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Emails to my Therapist

Getting Trapped in a Silver Lining

To throw off a personal misery, a helpful question is: what am I getting out of it? What benefit do I get from the problem that might prevent a cure? Silver linings can be a trap, a real deterrent to making the full effort to solve the problem. I do know this, my friend. And yet…

The Big However

I’m startled to find that I’ve never asked myself until recent days what I’m getting out of my knottiest and longest-running personal problem: the kind of OCD known as scrupulosity, the burdensome preoccupation with my own sins and mistakes, real and imagined, from today back to early childhood.

The prosecutorial inner voice

Also, the fixation on potentially damaging mistakes that I must be careful never to make. (One especially nutso aspect to this: I agonize over rather minor crimes yet feel relatively untroubled by a few life choices that really deserve some guilt. Note that I’m not giving examples.)

A Silver Lining?

As with so many problems, a hidden benefit can seem hard or impossible to imagine. That’s my excuse for never having asked myself.

The idea of asking myself only occurred to me recently when I read a piece by Franciscan friar, Father Richard Rohr, founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation. He was speaking to Christians, but his message strikes me as universal.

“For many Christians…all that is important is their private moral superiority and spiritual “safety,” which is somehow supposed to “save” them. It creates what I am now calling a ‘cult of innocence,’ not any real human or divine solidarity.”


What Jumped Out At Me

It was the phrase “private moral superiority” that seized my attention, caused me to cringe. Is it possible? Am I harboring a sense of moral superiority. How could that be when I am so often swimming in guilt? (Though with medication now, I rise out of it fairly quickly, when pre-med it would take typically three intense days.)

More self-critical-than-thou?

To Get Back To My Question

I can think of one occasion when I convicted myself of self-righteousness. I was talking on the phone with my friend Laurel about the scrupulosity problem and she said something about my somehow throwing off the guilty way of thinking.  The whole swarming prickly blanket of self-accusations. I actually said aloud, “But then I’d be like everybody else.”


As soon as I said it, I knew it would be good to treat it lightly, as a mostly joking comment. Because it was pretty obnoxious. Now I’m wondering if it was a joke at all.

Could It Be True?

So to  what degree am I berating and accusing myself in order to feel “above it all,” to feel that I’m trying to meet higher-than-average standards. I don’t meet those standards. But I’m now thinking that by trying to do so I apparently get something I want: membership in a very narrow “cult of innocence”. (The look and the voice of the Saturday Night Live character played by Dana Carvey comes to mind: Enid Strict, the Church Lady.)

The Guilted Cage

I’m at risk of turning this awareness into another source of guilt, the sin of sanctimony. But at the same time, there’s also the glimmer of a possibility that I could use it in order to lose it, could label all my self-berating as self-righteous and therefore bad. Surely there are other ways to distinguish myself–if I must–than by striving to be a priggish, ethically finicky, goody two shoes.

Well, I’m going to see what I can do with this little discovery. Will let you know how it goes.




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  • Patti
    July 8, 2022 at 2:10 pm Reply

    Oh, my stars! Peggy! This is exactly what Fern (from my book) has a bad case of…and I’m afraid she got it from me. I’ve carried “transgressions” around for decades. Thank you for naming it! And yes…do I think I’m too good to make mistakes? I wish I’d read this before I finished South of Heaven…but if I had, Fern wouldn’t have had a story! 😉 She does come around at the end…a little. THANK YOU!

    • Peggy Payne
      July 8, 2022 at 2:14 pm Reply

      I’m sorry to hear about your load of “transgressions”, Patti. But it’s sure good to get a good novel out of it. I have my copy of South of Heaven at hand–am looking forward to getting to it soon. Thanks for your company in this transgressing business!

      • Peggy Payne
        July 8, 2022 at 2:16 pm Reply

        Also, Jill in my novel Sister India has the same problem.

  • kenju
    July 8, 2022 at 3:06 pm Reply

    I need to read again and think about it all. I may be guilty of the same or similar. A teacher once told me…..You put things in God’s hands and then immediately take them away, as if He cannot handle them. Your post brought that to mind.

    • Peggy Payne
      July 8, 2022 at 3:26 pm Reply

      And I’m going to keep what your teacher said in mind, kenju. Wonderful observation!

  • Thomas S. Griggs
    July 8, 2022 at 4:33 pm Reply

    Peggy, I believe part of the value of Fr. Rohr’s writing is that he is recognizing a “cultural group” phenomenon, which relocates an issue from one of private concern, with its attendant guilt and shame, to one which is shared with many others and is also explained as originating from our common history. When discovered in this way we gain the pleasant experience of being a member of an instant support group and it frees us from digging forever in our personal past for explanations and release. Love you…

    • Peggy Payne
      July 8, 2022 at 6:20 pm Reply

      Very interesting, Thomas, and sure fits your overall thinking about systemic causes for a lot of stuff. You’re right, it’s a very pleasant feeling that I have company in this matter. Love you, too…

  • Robert Braxton
    July 8, 2022 at 5:46 pm Reply

    The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes is a children’s story published by John Newbery in London in 1765. The story popularized the phrase “goody two-shoes” – regarding “Fern” character – in late 1950’s when we woud see a Crosby? Fiat or VW beetle on NC highway 87, we shouted “THERE GOES a Fern Car!”

    • Peggy Payne
      July 8, 2022 at 6:16 pm Reply

      Thanks, Bob. When I wrote it, I thought: what an odd term. Couldn’t see how Two Shoes had anything to do with the meaning. Sounds like I need to have a look at it. The Fern referred to earlier comes from a new novel South of Heaven.

  • July 9, 2022 at 5:14 am Reply

    Hi Peggy. Perhaps you might share some of your guilt with the masses, many of whom, these days, feel absolutely no guilt for their real transgressions. Amoral has become the new normal in our society. We see it in shootings, theft, price gouging…the list goes on.

    • Peggy Payne
      July 9, 2022 at 5:28 pm Reply

      I think there’s a lot of trouble built into systems, Len. Hidden fees, etc. And public corporations operate on the basis of pleasing faceless stockholders. That’s a design that doesn’t make much of a place for a conscience.

  • July 10, 2022 at 4:50 am Reply

    When I have a fit of guilt I do best if I lighten up, be gentle on myself, and not take myself so seriously. There’s no written evidence that life is Serious. bob

    • Peggy Payne
      July 10, 2022 at 4:54 am Reply

      Guilt does involve a lot of taking one’s self seriously. I hadn’t thought of that. Will ponder further.

  • July 10, 2022 at 5:28 am Reply

    Not too seriously, I hope. bob

    • Peggy Payne
      July 10, 2022 at 2:57 pm Reply

      Laughing emoji!

  • August 5, 2022 at 10:02 pm Reply

    Put that in your head–then guilt easily goes away when it occurs.

    • Peggy Payne
      August 5, 2022 at 10:14 pm Reply

      Yes, it accomplishes nothing. Or at least nothing good. I agree, G.S. But I don’t find that it easily goes away. And I’m convinced that the only real waste of time is berating one’s self; but that certainty has not stopped me. The mind seems to have a mind of its own.

      • August 6, 2022 at 5:41 am Reply

        you could make it a mantra. bob

        • Peggy Payne
          August 6, 2022 at 6:13 pm Reply

          Current mantra is: I forgive myself. Plus the word “expunge.” These do help, though not the whole solution.

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