.

Perhaps the worst part about this distraction over clarity, which masquerades as a “cure,” may be found in your understanding of sin. Tragically, people with scrupulosity who travel this false path often end up convinced they are in a constant state of mortal sin or at least on the cusp of serious sin.

A second distractive choice and false path is the belief that people can research their way into a sense of peace. They think, If only I gather more information, learn how to quote the saints, understand the Catechism, then everything will be wonderful. This false path can lead you on a never-ending search. There will always be one more article to read, one more saint who needs to be quoted, another Catechism lesson. The list is endless.

A third distractive choice is to find a single Bible verse, writing of a saint, Catechism quotation, or Church law, and focus your thoughts on that citation. The biggest problem with this strategy is that it reinforces isolation. Plus, you may often fail to consider the full context and meaning of the citation. The result? You may apply the passage incorrectly or interpret it too strictly, thus failing to meet the narrow circumstances you require to make the passage effective.

A fourth distractive choice is to turn to a helper who is no help at all. Unfortunately, there are professional “helpers,” including priests and spiritual directors, whose guidance lies on the fringe of sound medical practice, spiritual advice, and pastoral counseling. If what they preach or teach sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Also, if they sound too harsh, too unbending, and offer “one size fits all,” walk away. The internet is full of charlatans who pretend to offer help. We need to recognize this unfortunate reality and be ever more vigilant in our choices.

These four distractions perpetuate the isolation that is the shared experience of most people who struggle with scrupulosity, but isolation does not have to be the norm.

There are a number of healthy choices that you can make. Determining that you will share your real struggle with the disorder with a trusted friend, spouse, or significant person in your life is a good place to start. Discerning to join a group of people who suffer with the disorder, such as the spiritual-direction group that I referenced, is also a wise choice. I encourage you to resist the urge to “disappear” in any relational situation or in a public setting. Avoid fading into the background. Be a participant in life, not an observer.

These healthier choices effectively resist the scrupulous voice of distraction that is always present. Each determined choice for health and engagement is a decision to resist the scrupulous voice that tells you that you are unworthy, or that there is something significantly wrong with you, or that you are not genuinely loved and forgiven. Whatever feeling it is that seems to make the choice to isolate seem logical and satisfying is a lie. Avoid isolation and make a determined plan of action that recognizes the points of distraction. Those are helpful steps in the right direction.

Fr. Thomas M. Santa, CSsR

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