First, guilt is an emotion that most people experience. For example, if someone lies, they may feel guilt. If someone steals, it’s likely they’ll feel guilt. If someone has deliberate unkind thoughts about someone, guilt might follow. The list goes on, but there’s a general idea.
Levels of normal guilt
Usually, unkind thoughts and misdoings tend to have a relationship in terms of the level of guilt a person feels. The intensity of guilt, however, does not usually preoccupy the person’s mind for too long, not in the general sense of things, at least. Even when someone feels overly guilty for various reasons, such as having a fear of being morally bad for perceived wrongdoings, they can still resolve the problem. Eventually, they move on and let the emotion pass.
However, when someone has obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), the story is different. It’s because OCD consists of two components: obsessions and compulsions. The first can be described as having intrusive thoughts about a specific thing, such as being good enough. And compulsions are the behaviours that people do to make the thoughts go away and reduce anxiety, even though the behaviours increase the obsession and make OCD worse.
Guilt associated with Religious OCD
When someone has religious or scrupulosity OCD, it isn’t a fluke that the disorder has found his or her vulnerability about what matters to them most. As a result, their standards are “affected”. This is because misplaced guilt intrudes on the way they believe they should think, feel and behave according to their values, religion or other doctrines.
John’s normal guilt
Let’s take “John’s” situation as an example of normal guilt first. His family is religious. They have brought him up to have strict moral standards. Still, when he was fifteen years old, he had thoughts to steal money from his local church’s donation fund. One day he gave in to those thoughts. Later that day, he felt shame and guilt.
John’s guilty conscience followed with a series of “what-ifs”? For example, ‘What if I go back into the church and the priest announces that he saw me steal the money?’, ‘What if he announces my sin to the congregation?’ and ‘What if the priest were to tell my parents or call the police?’ There were lots of worst-case scenarios going on, and all tangible, because something really did happen for John to feel shame, guilt and regret.
Thou shalt not steal
Time passed, John grew up, and the event faded from his mind. Then one day, he happened upon one of the Ten Commandments on Wikipedia while Googling something for his religious studies. The words ‘thou shalt not steal’ made him think about the earlier theft incident. He started to feel distressed about whether he should have owned up to taking the money, or at least prayed for forgiveness.
On reflection, John decided it would be better for him to put the theft incident to rest rather than dwell on it. He felt he could do this because, deep inside, he knew that stealing was wrong, and he was sorry for that. He was aware that having a conscience was enough to see that he’d been dishonest and that this in itself was punishment enough. And so from this perspective, he was able to pray for God’s forgiveness, forgive himself and move on.
In the above example, you can see how, when OCD is separated from a natural sense of guilt, it makes the “what-ifs?” appropriate. Therefore, the resolve for John is rational and fits with the emotions he experienced. Moreover, this incident was a learning experience for him. He knew his morals were good and stealing was something he knew he would never do again. John’s situation is an example of what is known as state-guilt, meaning that the corresponding emotion is transitory. In other words, John knew, inherently, that the theft situation, although wrong, was out of character for him, and as a consequence, forgivable.
John’s intrusive guilt
Now imagine instead that John is beside himself with guilt and shame after reading the commandment ‘thou shalt not steal’. Picture intrusive thoughts are raging through his mind, such as, ‘You’re a thieving sinner, a traitor to your religion.’ In an attempt to block the thoughts, think of John conjuring up kind words, such as, ‘I respect my faith, I’m forgiven’.
But now picture John suddenly feeling corrupt in the eyes of God. He repeatedly asks himself “what-if” questions such as, ‘What if I’m not worthy of going to church?’, ‘What if the new priest gets suspicious of my thoughts?’, What if God thinks I’m not genuinely sorry for what I did?, ‘Should I go to confession?’ and ‘What if I’m not forgiven and God punishes me and sends me to hell?’
Trait-guilt is rigid
Again, there are lots of worst-case scenarios going on, just like in the first example, but in this case, the “what-ifs” are hard to define. It’s because illogical thoughts have latched on to what matters to John, which is that he is a loyal Christian who made a mistake. He feels bad for sinning and thinks he’s made God angry. Subsequently, and despite the real-event theft situation, and, later, praying for forgiveness, he fails to see that his intrusive thoughts are at odds with his moral values. Or at least he doubts it. This is an instance associated with trait-guilt, meaning that the corresponding emotion after doing something wrong is rigid as opposed to transitory in state-guilt. In other words, John’s previous healthy beliefs about himself before and after stealing the money shifts to thinking instead that he truly is an unforgivable sinner and a traitor to God and his religion.
Time moves on, and John feels more and more that being “morally corrupt” is too much for him to cope, and he wants desperately to clear his conscience. OCD has found its grip, and he has an incredible urge to “tell” his closest and most trusted friend about his perceived immorality. Afterwards, he feels immense relief because his friend reassures him that all is fine. John believes that his conscience is clear or that he’s finally free of the sin that he thinks marked his character. However, he soon starts to think that perhaps he should seek out reassurance by going to a priest and confessing what he’d done years before. Before too long, John’s confessing ritual gets worse, increasing the severity of his OCD.
Exactly how did OCD play a role in this otherwise natural emotion for John?
Earlier, it was noted that when one does something wrong, subsequent “what-ifs” are legitimate, as is the resolution. Yet, when someone has an OCD episode, they feel intrusive guilt, not authentic guilt. This is the part that is hard to define because a person feels the emotion deeply. In any case, a resolve can never be in accordance with the feelings experienced because the guilt is invalid; it’s intrusive as a result of the obsession. The real event in John’s situation, for example, is separate from OCD, whether at the time he scrupled about it or not, or whether he genuinely resolved it or not. It means that trait-guilt has an invalid connection with a scrupulosity obsession because the obsession is meaningless.
However, while intrusive thoughts are known, scientifically, to be biological, one would respect that an individual like John, might believe they are battling an evil entity that tries to separate God from man. Despite the organic cause and environmental factors that can bring on the appearance of OCD, someone like John thinks their past and present sins are evidence that they have lost their salvation, or that they were never saved in the first place. They are terrified that by “offending” God, they will suffer His rejection forever. To live with separation anxiety from one’s heavenly Parent tortures someone like John. They want desperately to feel God’s love again, even though His love never went away, but they cannot get to grips that their sin is forgivable or that they are worthy of His love.
So what’s the solution?
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help someone like John learn that intrusive thoughts do not mean the thoughts are right about them. The strategies can help them alter thinking errors that link to entrenched beliefs, such as, ‘What if God hasn’t truly forgiven me for stealing? (thinking error); this will mean I’m evil and will go to hell (faulty entrenched belief).’ Instead, their belief can change to, ‘I can either live under OCD’s control or live with the low probability that God has abandoned me.’
By accepting risk, it makes living with uncertainty manageable, and this is the same for all obsessional themes. Giving reassurance about forgiveness and salvation isn’t recommended in therapy, as it stirs up doubts and what-ifs, which strengthens the obsession. What’s helpful, though, is a therapist who respects that an individual genuinely feels abandoned. Therefore, counselling for deep-rooted fears relating to separation anxiety can be helpful. And also agreeing that the person can draw strength from a priest or other spiritual means can help them overcome their insecurities, too.
The behavioural part of therapy known as exposure-response prevention helps people like John systematically resist giving into “confession” rituals, among other compulsions. With dedicated practice, their obsessions weakens, and as a consequence, it leads to remission from OCD or much-reduced symptoms.
Gaining a balanced perspective in cognitive therapy addresses and puts right misplaced guilt. It redirects trait-guilt, and thus moves the barrier between the individual and their relationship with God. In other words, it demonstrates, objectively, how intrusive guilt is inconsistent with one’s true character, behaviours and religious belief. It shows that God’s rejection never happened, but that this was a horrible imagining arising initially from a triggering event that brought on the appearance of OCD, and thus activating or increasing separation anxiety. By systematically resisting all compulsions in exposure-response prevention, people like John can build distress tolerance, leading ultimately to recovery. By respecting the person’s faith, a therapist would not give reassurance, but would agree that building religious trust is essential for their well-being.
Online counselling with Sunil Punjabi
Sunil Punjabi is a confident therapist and highly recommended for his expert approach in delivering exposure-response prevention for religious or guilt-related obsessions among other variations. For details you can contact me here.