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Religiously Scared

This is a Dear Therapist column, which originally appeared in the Five Towns Jewish Times:

Dear Elisheva, This time of year is always difficult for me, but the last couple of years it’s gotten even worse. I’m a 30 year old professional. I work almost full time, about 30-35 hours a week. I have a good marriage, three healthy, lively kids, and wonderful friends. We’re not wealthy but we make enough to cover our expenses, go on reasonable vacations, and save a little for the future. My life is busy, but I mostly like it that way, and enjoy my routine. Of course, nothing is perfect, but overall, I feel fortunate in that the important areas of my life are going smoothly. I know I’m blessed, and most of the time, I feel very happy and content.

But this time of year, around Elul through Yom Kippur, I become a nervous wreck. I’ve always been religious- I was raised this way. In high school and the year after, I started taking my religious observances more seriously, which most of friends were doing too. In some ways I felt very inspired, but in other ways, I think it may have been motivated by fear, and not necessarily in a good way. Eventually, I settled into a rhythm and lifestyle of religious adherence and growth that feels right for me.

But this time of year, something happens inside me, and I feel completely panicked. Lately, it even starts in the summer- once it’s the Three Weeks, my head is already imagining the intensity, the dread, the sense of “everything that’s wrong in the world is because of my sins”- paralyzing guilt. I have to admit that it does motivate me to be more careful about certain technicalities of Halacha. But I’m so preoccupied with not messing up, that I know I’m not being the kind of mom, wife, employee, and all around human that I want to be.

Over the last year, the thoughts and fears kind of lingered past Yom Kippur, this feeling that the Pandemic is a Divine message that I need to drastically improve... or else. “Examine your actions.” I know it sounds dramatic, but I keep picturing that big scale in my head- like if I do just one more good deed, then things will get better for the world, and if not, it can and will get much worse. I know it probably comes from my education; I still picture my teachers- even in elementary school- conveying the idea that even the smallest deed can tip our scoresheets between Heaven and Hell. At the same time, I don’t want to totally blame my education; thousands of other kids heard the same lessons, and I doubt they’re all suffering the way I am.

My husband keeps telling me I just need to “chill out” a little, and part of me thinks he’s right, but then I fight it inwardly- chilling out doesn’t seem like the path to righteousness. I just don’t have clarity on how to engage with this time of year and this way of thinking, especially now that it started to extend beyond this season. What’s going on with me, and what can I do about it?

-Morally Distressed

Dear Morally Distressed,

Thanks for bringing up such an important and timely topic. What you describe is significantly more common than you might realize. It even has a name. A fearful preoccupation with moral or religious “correctness” to the extent of almost obsession is a form of anxiety that many therapists call: scrupulosity. You sound like a very sincere person. You feel blessed and fortunate and are scared to “rock the boat” of your good life. You’ve obediently internalized messages about self-improvement, and global consciousness, but it sometimes your conscience takes on a life of its own. This is one of those areas where psychology intersects with theology in an interesting way.

Let’s use a different example, one not specifically connected to religion. We can agree that hygiene is a good thing, right? We should wash our hands when they get dirty or after using the restroom. But certain common forms of OCD present in excessive, compulsive, and obsessive hand washing, or other forms of cleaning. This doesn’t mean that all cleaning or handwashing is pathological. Only when it becomes “too much.”

Another example of this is medical anxiety: It’s good to go for annual physicals, age appropriate tests and screenings, and attend to any physical problems that arise. Taking care of our health is part of being a responsible adult. But when any sniffle, freckle, or tickle becomes cause for alarm, an immediate need to see a doctor and demand a full battery of frantic, unnecessary testing, we’ve entered into the zone of anxiety.

When it comes to any of these areas- such as health, hygiene, or religious diligence, how do we know whether we’re being conscientious or neurotic?

Studies actually show that most people who suffer from this form of anxiety, which can present as a general anxiety, situational, flare ups, OCD, or panic attacks, tend to be able to tell the difference intuitively. If they stop and ask themselves, “is this thought or behavior coming from a healthy place or an anxious one?” They can usually distinguish. But if you can’t do that yet, here is another way to assess:

When we look at a symptom or behavior, we can quantify it in terms of three general metrics, FID: Frequency, Intensity, and Duration. How often it happens, how severely it affects us, and how long each episode lasts. A moderate amount of handwashing- in terms of how often, how intensely, and for how long the washing session lasts, is appropriate hygiene. When it becomes too frequent, too important, and too long, the skin on the hands can be rubbed to the point of abrasion, and it reflects an unbalanced level of need for the washing. Likewise, when you practice your religious rituals and introspection, it can be done from a place of balance and propriety, or from a place of frantic terror. Since you describe stretches of time where it doesn’t feel obsessional, that might help you to differentiate by comparison.

Until now, I’ve addressed the mental health perspective. From a spiritual perspective (which has everything to do with mental health) it might help you to reexamine your relationship to religion and the G-d you learned about. Your particular neurosis stems initially from a beautiful place. You want to be the best person you can be, and this is noble.

Dr. Tal Ben Shahar, who studies, teaches, and writes about happiness, talks about the difference between perfectionism and what he terms: optimalism. Perfectionism is the need to make things impossibly perfect, which creates stress. Optimalism, on the other hand, is the desire to do one’s reasonable best, within the limited, mortal parameters we have. It takes the ambition of perfectionism, and tempers it with grace and self-compassion. Optimalists actually end up performing better than perfectionists, because they have less anxiety, overwhelm, and fear of failure distracting them from their goals. They also recover more quickly from errors.

You correctly pointed out that many students can go through the same educational system and walk away with different messages. Still, I do believe that as a broad community, we could be doing a better job conveying the love, joy, and fulfillment that can be intrinsic to healthy religious beliefs and practice. When you hear the sources in your head, reverberating the fire and brimstone quotes about how consequential your actions are, it might be helpful to temper those thoughts with equally powerful quotes you can find describing G-d’s compassion, patience, forgiveness, and love for us.

If you’re able to do this cognitively, in your own mind, that could make a big difference in helping you shift from frenetic to aspirational. But if this feels too difficult for you to do on your own, there are some excellent books and online resources on the topic of anxiety and OCD, which could be helpful, and even some specifically focused on scrupulosity. It might also be beneficial to find a psychologically savvy religious mentor and/ or a religiously informed psychotherapist who has experience with scrupulosity to guide you on this journey. Finding the right support can help you reframe and realign your religious idealism from the obsessional to the authentically spiritual.



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