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Psychological Healing
in the Catholic Mystic Tradition

Questions and Answers

I have obsessive compulsive disorder. I read what you said on you website about it and find it interesting, but for some reason, no matter how much I get in touch with my anger, I get no relief for my OCD even though I recite Psalm 51 from time to time and pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. That is the main question I have to ask you. Basically, why in spite of my attempts to get in touch with my anger and my own attempts to face my OCD fears, do I still have this problem? Are there other spiritual reasons for OCD that you see from what I write below?

I already go to a psychiatrist who tells me I have to learn to channel my anger more, that it is more inward directed than outward and that that makes me depressed. Sometimes all I feel is angry, though. I am not someone who is calm and is silent when people offend me . . . and do not blame myself in interpersonal situations when others could be at fault. So what I’m saying is that it makes no sense to me that I have OCD symptoms still. (BTW my psychiatrist does not take the spiritual approach at all, he does not seem to believe in anything beyond what can be seen or verified. He is very scientific, but . . . told me once that he did not see the point of the Catholic faith. I do not think he dislikes it, I just think he is indifferent, but if I talk about anything spiritual in a session, I would either hit a dead end or he would think of a religious sentiment as a guilt complex or automatically link it to spiritualism or superstition. What I’m saying is that he seems to have a superficial grasp of these things that deflates any real religious sentiment on the spot.)

I have had OCD since I was a child. It used to be about weird stuff; I was afraid of being transported to a universe the exactly the same as this one and would have to perform a ritual to make sure it didn’t happen. But now the OCD has to do more with dirt. I am not a chronic cleaner or anything like that, but when I am in public places I have excessive fear of germs and disease and am over vigilant about public bathrooms. I also don’t like touching doorknobs or stuff that other people handle. There’s also the fear of disease spreading—being under the impression that you could have a disease and may spread it to others—and the guilt that comes with it. I have tried to overcome this a few times, by doing what I fear if what I fear is unreasonable or refusing to give into my thought that I am infected, but at that moment I always think that what I fear is reasonable and I should definitely be doing something about it, or thinking about it. This also includes what you said about taking communion on the tongue. I do not like to do this and I did anyway, but the fear is great that the priest or minister will touch my mouth and give me some disease so I receive in my hand again because I am anxious all through mass if I make the point of receiving on my tongue. In addition, I rarely receive the Blood of Christ because of my OCD fear (herpes on the chalice, etc.) and also because I am afraid of dropping the chalice.

. . . I think this comes down to trust issues; I have absolutely no trust that I would be protected in any way, because in my opinion the universe is pretty much run by forces that are indifferent and if you’re not on the ball you’re screwed. . . .

. . . One of the misfortunes from my OCD, is that it cuts off my availability to people in need. . . . [T]here are so many homeless people that I would like to help, but I see them as disease carriers and only help them on a day when I feel braver. Other days, I cynically tell myself, “Your OCD is too much. You will regret it if you touch his hand or his dirty clothes, and you will pay for your good deed with heaps of anxiety.”

. . . I see the act of surviving as a basic human need, one that reveals the hypocrisy of all of us, and which at the end of the day, reigns supreme. I accept this idea with despair, and somehow have made God and religion second to it, because deep down, I believe everyone is more concerned about their survival than God, even you. Don’t take it personally, I don’t know you, but I see most religious figures as being pretty much the same as everyone else, some are even meaner and more hypocritical and many seem to be rather bourgeois in their attitudes. Priests with new cars, overweight nuns who raid the pantry in the middle of the night, all of the people on the fence that can’t seem to get the real courage to jump off for good. So, perhaps my OCD is a protective mechanism because I see only pretense that covers up the crudeness of the human instinct to survive. . . . I don’t see anything more in human day-to-day encounters than calculation that people try to hide behind and justify through social conventions. . . . [S]o many at church seem to go there to meet their friends or just to kill time.

Oh another thing is that . . . there is this priest I have this strange attraction to. I feel as if he is attracted to me too. . . . he is always there and then I feel guilty. . . .

Outline of the Answer
• Introduction
• Elusive Anger
• The Hypocrisy of Love
• The OCD Dynamic
• Recommendations

 
Your psychiatrist has told you that your anger is “more inward directed than outward,” so that gives us a big clue about why “even if I feel my anger I still have OCD.” From what you have written—and you have done so with notable honesty—I will make an attempt to deduce the nature of your difficulties.

 
Elusive Anger

You say that you never deny to yourself when someone angers you, and I do not doubt the truth of that statement. From what you say, it seems clear that you can perceive accurately what others do to you and why they do it. Still, there has to be something else going on in regard to your anger; remember, we have that clue from your psychiatrist. So what could he have meant?

Well, consider the difference between something outward directed and something inner directed. Something outward directed is obvious; it’s clearly apparent and readily seen. In other words, it’s out in plain sight. In contrast, something inward directed is more hidden; it’s not clearly apparent, and so it can be obscure and elusive.

In short, each of these two things—something outward directed and something inward directed—belongs to a different “universe.”

In practical terms, this means that you can have anger for things someone does to you and anger for things someone fails to do for you. The things someone does to you are obvious and apparent, and so your anger can be directed outward at them. But the things that someone fails to do for you are elusive, and, because they are elusive, they cause the anger that you’re not in touch with ... an anger you don’t feel ... an anger deep inside you that feeds the OCD within you.

So let’s ask now what could be the cause of this elusive anger. What is it that has failed you so profoundly?

You don’t mention anything apparent about how your parents treated you in your childhood, but—to the trained perception of a psychologist—you provide some very interesting veiled evidence. For example, when you say that you “see the act of surviving as a basic human need, one that reveals the hypocrisy of all of us,” you are speaking of yourself as a child trying to survive despite your parents’ hypocrisy. “Hypocrisy of what?” we ask. And the answer is apparent: hypocrisy of love.

 
The Hypocrisy of Love

“Priests with new cars” points to your father, who, I will guess, was likely caught up in a preoccupation with material things. “Overweight nuns” points to your mother, who, I will guess, was caught up in satisfying the emotional deprivation she experienced as a child and also in her marriage. And where were you in all of this? Missing. You were lost in the hypocrisy of your parents’ universe. You were threatened with a universe of cold calculation that hid its failure of love behind the image of being “good parents.”

Thus your fear of being transported to another universe was realistic—at least, in the symbolic sense. You feared getting lost in your parents’ cold universe that was dead to love.

So, yes, your OCD served as a protective mechanism. It kept you alive by teaching you to protect yourself when no one else would protect you. But, ironically, in protecting you from a lack of love, it sent you into a place that is even worse: a place where you fear love.

 
The OCD Dynamic

This brings us to an understanding of the OCD dynamic. In fact, it functions almost exactly like your psychiatrist. Just as he has “a superficial grasp of things that deflates any real religious sentiment on the spot,” the OCD dynamic has a superficial grasp of things (it sees only the obvious threats of hurt that could be done to you) and, on the spot, it deflates any real sentiment (the emotional truth of how you have been hurt by what others have failed to do for you). Thus, when someone fails you, because your inward-directed emotional reactions have been deadened, as soon as you begin to have an inkling of anger, the OCD defense suppresses it on the spot.

In practical terms, this inkling of anger is simply a mental image of revenge. For example, if your mother fails to recognize your needs in the moment, your mind might create the image of your reaching out your hands to strangle her. This doesn’t mean that you actually would like to strangle her; it just means that you desire the satisfaction of thinking of the possibility of strangling her. This is a natural process that, under normal circumstances, would never actually be carried out; the thought of strangling your mother simply warns you that you have been hurt somehow by her and that you need to do something emotionally honest to protect yourself.

  

Note here that many—if not most—persons fail in emotional honesty. Instead of speaking to the offending person calmly and politely, their initial emotional hurt passes almost instantaneously to an image of revenge, and then, impulsively motivated by that image, they act aggressively.

In contrast, real religious sentiment—the path of love—would allow you to acknowledge that mental image of revenge, take it as a sign that you have been hurt, and then make a conscious choice that, in spite of your feeling injured, you will pray to God to protect you and to bring the person who hurt you to enlightenment and repentance.

  

But, in the case of OCD, because honest emotional protection was not learned in childhood, that mental image of revenge is perceived as very, very dangerous and gets stopped before it even begins. Consequently, you find yourself with the urgent need to wash your hands, the hands that have been stained with a guilt for some thought that you can’t quite bring to conscious awareness. And, in essence, you wash away the possibility of love, over and over and over.

Thus the OCD defense constantly leads you into a place of emotional dishonesty and, ultimately, a fear of love. And without outside help to show you that it is happening, you are left bewildered by an elusive anger that you don’t feel and that seems as if it doesn’t exist.

So what can you do?

 
Recommendations

 
You are Caught Between Two Angers

Well, first realize that you are caught between two angers. You know one kind—the one deriving from what others do to you—very well. So work on recognizing the anger that derives from what others fail to do for you—the anger that you don’t feel but that lurks in the shadows.

 
You are Caught Between Two Beliefs

Second, realize that you are caught between two beliefs. One belief is that the world is hostile and that it is reasonable to protect yourself in every way possible. The other belief is that God can be trusted because He loves us, and that His love never fails. If you want love in your life, you will have to choose the second belief over the first. Complacency and fear will only keep you stuck, so you will have to fight to defend that second belief.

From what you have said, I know that you want love in your life. In fact, you developed OCD because you want love in your life; that is, you saw hypocrisy, you knew you didn’t want anything to do with it, but, not knowing how to love you became stuck in the fear of love. Like the man in the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) who buried his talent in fear, you have buried love with OCD. Now you have the possibility of knowing how to love.

   
The Voice of Your OCD Will Panic in Fear Because It Will Think that You Intend to Kill It Off

Third, if you even contemplate healing, understand that the voice of your OCD will panic in fear because it will think that you intend to kill it off. Reassure it that, contrary to getting rid of it, you want to help it grow bigger and stronger as your protector.[1] It’s new role, however, will be the guardian of love, not the guardian of fear.

Read more about working with, 
rather than getting rid of, the OCD defense
 

 
Practice In Vivo Exposure

Fourth, make a decision to practice in vivo exposure to break away from that first belief. Begin with the acknowledgement that all OCD defenses have a basis in what is reasonable, and then progress to an equally reasonable discipline of their practice. 

For example, when you enter a public restroom, wash your hands first thing; that’s reasonable for health. But wash your hands only once; that, too is reasonable for mental health. Then, after using the toilet, wash your hands; that’s reasonable for health. But wash your hands only once; that, too is reasonable for mental health. And, because some individuals do not wash their hands after using the toilet, you may use a paper towel to protect your clean hands from touching the door knob as you leave the room; that’s reasonable for health. But what about the paper towel? Should you suffer anxiety from touching it, or from carrying it in your pocket? No. Remind yourself that germs do not grow on dry, rough surfaces. Moreover, give a blessing to the paper. Make the sign of the cross on it and say, “Brother and sister germs, I command you, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, neither to harm me nor anyone else.” [2] This too is reasonable—for mental and spiritual health.

 
Your Anger at God Derives from Your Own Belief System

Finally, realize not only that you’re angry at God but also that your anger derives from your own belief system. In His infinite love, God never does anything—or fails to do anything that we think we need from Him—in order to hurt us. Therefore, it can never be reasonable to want to hurt God. There may be times when it seems to you that God has failed you, but in those cases you are projecting your experiences with your father onto God.

You know that your father is concerned only with himself, and so you believe that God, too, must be some sort of tyrant.

You know that your father will not protect you, and so you believe that God cannot protect you.

You cannot trust your father, so you believe that God must be untrustworthy.

Because of these beliefs, you desire to hurt God—but, because of the OCD defenses, this anger does not reach your conscious awareness.

For example, you know that you fear dropping the chalice at Communion. Behind this fear, though, lurks the truth: you want to drop the chalice to get back at God. (Notice, as I said previously, the fact that you want to drop the chalice does not mean that you would like to actually drop the chalice; it only means that your mind wants the satisfaction of thinking that it would be possible to drop the chalice.) But, because of your beliefs about God being unforgiving and mean, you cannot even allow this thought to develop, so your defenses deflate it on the spot. Thus you are left with phobic anxiety rather than access to the truth.

As another example, your attraction to that priest also links your feelings about you father to your anger at God. The priest notices you in the way you wanted your father to notice you; that’s nice, but it also reminds you of your anger at your father for not noticing you. Consequently, you desire to hurt God through the priest (himself a “father”), but, because you can’t tolerate the truth of this desire, you feel guilt, not the underlying anger at God.

All in all, you prevent yourself from trusting in God—and you deprive yourself of God’s love—because you cling to your belief that God can’t be trusted. What is that but anger at God turned inward against yourself? It hurts you, not God.

You could change your beliefs if you want, but it’s up to you to want healing more than you want to remain disabled with fear. Maybe you should discuss with your OCD defense the idea that both of you stand to benefit if you both learn to protect yourself with love rather than fear.

 

Who wrote this web page?
 

Notes

1. It may seem silly to some people, but to achieve any deep healing you will have to speak to your psychological defenses as if they had an independent existence from you. Moreover, think of them as children, because they were created when you were a child, and they have remained trapped in the timelessness of the unconscious, never growing up.

2. Such is how Saint Francis of Assisi tamed the dreaded wolf of Gubbio.

 


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Where Catholic therapy (Catholic psychotherapy) is explained according to Catholic psychology in the tradition of the Catholic mystics.