LDS author details how the quest to do right went dangerously wrong

He finally learned to deal with his scrupulosity through therapy and by changing how he viewed God and the church’s gospel.

Latter-day Saint author Taylor Kerby's new book is “Scrupulous: My Obsessive Compulsion for God.”

Taylor Kerby persistently feared he would fall short of God’s love no matter how many prayers he offered, no matter how often he read scriptures, and no matter how pure he kept his thoughts.

Growing up in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Kerby suffered from scrupulosity, an obsessive compulsive disorder that focuses on moral rectitude and brings with it pathological guilt.

As a teenager, this religious mania “was all encompassing, flowing into every aspect of my life and informing the most insignificant decision,” Kerby writes in his new book, “Scrupulous: My Obsessive Compulsion for God.”

In these excerpts from The Salt Lake Tribune’s “Mormon Land” podcast — edited for length and clarity — he shares his thoughts about the debilitating condition.

When did you first notice your scrupulosity?

I was very obsessed with doing the right thing from a very young age, but I didn’t realize it was a problem until later in my life. Every once in a while [as a young teenager], I would feel this need, this real pressing need, to pray for forgiveness then and there.

Sometimes I would have a thought that I thought was bad, or I would think back to something I had done earlier that day that I thought was bad. And I would feel this need to kneel down and pray right there.

Once I was in a grocery store, and all of a sudden I felt this need. I had stepped on the wrong tile….And for some reason, the tile was not only wrong, but it was offensive to God in some way, and I needed to kneel down and I needed to pray for forgiveness. I found an excuse to kind of look down on a shelf at the store, and I knelt down and I prayed forgiveness there in the store, [repeating the words, “Dear Heavenly Father, please forgive me for my sins in the name of Jesus Christ].”

Another instance, I was at a sleepover and I was maybe, you know, 12 or 13 years old. And all of a sudden I just felt like I was full of sin, something was wrong, and I needed to pray right then and there, and my friends didn’t know what was going on. I kept excusing myself to go to another room. While this was distressing for me as a young kid, I still sort of thought that it was normal, right? That I was just living the gospel the correct way.

Did your parents know what was happening with you?

My parents knew that I was really preoccupied with being worthy and doing the right thing.…But I don’t think they recognized that it was an obsessive compulsive disorder that required some therapy and required some help.

When my father was bishop, it was actually really convenient for me because I could go into his bedroom and say, “Dad, I did this, you know, really inconsequential thing. Am I still worthy?”

And he would say things like, “I know you’re worthy. You don’t need to ask me if you’re worthy.” And that was very helpful for me. I truly think that if I had a different bishop growing up, maybe someone who didn’t know me as well, it really could have added to my distress.

Did church talks about sexual intimacy trigger your obsession?

[Yes.] Growing up in the church, when you’re in the youth program, there’s a lot of emphasis on not having sex. I was still a normal 14-, 15-, 16-year-old boy who was going through puberty. And we know that sexual thoughts cannot be fully avoided and, indeed, maybe they should not be fully avoided, right?

So I found myself as a kid, genuinely trying to rid myself of any or all sexual thoughts or feelings that would come into my head.…What ended up happening was a circle of distress where I would continue to have impure thoughts and … the more I fixated on them, the more I was aware of their presence and the more I was aware of my inability to live a righteous life completely free of these sexual thoughts.

How was your Latter-day Saint mission, which has extra rules to follow and more to feel guilty about?

I was called to the Washington, D.C., North Chinese-speaking mission, and we were the only Chinese-speaking missionaries in the Washington, D.C., area.

I got placed with these two companions [who only had a couple of months left on their two-year missions]… and were just done with missionary life. I came in and I said, “No, guys. We’re going to be the best missionaries we can be. We’re going to follow all the rules and we’re going to do all this stuff.”

They said, “Listen, I don’t know who you think you are or what you think it is we’re doing here, but we’re, you know, we don’t want to do any of this.”

[They] would not get up on time in the morning, which is one of the rules, and would sneak down to the business center of our apartment complex at night and watch television [a violation of mission rules]. This was the most distressing situation I could have possibly been in, because now I am in a position where no matter what I did, my companions are not going to follow the rules, and one of the rules is that I have to be in sight and sound of these people.

Another time we were at somebody’s house, who wasn’t a member of the church, and she puts on a movie. Watching movies is against the rules as a missionary. I expected my companions to get up, say, “Actually, we need to go do something else, and leave.” But they sat on the couch and watched the movie.

So now I was faced with a dilemma: Either I leave the room, in which case, I am breaking a rule by not being in sight and sound of these companions, or I sit on the couch, in which case I would be breaking a rule by watching a movie.

In either scenario, I am feeling that I am now unworthy. Unworthy of the Holy Spirit, which will lead me to people that need Jesus Christ. And it was just incredibly, incredibly distressing.

How did you eventually heal your scrupulosity?

By going to therapy and by shifting my theology. ... We believe that Jesus Christ paid for our sins. And we believe that no matter how good we are, we can’t be perfect enough for Jesus Christ to still not have to pay for our sins. OK. I believed growing up that the best way to worship God, the best way to be a member of the church, was to make myself as good as I could possibly make myself. And in the book, the way I term it, is that I made myself, my own righteousness and purity, into an idol god. I was really worshipping how good I was rather than worshipping Jesus Christ and God the Father.

I had to make some changes in how I understood God, the gospel, the church. Once I made those shifts in my mind, I was able to have a good, peaceable existence within a church that I am still very devoted to and love very much.

I came to believe that Jesus Christ is not actually that interested in how good I can make myself.…In other words, my theology now is about reaching outward in caring and loving other people. And interestingly, as I have taken my theology and tried to make it outward facing rather than inward facing, my scrupulosity has also decreased.

What suggestions do you have for how church leaders might help people who may be dealing with this?

As a general rule. I think it’s important for church leaders to understand that the people, particularly the young men and young women in their congregation who seem like they have everything together, who are working really hard, those people should be of concern to them.

We need to be careful how we praise our youth in the church. We want to make sure that we are not making righteousness their core identity. To that end, I would recommend praising some action that they perform rather than praising who they are.

It’s important for leaders to be on the lookout for scrupulosity, to look for ways in which an obsession with righteousness is becoming unhealthy for kids.

To hear the full podcast, go to sltrib.com/podcasts/mormonland. To read a transcript and receive other exclusive Tribune Mormon Land content, go to Patreon.com/mormonland.

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