It may be OCD
People with OCD focused on these fears may be hyper-concerned about sins and violations of religious doctrine or moral guidelines generally. They may worry that they have unwittingly offended God or committed an unpardonable sin.
Individuals with Scrupulosity OCD may obsess over whether they have committed blasphemy or angered God. They may excessively pray, ask for forgiveness, strive for excessive purity, repeat scriptures or prayers, cancel out inappropriate or “bad” thoughts with prayers or phrases, make pacts with God, or other compulsive behaviors done in an urgent attempt to relieve their anxiety and distress. They may spend countless hours lost in compulsions to try and cleanse themselves from potential past sins.
Individuals with False Memory or Real Events OCD who experience this fear may feel “unsure” about whether they may have done something in the past that was sinful. They may fear having committed an unpardonable sin and that they are doomed to hell. These fears often result in rumination, replaying past events, and seeking certainty about whether someone’s memories are correct.
How can I tell if it’s OCD and not a legitimate fear?
Intrusive thoughts caused by OCD are ego-dystonic, meaning that they do not align with one’s values, identity, or intentions. These are the opposite of what someone values or wishes to do. That is why people who suffer from these fears can be so tormented by them—in people who care greatly about following their religious doctrine, even the slightest possibility of having committed a sin they can’t remember may feel overwhelming.
In an effort to find certainty or rid themselves of anxiety and distress caused by these obsessions, they may engage in compulsions—physical or mental behaviors done to alleviate the distress and discomfort caused by intrusive thoughts or to prevent a feared outcome from occurring. Compulsions may provide temporary relief, but do nothing to keep obsessions from returning again and again. Performing compulsions often inadvertently strengthens obsessions and fears, reinforcing the idea that obsessions pose an actual threat or danger.
If you find yourself engaging in compulsive behaviors like repeated prayer, seeking reassurance from religious leaders or loved ones, frequent rumination on past events, or memory-checking times you worry you may have sinned, this is a good sign that you’re struggling with Scrupulosity OCD or False Memory OCD. Additionally, if you find that you are engaging in religious activities like prayer out of a perceived necessity or urgency, rather than a genuine desire to find peace or affirmation of your faith, your fears may be a sign of OCD.
How to overcome fear of committing a sin
If fears about having committed a sin and not remembering it are causing you to suffer, you can get better with Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) treatment.
ERP is the gold standard treatment for OCD and many other anxiety disorders. It is backed by decades of clinical research proving its effectiveness and shows promising results within 12-25 sessions on average. With ERP, you will be able to teach your brain that you can live with confidence in your faith, despite uncertainty and without relying on compulsions to feel at ease.
In ERP, you’re gradually and safely exposed to the thoughts and situations that are likely to trigger intrusive thoughts and anxiety. With your therapist’s guidance and support, you will learn how to resist the urge to respond to feelings of discomfort and anxiety with compulsions. By doing this over time, you will learn that you are able to tolerate anxiety, experience decreased anxiety and distress in response to OCD triggers, and feel more confident in your ability to sit with uncertainty and discomfort.
Examples of possible exposures done to treat OCD focused on the fear of having sinned and not remembering it may include:
- Write an imaginal script detailing an imagined sin and the consequences of it.
- Say a prayer only once.
- Create a loop tape of triggering words, such as “hate” or “666.”