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Psychological Healing
in the Catholic Mystic Tradition

Questions and Answers

I am beginning to realize that I need some professional help, and yet I am having a hard time accepting that. I have always tried to figure my problems out by myself, and yet have never been able to do this. I have lived outwardly as a “normal person” . . . while interiorly hiding terrible guilt feelings and mental anguish. I do not dare tell anyone the truth about me, that I have lived with secret interior misery and despair. I spend a lot of time helping others, while all the while feeling like a total hypocrite. . . . This problem is not new—looking back, I can see a pattern of real spiritual scruples and false guilt from [my childhood] and had a real spiritual dilemma that I did not know how to handle and did not trust the adults in my life.
[Eventually] I . . . realized I had wasted the best years of my life, had never loved or been loved, and I had health problems and depression and addiction to pornography. I had spent the majority of my life hiding the anguish inside of me and not being able to turn to anyone. . . . [Now] I am struggling to practice my Catholic Faith again. Yet, I am running into the same old scruple patterns.
   If you can help me, I would appreciate it.

Outline of the Answer
• Knowing and Not-knowing
• The Unconscious Conflict of Scruples
• The Psychological Motive
• Fear of Hell
• Interpretation, not Fear
• Anger and Self-condemnation
• Self-condemnation and Scruples
• Love, Not Human Perfection
• Learning from Mistakes
• The Final Shocking Point


Oour comments show how psychologically complicated the matter about scruples can be, and how much of the problem derives from early family experiences.

So let’s begin with some background information necessary to understand the origin of scruples.

The Background: Knowing and Not-knowing

Every child is born into a preexisting social world of language, science, technology, art, literature, and so on. But even more profound than the mystery of the sum total of all this factual information is the mystery of the child’s own body. The child finds itself literally at the mercy of biological processes—eating, vomiting, defecation, urination, bleeding, reproduction, and death—that it can neither control nor comprehend. Thus the child will feel excluded and will believe—rightly so—that the world “knows” something that he or she does not know. Right from the beginning, then, the child is located in the unknown surrounded by a profound emotional space of “not knowing” and feeling “left out.”

This natural experience is difficult enough, but when children are criticized and humiliated by others—especially their families—they can develop the belief that others are deliberately withholding knowledge from them, and this belief can cause the children to burn with anger at their parents in particular and the world in general. Such children can develop an intense desperation to want to figure out everything in advance, before risking doing anything, so as to avoid further feelings of humiliation.

It’s an awkward, uncomfortable, and frustrating place to be—and so we all devote considerable energy to overcoming the feeling of “not knowing.”

We might seek out intellectual knowledge through formal education.

We might engage in scientific research.

We might join country clubs, gangs, cults, cliques, or any other social organization that purports to offer some secret “knowledge.”

We might search through myriads of pornographic images hoping for the special privilege of seeing what is usually kept hidden.


We might seek out “carnal knowledge” through the body of another person and attempt to locate the psychological agony of our bodily mystery in the pleasure—or pain—of the other.

We might create our own fantasy worlds—with thoughts and images of eroticism, heroism, revenge, or destruction—in which we can “figure it out” on our own so as to possess the power and recognition we so desperately crave.

Nevertheless, all the “knowledge” that we can find in the world is nothing but a thin veil that hangs over the dark anguish of helplessly “not knowing.” Standing before the veil, suspecting our “not knowing,” we feel confused, wretched, weak, useless—and angry.

Because it is this anger—and your fear of it and your hiding it—that fuels the problem of scruples, let’s explore how it happens.

The Unconscious Conflict of Scruples

You might be afraid that everyone who reads this question will know exactly who you are—and yet you are just one of millions, in every parish of every diocese of every country. I’ve seen this problem with men and women, with the laity, with religious, and with priests. It’s all the same thing: “If anyone knew what I was really like, they wouldn’t want anything to do with me.” Even as you try to confess—even as you ask for help—you are unconsciously hiding something.

When you are tormented with scruples you are essentially caught in an unconscious conflict, such that even as you are confessing your sins you are secretly trying to hide them.

So, what exactly are you trying to hide? Well, let’s find out by considering some practical guidance about scruples and see where that takes us.

The Psychological Motive

First of all, let’s understand that scruples simply means an over-scrupulous and debilitating fear that whatever you might do could be wrong, and that your error could bring down harsh punishment upon you. Thus you live in perpetual anxiety of not knowing if you will be punished for your behavior.

It may seem surprising, but you don’t have to confess the psychological thoughts and fantasies about which you have scrupulous anxiety, just as Saint John of the Cross taught. Yes, you must confess actual sinful behaviors that are clearly wrong, such as using pornography for self-arousal or for masturbation, but any inner fantasies themselves are venial sins that can be healed with inner contrition and a dedicated desire to discover the underlying psychological motive for the thoughts and fantasies.[1] (Nevertheless, speaking about these inner experiences to a priest in confession could also be helpful, provided the priest is psychologically astute and able to provide psychological guidance through spiritual direction that uses psychotherapeutic techniques.)

Read an excerpt from a sermon by Saint Augustine
about contrition

For example, while you’re trying to pray you might find yourself drifting into fantasies—often sexual, but not always—that intrude into your mind. If you notice what’s happening and break out of the fantasy, then you can say, “Why am I thinking about such-and-such right now? What’s going on?” Then put your intended prayer “on pause” and begin a different kind of prayer, a prayer of self-examination directed to discovering what has been happening to you recently and how you feel about it all.

In that examination you might discover some event from the day—or from recent days—that left you feeling helpless or useless or weak in some way. In other words, the fantasy is a sort of intoxication, a drug-like “hit” that covers up the pain you don’t want to accept. To deal with this experience in a spiritually healthy manner, renounce the harmful spirit of the fantasy and allow yourself to admit your weakness and helplessness and implore God for the courage to endure the pain and for the guidance to deal with the problem—but in doing this, trust in God’s mercy rather fear being thrown into hell because you are “bad.”

“I’m terrified of hell.”

The fear of hell commonly underlies the panic of scruples. You could be terrified that if you don’t get your prayer just right, you will go to hell. You could be terrified that if you have bad thoughts, you will go to hell. You could be terrified that if you’re uncertain as to whether you did the right thing or not, and if you don’t get it right, you will go to hell. You could be terrified that if you don’t get to confession right away, you will go to hell. You could be terrified that if your confession isn’t good enough, you will go to hell. Your terror of hell can tie you into emotional knots.

Yet, no matter how much you worry about going to hell, it won’t prevent you from going to hell. Souls end up in hell because they reject God’s love and mercy, and so the only way to avoid hell is to accept God’s love and mercy. Worrying about hell won’t do anything to help you love God. In fact, worrying about going to hell is itself a rejection of God’s willingness to forgive the sins you repent.

So try considering a different strategy. Instead of fearing hell, which is a “place” characterized by hate, think of hell’s opposite—love—and let a desire to love God motivate your behavior. Instead of fearing what you don’t want, learn to love what you do want: God.

Interpretation, not Fear

Given the information above, you can learn to listen to and interpret your fantasies, rather than act them out or fear them, and thus you will be guided into real healing for your psychological pain.

If you feel true sorrow for your behavior, rather than fear it, you can open your mind and your heart to move past your mistakes into purification. You can learn to grow in detailed self-awareness and to be formed by your love for God.


Note here that someone who pays close attention to details out of love for the work at hand acts virtuously, whereas someone who obsesses about details out of fear that something bad might happen if everything is not done perfectly acts with the characteristics of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.  


Then, when you have learned to be wretched {gracefully}, and can trust in Christ’s mercy and His inexhaustible love for all sinners, you can remain confident that no matter what you do, Christ will never abandon you and that He will ceaselessly call you into repentance and draw you back to His grace. There is no limit to Christ’s mercy, no number of sins beyond which God pardons no more. Christ’s mercy is unfathomable. He said so Himself to Saint Faustina.[2]

Well, so far, so good. But there’s a catch here, isn’t there?

Anger and Self-condemnation

You cannot trust in God, however, if you’re angry at Him. “What!?” you ask. “Angry at God ? I’m a devout Catholic!”

Well, sit down and listen to a shocking piece of psychology here.

Yes, you are angry at God because you’re angry at your parents, especially your father. But, because it’s too psychologically terrifying for some persons to be openly angry at someone so close to them as their father, they turn their anger to someone more distant: God the Father.

Now, why would you be angry with your parents? Well, you’re angry with them because of their failures in leading you into a proper knowing of the world. You’re angry because you were left having to figure out everything for yourself. As a child, you wanted nurturance, guidance, explanations, and emotional and physical protection, but for one reason or another your parents failed you. They may have been absent physically or emotionally, and in that absence they essentially disabled you psychologically and spiritually.

As a result, you feel hurt and irritated at your parents, and those feelings lead you to impulses of hatred and anger. But that is not all. Some part of you enjoys your disability because it allows you a means of expressing your hatred and getting revenge on your parents; that is, you throw your disability back in their faces as evidence that they have failed you, and in that very act of “throwing your disability in their faces” you get the satisfaction of hurting them—and that hurting of them is your revenge.

Thus you have stumbled into the odd dynamic of self-condemnation: in hurting yourself, you find a clever way to hurt others.

Self-condemnation and Scruples

In reaching this point of self-condemnation, some individuals will openly reject their faith and leave the Church. This act itself is a form of self-sabotage, and it illustrates the point that many people will send themselves to hell in order to get revenge on others.

Other individuals, however, will not make an open break with their faith. They are angry at their parents, yes, and they are angry at all authority, too, but their anger takes the form of varying levels of conscious resentment mixed with hidden unconscious anger.

Consequently, these persons find themselves in the conflict of wanting to serve God while at the same time wanting to hurt others. So when it comes to self-scrutiny and confessing sins, they unconsciously hide the very sins they try to confess.

And there you have it: scruples. You’re overly concerned about things that might be sins in order to hide the real sin of your secret anger at God.

Yes, and there you have it.

The Solution:
Salvation Depends on Love not on Human Perfection

In his first letter, Saint John tells us to love not just in word or speech but in deed and truth (1 John 3:18), and he reminds us that in this love we shall know that we belong to the truth (1 John 3:19). So keep in mind that your salvation depends on your willingness to grow in love, not on your human perfection.


Christ chose ordinary men, not scholars and theologians, to be His Apostles and disciples. Why? To demonstrate that the Church He was establishing would grow through God’s grace, not through mere human intelligence.


Understand, then, that the knowing that comes from love is the only knowledge we really need. When we understand love to be a plain matter of suffering and self-sacrifice, we do not need to fret about questions such as “Does God really want me to do this?” or “How do I know this is enough?” or “Is this really a sin?” or “Have I really done anything wrong?”

Consequently, when you’re paralyzed by scruples, you are really stuck in an unconscious belief that God has some preordained plan for you that, through your own efforts, you have to discover and put into practice in order to please God. The truth, however, is that all God wants from any of us is to learn to love Him by maintaining a constant awareness of His presence in all things.

When you are praying and distractions interfere with your concentration, say to yourself, “It’s OK. I don’t have to repeat the prayer until I get it perfect. My intent is love; I don’t have to be perfect to love.” 

When fantasies and “blasphemous” thoughts intrude into your mind, if you try to fight them by getting rid of them they will only get more intense, and you will become more anxious. The key here is to understand that God does not hold against us the things we think spontaneously, nor does He expect us to stop all spontaneous thoughts; all He wants from us is to grow in love by recognizing that certain thoughts are offenses to love and to tell ourselves so—and then to draw our awareness back to Him.[3]

Therefore, say to yourself, “It’s OK. I know these thoughts are an offense to love, and I don’t really intend to carry them out in actions. My intent is love; I don’t have to be perfect in not having intruding thoughts. So let’s return to the prayer.”

Learning from Mistakes

When we make the decision to commit ourselves to love, we, by definition, set aside all acts of revenge, both in regard to others and in regard to ourselves. This is an absolute decision; when our lives are governed by a commitment to learn and grow from our mistakes, we are freed from being stuck in fear.

The knowing that comes from love is, therefore, an elegant, simple solution to scruples.

But it’s not easy. Hatred and revenge are such sweet delicacies in our social culture that hardly anyone wants to let go of them. Yet giving up revenge and committing yourself to a life of pure love is your only choice—other than sending yourself to hell to get your revenge.

God asks of you only that you openly admit your mistakes to Him and to be willing to learn from them. So rejoice, no scruples can hide here; every mistake, from small simple mistakes to large sins, can be overcome just by asking God to teach you whatever you need to learn from them to set yourself on the spiritual path of overcoming the temptations to make those same mistakes again. You don’t have to worry if the sin needed to be confessed or if you confessed perfectly enough; just repent, confess, ask God to show you how to learn from your mistakes—for the sake of learning rather than for the sake of trying to be perfect.


Note that if you keep falling into the same sin over and over despite repeated confessions, then you are not confessing the real sin of anger at your parents that the pleasure of the fantasies is working unconsciously to obscure. In such a case it will be necessary for you to face the emotional wounds from your childhood that drive you into sin—the same emotional wounds that your scruples are trying to hide.


Moreover, accept all things, no matter how emotionally painful, as coming from God to teach you to grow in your love for, and trust in, Him. God wants you to be holy, not to bury yourself in blame.


Most problems involving scruples result from a lack of trust in God’s mercy. In His mercy, God wants to help us get close to Him; He is not like a cruel father who wants to “punish” us. To remedy the problem of scruples, trust that God will not reject you because of your mistakes. Trust that He wants to help you. So, whenever you are unsure about something you have done or thought, rather than chastise yourself or punish yourself, bring the matter to God in prayer. As an example, you can say, “O Lord, I’m not sure about what to do. I don’t have good guidance about this. I’m confused. I don’t want to offend you, and I want to serve you well. I want to do the most pure and holy thing. So please guide me. Help me to understand what I should do. Show me the path to holiness, and I will follow your guidance.” Remember that the answer will not come immediately and that you may have to persist in seeking guidance until clarity comes to you in prayer. And even when you have received some clarity, rather than doubt about whether it is correct, just follow the inspiration and continue praying for further understanding. Refine your behavior step-by-step. Thus, even though doubts may always be swirling around you, resist the temptation to fall into paralysis and instead continue to persist in praying for guidance as you slowly alter your course. Take heart: even mistakes in following His guidance can be remedied with further prayer and continued correction.

The Final Shocking Point

Thus we reach the final point, a shocking point to those who are scrupulous: being scrupulous is a sin. Scrupulosity is sin because it denies God’s mercy; instead of trusting in God’s guidance for your mistakes, you paralyze yourself with the fear of making a mistake. Yet the solution is simple: admit you have been making a mistake in being scrupulous and throw yourself into God’s mercy.


Who wrote this web page?


1. If you dwell upon a spontaneous fantasy for the sake of pleasure or satisfaction, then it becomes a conscious act of your will, and you are culpable for the sin of dwelling on the fantasy. So what does it mean to “dwell upon” a fantasy? Well, if you pay only enough attention to the fantasy to learn something about the emotional pain from your childhood that is driving the fantasy, then you are engaging in therapeutic healing, and that’s not a sin. But if you pay attention to the fantasy only to derive pleasure from it, then you are committing a grave sin that needs to be confessed. But note also that if you keep falling into the same sin over and over despite repeated confessions, then you are not confessing the real sin of anger at your parents that the pleasure of the fantasies is working unconsciously to obscure. In such a case it will be necessary for you to face the emotional pain from your childhood that drives you into sin—the same emotional pain that your scruples are trying to hide.

2. Still, all repented sins have to be paid for with suffering in this life and in Purgatory.

3. See note 1.


What the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

1452  When it arises from a love by which God is loved above all else, contrition is called “perfect” (contrition of charity). Such contrition remits venial sins; it also obtains forgiveness of mortal sins if it includes the firm resolution to have recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible.
1458  Without being strictly necessary, confession of everyday faults (venial sins) is nevertheless strongly recommended by the Church. Indeed the regular confession of our venial sins helps us form our conscience, fight against evil tendencies, let ourselves be healed by Christ and progress in the life of the Spirit. By receiving more frequently through this sacrament the gift of the Father’s mercy, we are spurred to be merciful as he is merciful.
1855  Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him.
1861  Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back. However, although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God.


Recommended Reading
A treasure of a resource for psychological and spiritual healing. Information gathered from my websites (including this webpage) is now available at your fingertips in book form.


Falling Families, Fallen Children by Raymond Lloyd Richmond, Ph.D. Do our children see a mother and a father both living in contemplative love for God with a constant awareness of His presence and engaged in an all-out battle with the evil of the world? More often than not our children don’t see living faith. They don’t see protection from evil. They don’t see genuine, fruitful devotion. They don’t see genuine love for God. Instead, they see our external acts of devotion as meaningless because they see all the other things we do that contradict the true faith. Thus we lose credibility—and when parents lose credibility, children become cynical and angry and turn to the social world around them for identity and acceptance. They are children who have more concern for social approval than for loving God. They are fallen children. Let’s bring them back.

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