Why do we feel so bothered by uncertainty? What drives us to painful rumination as we try to solve the mysteries of an unknown future? Why is it so hard for some of us to get out of our head? OCD is indeed a ruthless taskmaster, but it isn’t a legitimate one. In this article, I’ll share with you why our ruminative cycles and desire for absolute certainty are ultimately vain endeavors.
Bothered by OCD’s Uncertainty Trap
OCD seems monstrously overwhelming, but in reality, it only has two main weapons: doubt and guilt.
Mark Freeman argues on his blog that OCD doesn’t really have subcategories such as scrupulosity, harm OCD, contamination OCD, etc. He suggests that all OCD types are just surface variations of the same underlying patterns. I definitely agree, although I still think that it can be helpful to categorize simply for the sake of OCD sufferers empathizing with each other and providing more specific and helpful support. Anyways, read Mark’s article because it’s brutally hilarious and quite a good read.
OCD of all kinds operates on the same general pattern. Like the hinges on a door, it only turns in two directions. It either tortures you with guilt or with a sense of uncertainty.
- People with scrupulosity may feel guilty about not having completed their prayers correctly. Or, they may feel uncertain about their salvation.
- People with contamination OCD may feel guilty about leaving their own germs in places that might infect others. Or, they may feel uncertain about whether they have contracted AIDS from touching something in a public place.
- People with HOCD may feel guilty because of their intrusive thoughts of hurting their children (which causes compulsions such as hiding knives). Or, they may feel uncertain that they wouldn’t actually follow through with such thoughts, which spikes their anxiety.
The guilt and uncertainty of OCD is an emotional trap that keeps you engaged in the obsessions and compulsions aroused by these negative feelings. Imagine that OCD is your annoying older brother who knows just how to goad you into a fight. These emotions of guilt and uncertainty compel us to fight back, despite the fact that there’s no chance of winning.
How to Not Be Bothered by the Uncertainty of OCD
One of the most difficult parts of therapy is letting go of our need to feed our guilt and uncertainty. That’s what compulsions are, actually. They are our twisted way of feeding guilt and uncertainty.
Unfortunately, when we feed our uncertainty (by reassurance-seeking, internet searches, compulsions, etc.) we are caught in what I call The Fallacy of Omniscience. It is a fallacy that you can know everything completely and perfectly. But we sure try, don’t we? We’ve got to figure everything out before we feel internally safe and at peace.
But is it actually possible to know 100% that the germs you spread in your child’s daycare will not kill someone? Is it possible to know here in this physical life your metaphysical destiny – either to heaven or to hell or to stardust? Considering the unexplainably random, looping power of intrusive thoughts, is it really possible to know whether you’re secretly attracted to homosexuals or underage children or poodles? Can you REALLY know everything in the Bible to a satisfactory level?
The reality is that our search to find absolute certainty is a way of putting ourselves in the place of God. This, my friends, is idolatry – plain and simple.
To indulge the obsession that you CAN and SHOULD overcome every last shred of uncertainty was never promised to us. Jesus said that His burden is easy and light, but He didn’t say there is no burden at all. As long as we live in this life, we will encounter guilt, uncertainty, and many other disturbing mental phenomena. What we DO with those disturbing thoughts is up to us.
If you’re like me, contemplating the idea that we can’t be 100% sure about such important things is pretty terrifying. But maybe that’s why we call it “faith” instead of “knowledge.” But we’ll get to that later. First, let’s take a look at a few case studies of religious OCD where individuals were hot and bothered by uncertainty.
Scrupulosity Case Study 1: Compulsive Prayer
Unnamed obsessive #1 had a compulsion for prayer. He had several thick notebooks where he had written down every single time that he promised someone that he would pray for them. After all, if you say you’ll pray for someone and then you don’t, that’s a lie, isn’t it? By the time he sought treatment, he was compulsively spending more than three hours per day going through every page of these notebooks – which by now were wrinkled and greasy from many years of handling.
His obsession about making sure he prayed for every single request every day was based – not on Christian love and faith – but on a desire to avoid the guilt of moral failure (lying) and the uncertainty of what might happen to him if he failed to meet God’s expectations for him.
After seeking treatment in a Christian mental health program, he was encouraged to burn these books and develop a healthier prayer life, centering on the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and balanced views of responsibility.
Scrupulosity Case Study 2: Compulsive Bible Study
When I spoke with unnamed obsessive #2, he was having significant obsessions with Bible truth. He admitted spending upwards of five to six hours per day dealing with questions that simply will not go away – such as “are the angels male or female?” and other questions that most Christians would view as unimportant. For him, these truths are life-or-death.
Although he knows he has OCD, he felt caught in the loop of finding answers, because when a question came to mind, it was accompanied by extreme anxiety. This anxiety subsided slightly when he researched for the answer, but would come back in full force when he least expected it. His hours and hours of research online were intended to reduce a sense of uncertainty that caused him extreme anguish and a sense of guilt that truth is “there” but that he is not doing his part to uncover it.
Is It Ok to Be Uncertain?
Most people are to some extent bothered by uncertainty. But for individuals with OCD, this emotion can feel even more intense. We have to remember that we are not omniscient! We have to realize that we do not know the answer to every uncertainty that arises, nor do we need to! Yes, there are some uncertainties that we have a legitimate right to research, but to everything there is a limit. For me, recognizing the simple fact that it’s ok to say “I don’t know” was perhaps the most freeing realization I ever made.
And this will take practice. Telling yourself “I don’t need to research whatever is causing me anxiety” will feel very awkward at first. Your anxiety will probably spike even higher in the initial moments that you resist the compulsion. But check out this graphic I’ve prepared that compares the long-term effects of giving in to your compulsion versus exposing yourself to the anxiety and “sitting through it,” as we say in the OCD world.
The first blue line illustrates your level of anxiety when you embrace uncertainty. If you’re treating your scrupulosity with the clinical route, it is called exposure therapy. If you’re treating scrupulosity with the spiritual route, it’s called faith.
(If you would like to test yourself for scrupulosity, take the quiz here.)
The faith that is strong enough to defeat religious OCD demands a tough response. As you can see on the graph, when you embrace faith instead of certainty and allow yourself to accept the fact that there are and always will be “unknowns” in your faith experience, you will definitely feel a spike of anxiety.
This is normal, and you may mistakenly identify your anxiety as conviction or as the voice of the Holy Spirit. A pastor, chaplain, or spiritual coach can help you work through which of your “urges” are compulsively sourced from your OCD, and which are truly supported by Scripture.
What you don’t want to do is try to “fix” your feelings of anxiety. You will experience a thought or situation that causes feelings of anxiety, and your natural instinct will be to engage in compulsive religious behavior that has made you feel better in the past (the orange line above). But to move past these cycles of rumination and compulsion, you need to sit through the anxiety until it goes away on its own.
That is, you do not try to push it away, and you do NOT try to argue against it. It’s just there, and you let it be there. You learn to give it as much attention as the weather. After all, you don’t argue with the cloud that rains in the sky. It’s just there, and you’re under it. What can you do? You know that rain cloud will go away eventually, and the same with your intrusive thought. Acknowledge it. Say hi to it. And let it just be there without arguing against it or interacting with it. When you get braver, you will tell it, “you’re not as important as you pretend to be.” After an initial spike in anxiety, you will notice that the emotions will drop significantly.
The orange line represents the traditional anxiety reaction that occurs when you allow yourself to get caught in reassurance-seeking and checking behaviors (researching for hours, seeking reassurance from religious authorities, doing your prayers over again because you may have made a mistake, etc). After a spike of anxiety, the reassurance-seeking behavior drives the anxiety back down – a little. But these behaviors are cyclical, and always lead to a repetition of the same. Soon you find yourself bothered by uncertainty again, and it spirals you up into more and more anxiety. The reassurance-seeking behaviors, which promised relief from anxiety, have deceived you in the end, and you find yourself at such a height of anxiety that you find yourself at a crisis.
Faith doesn’t depend on you, your actions, or your mental achievements. Faith is a reaching up to God and grasping His merits, His strength, His wisdom. Faith readily admits our ignorance but is not bothered by it.
Omniscience, after all, is for God alone. Who am I to think I can know everything with complete certainty? Is that not utterly prideful?
Whether your scrupulosity leads you to compulsive prayer, study, evangelism, purification, confession, or conscientiousness, recognize that at the root of your compulsion is a groaning, anxious pain of either guilt or uncertainty. In this article I’ve focused on uncertainty, and in an upcoming article I’ll talk about guilt.
The compulsions that urge you to “fix” these doubts or feelings of false guilt will never allow you to feel “fixed.” Only a genuine faith response that learns to sit still in the face of anxiety will bring lasting relief.
It is a long and difficult road to bring OCD under control, but it is possible. I believe that recognizing the fallacy of omniscience is a powerful step that can help sincere Christians who have OCD. Only God is omniscient. Uncertainty will always be a part of life here on earth, and sooner or later, we have to face our fear of it and learn to sit still instead of arguing against it.
For some of us, the hardest battle we’ll ever have to fight is to sit still in the face of terror. But once we learn how to do that, we’ll know that we have genuine faith. If you consistently feel bothered by uncertainty, perhaps it’s a call to faith rather than certainty.
What about you? How does uncertainty manifest itself in your religious OCD experience? Drop me a comment below to share.
Take care, and have a faithful journey.