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Existential OCD and Scrupulosity: When “Purpose” Becomes Salvational 

 December 7, 2020

By  Jaimie Eckert

Some combinations are weird. Like peanut butter and pickle sandwiches. Like stripes with polka dots. Like existential OCD with scrupulosity.

Yes, religious OCD can sometimes be combined with existential OCD.

If we ever feel like we’re in deep trouble with God for not being able to figure out the meaning of life, there’s a good chance our OCD is mixing existential and religious themes.

It’s a weird combination, but it happens. (Speaking from experience, ahem.)

Here at scrupulosity.com, we talk a lot about religious OCD. But what about when existential themes enter the picture? What does that look like, and how can we address it?

In this brief article, I’ll share with you a quick overview of what it might look like for you to experience both existential OCD and scrupulosity at the same time.

Key Intersections Between Existential OCD and Scrupulosity

Existential OCD involves obsessions and compulsions relating to the meaning, purpose, and realness of life. Do you consider yourself a “philosophical” kind of person? Do you spend extensive time asking complicated questions about the nature of being and about your place in the universe?

This one might be applicable for you.

When it comes to questions of meaning, cosmology, and metaphysics, the Bible has answers. In its grand pages we find the deep things of life — explanations about where we came from, why we’re here, and where we’re going.

But these existentially important insights can also be hijacked by obsessive-compulsive disorder. Here are a few key intersections between existential OCD and scrupulosity.

obsessive about God's purpose for your life

When Depersonalization Gets Spiritual

Depersonalization is a symptom that occasionally occurs with OCD. (It isn’t a symptom I experienced in my struggle with OCD, but it’s a symptom that some of my clients find particularly bothersome). It makes the sufferer feel an uncomfortable sensory disconnect between his or her mind and body. They may feel unable to “locate” themselves, have out-of-body experiences, or have trouble integrating their center of consciousness with bodily sensations.

Although depersonalization stems from mental health causes, it’s also an existential issue because of how severely it challenges our sense of self and wholeness. 

Unfortunately, what I’ve seen in my coaching practice is that people who have scrupulosity and also experience depersonalization almost always give it a spiritual interpretation. It usually goes something like this:

  • I can’t feel my heart. God must have left me.
  • I feel so disconnected from my body. Could I be demon possessed?
  • My center of consciousness always seems “higher” than God. I think I’m worshipping myself!

Depersonalization is not to be confused with anhedonia, a condition which dampens our ability to feel emotions. Depersonalization is specifically relating to a disconnect between the body and the consciousness (an existential problem), whereas anhedonia is simply a decreased ability to feel anything (an emotional problem). However, anhedonia can also be interpreted spiritually, which is a similar error.

Obsessed About Finding God’s Purpose for My Life

Living a meaningful and purposeful life is a worthy goal, but for some, it can become an obsession (this was, in fact, the obsession that drove me into such awful clinical depression that I finally sought help and discovered my own OCD).

Certainly, God wants us each to fulfill the vocation to which He has called us. We all have a unique role in the body of Christ. Some of us are to be pastors and teachers of the Word. Others are to be truckers and nurses and executives, living out kingdom values wherever we are. We all have a calling to be light and salt. And some have a specific calling to devote their lives to ministry.

It is typically the latter category — those who feel called to ministry at some level — that obsess about their purpose. I’ve gotten a number of emails from people who feel a compulsion to sell everything and go to foreign lands to minister the gospel. I believe strongly in the gospel commission of Matthew 28, instructing us to go into all the world with the good news — but for some people, it isn’t a calling. It’s a compulsion.

That’s a big difference, folks.

How can you tell the difference? I believe a mission compulsion and a mission calling will have very different characteristics, which I will summarize in the chart below.

Missional CallingMissional Compulsion
Requires an act of the will to accept and activate it (2 Timothy 1:6)Tramples the will and uses anxiety to force us into certain activities
Is recognized by others in the body of believers, either by a ministry commission or by encouragement and affirmation (2 Timothy 1:6)Is not recognized by others in the body, and may be actively discouraged if you suggest it
Is motivated by a desire to glorify God. The desire to save souls is uppermost, even to the point of forfeiting one’s own salvation (Romans 9:3; Exodus 32:32)Is motivated by a desire to calm the anxiety and secure one’s own salvation (and perhaps glorify God as an afterthought)
Produces tactful yet effective bridges for conversing with love about the gospel (Ephesians 4:15)Often is insensitive or overbearing in witnessing, a “just do it so I’ll feel better” mentality
Is equally willing to be used or laid aside for long periods of time, according to God’s needs (ex: Elisha, Moses, Jesus)Insists on “meaningful” work at all times, or falls into despair

What about you? Is your thirst for purpose a calling, or a compulsion?

Stuck on Metaphysical Mysteries

Another way that existential OCD can intersect with scrupulosity is in complex metaphysical questions. We can get obsessed about the nature of God and angels, the realness of life, or the difference between time and eternity. We might go in circles with epistemological riddles and confuse our family with our ability to converse for so long on such dry topics!

Fundamentally, of course, metaphysical obsessions are based on one of scrupulosity’s three big lies: doubt is intolerable. And because doubt is viewed as intolerable, we will do whatever it takes to solve these mysteries. (Let me save you some time and inform you that there are an infinite number of metaphysical mysteries that God has not revealed, and He does not expect you to know whether angels have a gender or exactly how the seam between time and eternity is stitched together).

Interestingly, Solomon spoke about our “God-given task” to seek out wisdom. In Ecclesiastes 1:13, he noted (somewhat tongue-in-cheek, perhaps) that our search for wisdom is a task designed to “exercise” us. Then, a few verses later in Ecclesiastes 3:11, he follows up by saying that this “God-given task” is one we can never finish.

Why? Because knowledge acquisition is not something we are meant to finish. It’s not as if God has hired us to figure things out for His celestial library development project. No way. Knowledge acquisition is meant to “exercise” us, and therefore is a limitless project.

the believers search for meaning

Don’t expect to get it all done. You won’t. 

You can get as many PhD’s in metaphysics, existential philosophy, and systematic theology as you would like, but there will still be an infinite sea of unexplored truth.

Why do we finite beings get stuck on metaphysical mysteries? Because our underlying OCD belief is that doubt is intolerable. And so we miss the whole point of knowledge as a growth process and try to turn it into a checklist.

If we can check that list off — yes, I understand the Trinity perfectly, yes, I’ve pigeonholed my epistemology, yes, I can understand eternity — then we feel safe.

Until the next mystery bubbles up to the surface. Then we get anxious all over again.

How to Deal with Existential OCD and Scrupulosity

I hate to oversimplify, but let me summarize in two words: same same.

OCD themes are simply variations of the same three big lies:

  1. Doubt is intolerable
  2. All guilt is true guilt
  3. I must always be in control

These misbeliefs can emerge in religious compulsions or existential ones. Sometimes they intermingle, which might throw you off. Don’t let it. We are dealing with the same animal, and we’ll continue to face it in the same way: allow it to be present without trying to “solve” it. Learn to embrace the reality of tension and mystery in our lives. Recognize the gap between omniscient Creator and limited creature, and lean into a role of dependence rather than proving yourself.

existential ocd and scrupulosity

Conclusion

Existential OCD and Scrupulosity can be an uncomfortable combination, but it’s just as predictable as any other OCD theme. Don’t get tripped up — you’ve got this!

The next time you feel spiritually obligated to figure out existential mysteries in life, step back and recognize it for what it is.

Spiritual curiosity and a true hunger for wisdom will lead you to deep, thoughtful reflection and engagement with the Word of God. Spiritual-existential obsession, on the other hand, will lead you to anxious speculation, defiance in the face of unknowns, and unrealistic expectations.

True seeking comes through humility, but obsession is demanding.

Let’s hunger for true wisdom and leave the obsessive part behind! If you have existential OCD and scrupulosity, feel free to treat those tough questions the way you treat other scrupe issues: it’s simply not as urgent or as important as your mind thinks it is.

Best wishes on the journey,

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  1. Thanks Jaimie! I’ve been meditating the last week or so on the fact that God is someone to know not a set of ideas to understand. I’ve been thinking about that passage in Matthew 11 where Jesus is worshiping the father because he hides things from the clever and wise and reveals them to the childlike. This makes me think that approaching big existential questions with a heart of childlike trust in God is critical. When we approach these questions primarily leaning on our own ability to reason and logic, divorced from our relational history with God and his faithfulness to us, filled with anxiety and the suspicion that God is probably not good, we cut ourselves off from his participation in our pursuit of truth!

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