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God or OCD? How to Distinguish the Two

A few weeks back I posted a question sticker on Instagram asking if my followers there had questions for me or things they wanted to read about on the blog. Y’all came through! One lovely follower asked me “How do you know if it’s the OCD that’s talking or God speaking to you?” So that’s what we’re going to be diving into today.

This question of “is it God or OCD?” is one of the biggest struggles of OCD/scrupulosity. There are several reasons for this. One is the intrusive nature of thoughts one has when battling OCD/scrupulosity, and these intrusive thoughts can seem bigger than ourselves, which I think is how most people experience the voice of God in their lives, as something bigger than themselves. This then naturally leads to the fear that if it IS God speaking, that not doing what He says is a sin.

This is something I have struggled with so much in my battle with scrupulosity, and I know how hard it can be. This question tormented me for a long time, and still rears its head from time to time. Jesus tells us in scripture:

“But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens it for him, and the sheep hear his voice, as he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has driven out all his own, he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice. But they will not follow a stranger; they will run away from him, because they do not recognize the voice of strangers.” John 10:2-5.

My priest said to me once that if this is true, it is only logical that we know the voice of the tempter as well. And in thinking about it now, I know that if BOTH of those are true, then we should be able to put labels on the other voices in our lives, both interior and exterior. But getting to know those voices is a journey, especially when the voice of OCD can sound a lot like that of the Almighty.

Labelling the voices

Before we talk about some practical things, it’s important to think about and reflect on the different voices in our lives. We are subject to a lot of noise, and the voices of many, both within and without. When I say interior voices, I don’t mean schizophrenia. That is a struggle I cannot speak to. What I mean is that we all have an internal monologue that can be more or less pleasant at times. There are things around us that feed these internal voices in our heads as well.

To give a few examples, we hear with our ears the people occupying the physical space around us. We listen to music or TV or podcasts. We read books and articles that add to the voices in our heads. These exterior voices are easy to label and compartmentalize. It’s the interior voices that can become more muddled.

The interior voices in our minds and hearts are often the ones that have the greatest influence on us. They can be shaped by what we hear from the exterior, to be sure. However, some of them, like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, results in an intrusive thought that we didn’t ask for. And these keep recurring, so we know what the voice of OCD sounds like. But OCD likes to trick us and has a great voice altering talent. So often, if one suffers from scrupulosity, the OCD sounds like what we think God sounds like, when really God is not speaking in the harsh way that OCD might have you believe.

So what is the solution? How do I figure out which voice is speaking?

This is a super daunting question, and task. I recommend not taking it on alone. Find a therapist and/or priest with whom you can sit and try and figure these things out. Often God works through other people to help us through our struggles and confusions. The outside perspective is often very helpful because whoever is helping you can take a step back from where you are, and look more objectively at a situation. From there, this makes labelling the voices of God vs. OCD much easier.

Speaking from my own experience, I have found the voice of my OCD/scrupulosity to be condemning, whereas God never condemns. God’s voice, even when He is challenging me, is still gentle. OCD and scrupulosity tends to shout through a megaphone in my mind, overwhelming me and forcing me into submission to try and turn it off. God speaks to me at a much more pleasant volume.

The key I think, for figuring out if the voice you are “hearing”, is God or OCD, is to listen for the voice of God in YOUR life. God speaks to everyone differently, in a way He knows each person will understand. In my life, God often uses books I’m reading, the people around me, or even the silence of personal time with Him in prayer to speak to me, along with some various other ways. Getting to know the voice of God is a tricky task, and one that takes a lot of time, but if we ask God to give us ears to hear, we should be confident that He will do that. He doesn’t wish suffering and confusion on us, which is what OCD brings.

You may still think that this is an impossible question to answer, and I know how hard it can be. But I hope I can help bring some light and clarity to the confusion. At the end of the day, these are some quick tips and rules of thumb I go by to distinguish OCD from God.

  1. Talk to a priest/spiritual director. Whether it’s in Confession or spiritual direction, or just in a random interaction, talking to someone who has dedicated their life to prayer can be very helpful.

  2. 1. Part 2. Talk to your therapist. If you have a therapist, bring this up. A Catholic therapist is really helpful when you are dealing with scruples, but not everyone has that available to them. THAT IS OKAY. Even so, a therapist will know what OCD is trying to tell you, and can tell you if that’s what you’re hearing.

  3. Pray about it. So cliché, but so helpful. Talk to Jesus and ask Him to give you ears to hear His voice. He wants you to know His voice and will absolutely help you.

  4. If you are medicated, stay on your meds. I have been medicated for several years now for OCD, at the urging of my doctor. Obviously not everyone needs medication, and every situation is unique, so always talk to your doctor about these things, but if you are on medication, make sure you are taking it when you are supposed to. There’s a reason you are taking it, and that is because it is going to help you.

  5. If it causes me more distress than peace, it’s probably the OCD. This is just a general rule of thumb for me, but it works. My OCD causes me to have anxiety over silly things that I know won’t matter in the long term.

So there you have it! Those are some of my thoughts and tips when it comes to knowing Who or what is speaking to you, and how to start to figure that out. I know it is a hard process, but remember that it is just that, a process, and the progress you make may not be linear, and that is perfectly normal and okay. God loves you and will reward you for making the effort. Keep asking Him for His help!

I am praying for you all.

St. Therese, pray for us!

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