Skip to content

Restitution—A Perceived Need

Scrupulous people often deal with the issue of restitution—recompense for injury or loss. Most of the time theirs is a perceived need for restitution, not a real need.

Their anxiety over this perceived need for restitution is usually anchored in their experience of ruminating over past sins. They believe they failed to properly confess their sins, which leads them to doubt that the sins were forgiven. Their anxiety takes on a life of its own, driving their feverish, questioning examination: Does “damage” persist from each sin they believe they did not confess properly? The notion that there must be unresolved damage that has not been properly addressed is rooted in the idea that there must be a reason that they remember their sin. Something still needs to be taken care of, they think.

Perceived unpaid restitution finds root in the mind’s fertile ground of remembering. The details of the imagined unjust action or situation become more real as details are recalled. The sufferer also thinks he owes interest for what he irrationally feels he took unjustly from another. Real-life examples using fictitious names may help illustrate the pain these thoughts can cause.

Joe, who suffers from scrupulosity, was employed at a forty-hour workweek job. He performed his duties effectively; his employer never disciplined him. In fact, the annual reviews he received praised him for a job well done. Sometime later, after a few years of retirement, Joe contrived the idea that he deliberately withheld the full benefit of a forty-hour workweek from his employer. Joe recalled many unscheduled breaks, as well as times when projects were completed and he felt it was too late to start something new before the workday ended. When he worked from home, he took supplies from the office, sometimes using them for purposes besides work. Similar examples accumulated, causing worry and anxiety. Obviously, I deliberately defrauded my employer, Joe thought. He then added up the time he “wasted” and the value of the office supplies he used only for personal matters, never accounting for the extra effort he put into projects that helped his employer succeed. Joe assigned a total dollar value of what he thought he owed the employer and created a plan to begin the unnecessary process of restitution.

In another common example, a neighbor has a flower garden that borders the yard of Sue, who has scrupulosity. Occasionally Sue picked a flower or two, mostly ones leaning over the property line. Sue’s neighbor worked hard on that garden, investing untold amounts of money into the necessary ingredients required to keep it healthy. Sue paid nothing. She simply enjoyed the flowers. It is almost impossible to determine exactly how many flowers Sue picked, how many bouquets she made and enjoyed over the years. When she thought the day of reckoning had come, Sue began to add up the monetary value of what she thought she had stolen from her neighbor, not taking into account her own pruning in picking the flowers. She only accounted for the “wrong” she felt she had committed.

These examples illustrate a difficult struggle that many scrupulous people face. They falsely obligate themselves to restitutions for perceived wrongs, failing to credit themselves for good deeds they may have done.

The struggle takes place because scrupulous people tend to apply the worthy principles of restitution in disordered or misplaced ways. Restitution for real wrongs like shoplifting is worthwhile. But in the earlier examples, neither Joe nor Sue owe anything. They have taken the good idea of restitution and harmfully misapplied it. The harm—created out of fear and anxiety—is to themselves. The real issue for Joe, Sue, and all who suffer from scrupulosity is fear and anxiety. The perceived need for restitution is only an outgrowth of the core problem. Joe and Sue have no moral need to recompense anyone; none is required.

Scrupulous people might best understand misplaced, misdirected restitution as “unjust enrichment.” If Sam deliberately defrauds Jane of something she owns—say he takes her ten-dollar bill—he owes restitution. He must return the $10. But in most cases where a scrupulous person thinks he or she owes someone restitution, the person is wrong to think so. Sue’s neighbor doesn’t want to be “compensated” for the flowers that leaned onto Sue’s property. In fact, the neighbor probably appreciates Sue’s pruning work. And Joe’s employer undoubtedly was grateful to have hard-working Joe on the job.

Unfortunately, even though restitution is not required, the feeling that restitution is needed is so strong for Joe and Sue that it is not easily dismissed. Facts cannot convince them that nothing more is required. A counselor, spiritual director, or confessor can help unravel concerns, which is more helpful than the constant and isolated rumination that takes place within the scrupulous person. Complete relief, though, is unlikely.

Also, if the scrupulous person insists upon paying someone back, true discernment of restitution issues helps the person set solutions. At the very least, discernment will help make restitution attempts appropriate, not exaggerated. Overrestitution can cause new, unneeded problems.

Fr. Thomas M. Santa, CSsR

Published inCover Articles