Rumination is a Compulsion, Too

If obsessions are the thoughts and doubts that come to mind, compulsions are what you do in response to them. Often we think of compulsions as outward behaviors. However, for many of us with OCD (especially scrupulosity), many of our compulsions are internal or “invisible,” i.e., mental or cognitive. This is one reason why scrupulosity can be so hard to diagnose, because it isn’t obvious from the outside.

There are a number of internal compulsions, one of which is rumination.

Yes, rumination is a compulsion! Instead of doing something outward or physical, rumination is continuing the obsessive cycle. It’s mental problem-solving. It’s automatic overthinking. It’s engaging the obsession by arguing with it.

Here’s how it goes: The obsessions comes, and because we overvalue our thoughts, we think, “Maybe there is validity to this.” It causes anxiety or discomfort or a feeling of uncertainty, so we engage in compulsions to reduce anxiety or to gain certainty. This drives us to expend mental energy trying to figure it out so that we can drive the stake in the ground with ultimate certainty (which we can never gain). We sift through our thoughts: “What do they mean? Why am I having them?” 

For me, when I have a thought, I usually immediately begin to ruminate. The obsession comes and my brain automatically goes into problem-solving mode. I analyze the thought, compile evidence, retrace my steps, even overthink my overthinking. I want to figure it out, to try to think through all my thoughts, motives, attitudes, and actions to discern whether or not I have sinned or whether or not I’m saved. I need to disprove the thought or doubt so that I know where I stand before the Lord.

I try to convince myself that I really am saved due to all this evidence, but then I think of more evidence against me. Sometimes this rumination leads to researching, like Googling, “How do I know if I’m saved?” Or it leads to asking others: “Is ___ a sin?” even when I’m sure what their answer will be.

Counterintuitively, every bit of outside information actually makes it worse, because it gets added to the argument and fuels the rumination. People’s reassurances, logical arguments, and bits of information are pulled into the cycle, and I think, think, think. I can’t just sit around while my eternal security is up in the air, and somehow, the problem-solving makes it feel like I’m doing something.

It’s hard to see, even for those who know they have OCD, that rumination is the compulsion. For me, it’s been a lot harder to identify when it’s happening, because I don’t have that outward evidence as in other areas. Sometimes I will be wrapped up in my thoughts, swirling around and around incessantly, before even catching myself. If I’m tempted to say the sinner’s prayer over and over, I can pretty quickly identify that as a compulsion. But with rumination, it feels more subtle, more reasonable.

Every attempt to gain certainty leads to another “What if?” The harder I struggle against a thought, the more insistent it becomes. I think, If I ignore this, it might put me in danger of eternal damnation. At some point, something else needs to intervene. I need something greater than myself to get me out of this.

Interrupting the Cycle

How can you resist ruminating, especially when it can be so hard to identify in the first place?

There are no easy answers. Many strugglers find healing in the context of counseling and/or with the help of medication, including myself, but regardless the fight is difficult.

First, recognize that the thought is scrupulous, and that the pattern of rumination is characteristic of scrupulosity. Scrupulosity is like a continual stream of obsessive thoughts that demand rumination. It’s helpful to step back and see it for what it is. And yet, we always think our thoughts are unique. We may successfully label a thought as scrupulous and abstain from ruminating over it, but then a different thought in a similar vein comes, and we think, This must be important! But really, we have to view every single rumination the same: as a characteristic of OCD. I realize this is hard and that there will always be a question like, “What if it isn’t scrupulosity?” Learning to embrace uncertainty begins in this first step.

Second, sit with the anxiety and uncertainty without engaging in compulsive behavior. When rumination is your compulsion, the goal is to sit in those places of uncertainty, letting the anxiety rise and the uncertainty make you uncomfortable, without either avoiding the thought altogether or trying to figure it out. When we engage in compulsive behavior, we’re validating the obsession, making it seem important. Instead, we can devalue the thought by letting it be while refusing to ruminate over it. We won’t give it the time of day.

Instead we have to hang out in that space until the anxiety lessens or the uncertainty feels more manageable. This seems counterintuitive; our brains are so quick to start problem-solving. And yet you can’t think your way through an obsession. That’s why “Just don’t think that” or “Think this instead” are not helpful, and why it’s pointless to keep ruminating. We want certainty, but we’re not promised that. Nor do we need it, contrary to how we may feel.

Again, we can do this only by taking refuge in the Lord. I don’t mean to simply say, “Just trust Jesus,” as though it’s easy and immediately fruitful. I just mean that we have no other hope but to trust in him, because at the end of the day, none of us can really be certain. Even those who seldom doubt their salvation do not have 100% certainty (after all, in all faith there is some doubt!). Plus, we have not been given this exclusive information from the Lord. All we have are his promises, an invitation to engage with him as we sit in the uncertainty, and his Spirit active and working in us to enable us to do so.

However you engage with the Lord in the moment, make it specific to your particular situation. But generally, you might pray something like this: “Jesus, I don’t know for sure. This makes me so anxious, and I really want certainty. Help me be okay not knowing. Remind me that you won’t cast out any who come to you. Remind me that you see all, and that you are merciful and kind. Help me go about my responsibilities today without being caught in this cycle of overthinking.”

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