“Help! My loved one has religious OCD, and I don’t know what to do!” I regularly receive emails from family members or friends with a sincere desire to help.
“I’m afraid of triggering her, so I feel like I have to walk on eggshells around her,” one concerned mother wrote. Family members of the scrupulous are devoted believers, but they’re afraid that talking about or engaging in religious activities in front of their struggling loved one will serve as a trigger for compulsive behaviors.
For example, Marie*, who is dealing with religious OCD, is reluctant to attend a weekly Bible study group at her church. Every time she attends, the discussions trigger her fear that she’s not right with God. Her husband, who enjoys these gatherings, feels bad when Marie backs out at the last minute with a long list of excuses. Yet, he’s afraid to say anything to her about it because he doesn’t want to make her struggles worse.
How should the spouse or friends of someone like Marie respond? Turns out, it may not be as hard as you think! You don’t have to have a psychology degree or therapy fieldwork to follow these simple do’s and don’ts of how to help someone with religious OCD.
How to Help Someone with Religious OCD: Do’s and Don’ts
Don’t brush it off
“Just pray more and get over it!” This was the advice that one of my clients received from his wife. Though a gifted and creative musician, he was struggling with scrupulosity, and his wife just didn’t seem to understand.
Even if you don’t know much about religious OCD, don’t brush it off, minimize it, or try to label it as “merely” a spiritual issue. Religious OCD is an emotional and mental health issue with many layers involved.
Do listen and offer support
Just because we don’t understand what someone is going through doesn’t mean we can’t support them or be a nonjudgmental listening ear.
I have a lot of respect for those who come to coaching sessions with their struggling spouse. They support through the little things: helping get the computer set up, sitting next to them, rubbing their backs, passing the tissues…
Of course, the level of support will depend on the closeness of the relationship (or their personality and desires–some may not want you to accompany them). But offering to accompanying a spouse (or even a son or daughter) to their visits with a pastor, priest, or therapist can go a long way in showing them that you’re invested in their healing and growth. I’ve had a number of clients tell me, “If it wasn’t for my spouse, I don’t know how I would be able to do this.”
Please, please, avoid this one at all costs. Don’t be the person who googles “scrupulosity” and then concludes, “Oh, that’s what Joe has! Let’s all convince him that he has scrupulosity so that he can fix himself.”
A little exaggerated? I wish!
In all my time helping people with religious OCD, I have never seen this kind of pressure work. No amount of prodding is going to convince a person that they have religious OCD. They must be convinced of it themselves. Remember, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still”—a saying especially true in matters of conscience and spirituality.
Do ask questions and provide appropriate feedback
“But the signs are all there! My family member/friend clearly has religious OCD! How do I help them realize that?” you may wonder.
When we talk about how to help someone with religious OCD, there’s a better approach than bluntly saying, “You have OCD.” Try asking thoughtful questions about the person’s understanding of God—questions such as “Do you think God is the kind of god that would require such severe self-sacrifice and misery?” or “Do you think God is really playing around with your salvation by giving you assurance one day and causing you to question your salvation the next?” These questions will help develop an awareness of deeper issues.
And when you ask those questions, pause and listen! I can’t emphasize this one enough. Only after we have taken the time to listen are we ready to offer appropriate feedback.
What does that feedback look like? Spouses, parents, and friends of those with religious OCD can act as sounding boards, providing sanity and healthy pushback.
Nicole* was a client of mine who was being bombarded with intrusive thoughts; she believed God was telling her to do some really bizarre and unbiblical things. Unfortunately, her “Christian counselor” encouraged her to follow through with those bizarre actions because, the counselor said, they may actually be from God. (Biggest fail ever!) On the other hand, Nicole’s parents acted as a healthy sounding board. Here and there, they would comment, “We don’t think this really sounds like something from God. It doesn’t seem normal to us.”
One day, Nicole was visiting a friend who happened to be a therapist. As Nicole poured out her heart about her intrusive thoughts, the friend began to cry in sympathy. “It sounds like you may be struggling with religious OCD,” she kindly suggested. In this moment of vulnerability, Nicole was willing to consider her friend’s suggestion. Her friend made her promise not to return to the good-intentioned but badly-mistaken counselor.
While you don’t want to pressure your loved one to admit that they have religious OCD, look for those ripe moments to pause and ask, “Are you sure that’s from God?” or “Have you considered religious OCD?” They may be just the words needed to move a struggling person toward healing!
Don’t get sucked into reassurance-seeking cycles
People with religious OCD tend to fall into reassurance-seeking cycles in which they try to self-medicate their anxiety levels by turning to others for reassurance. Someone who struggles with knowing whether they’re saved may go to a trusted friend and ask, “Do you think I’m really saved?” No matter how many times they receive a reassuring response, they continue to question, “But how do I know?”
The problem with this cycle is that it never ends and doesn’t promote healing. The family member or friend becomes a crutch for the person’s OCD instead of helping them to reevaluate their underlying mindset.
Do share biblical comfort
So, how do we avoid playing into reassurance-seeking cycles, while not coming across as harsh and unsympathetic? The answer is biblical comfort.
Biblical comfort, unlike obsessive reassurance, provides overarching truths and principles that can help to reshape a person’s view of God. We want to reinforce a core dependence on God instead of merely trying to “fix” the emotional storm of the moment.
Here are some examples of overarching Biblical principles that can offer comfort to those with religious OCD:
- God is not the One pushing us into performance-based religion.
- God doesn’t expect us to know all the answers to our spiritual questions.
- Faith is about trusting God even when we’re confused and unsure of ourselves.
- The Christian life involves a willingness not only to sacrifice, but also to receive God’s blessings. It is not 100% sweat and sacrifice.
- Having strange and unwanted thoughts are not sinful, but they can lead us to learn a new level of dependence on God.
Don’t feel like you must walk on eggshells
While we definitely don’t want to be insensitive to our loved one’s struggles, we also don’t want to live in fear of triggering them. If we really get down to the core of how to help someone with religious OCD, it’s going to involve some awkward moments–and that’s ok.
At some point, something will trigger them and bring up anxious feelings. This is not all bad. Part of overcoming scrupulosity is learning to live with uncomfortable emotions. Being triggered gives opportunities to practice this skill.
If you trigger your loved one, apologize kindly and then move on. Anytime you live within a caring and helpful proximity to them, you WILL trigger them sometimes. Don’t beat yourself up over it–they will be ok.
Do create a safe space
Growth involves some discomfort, and as your loved one begins the process of healing from religious OCD, they’re going to experience some of the challenges involved. But the safer a person feels, the more open they’re going to be to new perspectives about themselves, about God, and about regulating emotions. It’s at this point that friends and family can make a huge difference by creating an environment that’s secure and reasonably free of stress.
Read on to learn three practical steps for creating this safe space.
How to Help Someone with Religious OCD: Creating a Safe Space
1. Create safe ways to express discomfort.
When a person with religious OCD is triggered, they may find it difficult to express their anxiety. They may fear being misunderstood or disappointing their loved ones. We can facilitate a safe space for them by agreeing on a “safe word” to alert you that they’re being triggered. Thus, they can make you aware of their anxiety without having to deal with a barrage of questions.
When my husband and I were going through premarital counseling, our pastor advised us to pick any random word as a “safe word.” He said, “It can be anything–even something silly like ‘banana.'” Banana it was. Whenever my husband and I need to communicate that we are dead serious (which is often necessary because we joke a lot) we say “banana.” And we’re bound by the code of love to respect the “banana” and stop whatever is bothering the other person.
Agree on a safe word and what it means. Does your safe word mean that you need space? That you need presence? That you need to be taken seriously? That you need an immediate mental distraction? Remember that people with religious OCD have a lot going on upstairs, and don’t always have the presence of mind to ask for help in healthy ways. A safe word can make asking for help as painless as possible.
2. Create a safe space to process.
When a person has been triggered, they may need to withdraw and process what they’re experiencing. For example, they may not want to go to mass, take communion, or participate in family worship. Their withdrawal can lead a family member to feel subtly rejected, or they may go into a spiritual panic: “They must be backsliding! Is something wrong between them and God?”
It may not be an issue between them and God. Instead, they’re working through challenges with their mental and emotional health. The form this often takes is to step back, process deeply, and then re-engage in a healthier way.
During the processing phase, the person with religious OCD needs your understanding and support. Don’t push them to talk when they’re unready. Assure them that you won’t feel hurt if they don’t want to discuss certain topics. And keep on living out your faith in healthy, nonintrusive ways. Don’t hide your religious practices out of fear of triggering them, but don’t pressure them to “perform,” either.
3. Create a clean, serene physical environment.
Rodney* struggled with religious obsessions. He worked long shifts and depended on his wife, a stay-at-home mom, to keep the house clean. This wasn’t her forte. The house was a constant mess. Rodney had internal stress from the OCD and also the external stress of living in a cluttered, sloppy home. He felt that he never had a place to rest his mind. He was learning helpful new strategies in therapy, but as soon as he arrived home and began wading into the chaos, all his progress seemed to disappear.
This third step may not apply to every personality type, but it is especially applicable to those who have the HSP (highly sensitive people) trait and also struggle with religious OCD. (Did you know that a surprising number of people with religious OCD are also HSP? To find out whether you are HSP, check out this quiz.)
In order to be able to process effectively, HSP’s need a calm, clean home environment and a consistent routine without any surprises. Having a mess around them makes it very difficult for them to process new information.
Putting in that little bit of extra effort to keep your home peaceful and uncluttered may be just what your loved one needs to better work through their religious OCD and feel less stressed.
If you’ve been stressing over how to help someone with religious OCD, be encouraged that you’ve already taken a positive step by reading this article! I hope the tips above will give you some helpful ideas.
Here’s the key takeaway: Be empathetic without enabling your family member or friend’s religious OCD. Show consideration for where they’re at, even when you may not understand them fully. At the same time, voice healthy feedback and Biblical comfort that will lead them to consider the deeper issues fueling their religious OCD.
And don’t beat yourself up if you make some mistakes along the way. In the long run, your struggling family member or friend will recognize that you truly care about them. Your efforts will pay off!
I’d love to hear what you have found to be helpful in relating to your loved ones with religious OCD. Comment below with your experiences!
Best wishes on the journey,