OCD and Social Scrupulosity

I had never even heard of social scrupulosity before, so at the International OCD Conference last week, I decided to attend a session on the subject. I had always associated scrupulosity in OCD with unreasonable religious expectations of one’s self. It turns out that scrupulosity can refer to unreasonable expectations of one’s self in various realms. Social Scrupulosity exists when the sufferer has an obsessive fear of harming the feelings of  others. This is extremely distressing and can interfere greatly with daily life.

I immediately thought of my son Dan. When his OCD became severe in college, he totally isolated himself from his friends. I’ve talked about his sense of  hyper-responsibility , and the way I understand it, social scrupulosity is a type of hyper-responsibility. Those with social scrupulosity may believe that giving their opinion, negotiating, or being assertive in any way, will bring harm to others. In Dan’s case, one of the ways he dealt with his social scrupulosity was through avoidance of his friends. By avoiding them, he wouldn’t have to deal with the anxiety and fear of saying the wrong thing, or of expressing the wrong thoughts. Other common ways of dealing with social scrupulosity include engaging in compulsions such as constantly apologizing for saying something wrong or “checking” to make sure the person you think you may be harming is okay. Those with social scrupulosity may become extremely inhibited: never asking for help or voicing concerns. Indeed they often will not express themselves in any way.

As I’ve written before, the thoughts and behaviors of those with OCD are often no different from those who do not have the disorder. It is the severity that sets them apart. I can easily relate to social scrupulosity, and while sitting in the seminar, it didn’t take me long to think of an example. The evening before, I had taken a shuttle from the airport to the hotel. The air-conditioning was on full force and blowing right on me. I was freezing. But I didn’t say a word. I associated being assertive in this situation as a negative thing.  What if everyone else was comfortable? I didn’t want to ruin the ride for the other passengers. As it turns out, somebody else eventually asked the driver to warm things up a bit, and of course, nobody was offended. My guess is, they were all as pleased as I was. Of course this example is on the mild end of the social scrupulosity continuum, and had more to do with not being assertive than anything else.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can help those with OCD who deal with social scrupulosity. It can also help those of us who don’t have OCD but struggle with assertiveness. I learned a lot in this session, and can’t wait for next year’s conference in Atlanta. I’m already planning on asking for a temperature adjustment on the van ride from the airport.

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13 Responses to OCD and Social Scrupulosity

  1. 71º & Sunny says:

    How funny! I just posted (like at almost the exact same time) about religious scrupulosity. Ha – I guess our timing is right on with each other again!!

    I do remember having problems with social scrupulosity. Along with everything else with my OCD, that has improved as well. However, I remember the angst of always wondering if I upset someone or if they were angry with me. Not fun. Eventually, you start stifling your opinions because you are afraid to cause problems. Then you go home and re-check everything you said to make sure you weren’t offensive. I totally get why Dan pulled back from people. It’s just too exhausting otherwise.

  2. ocdtalk says:

    Sunny, yeah no doubt you totally get it. Dan would review every word of conversation he had in his head…..I’m pretty sure about that.
    So I guess this is “scrupulosity week.” I’m going to read your post when I have a bit more time….you always have something so meaningful to say. Have a great weekend!

  3. krystallynn says:

    I have had a few bouts of that. When I was a teenager I watched a girl steal my hat and scarf at the ice skating rink and even though I loved my scarf/hat, I let her do it because I didn’t want to make a scene or accuse her of stealing. The other time was when a close friend of mine didn’t reply to an email and I spent a week going over conversations thinking I’d said something to make her angry and here here she was moving her mom into a nursing home and was just super busy. I never realized this was an OCD thing..but I am going to guess since I spent so much time agonizing over it, it probably was.

    • Janet Singer says:

      Hi Krystallynn, Wow, what a story about your hat/scarf. I certainly would not let something like that happen now, but I could imagine acting that way when I was younger. I guess social scrupulosity isn’t limited to those with OCD, but again, it is more severe for those that suffer from OCD…..thank you for sharing!

  4. Thanks for filling us in on this topic… There were so many good lectures at the OCD conference it was hard to choose and I missed the one about social scrupulosity.

  5. Brooke says:

    Hey! I was in that session! We probably saw each other! You probably don’t remember but I was the one who made the comment about trying not to be the “world’s condom” since my social scrupulosity is very much tied to contamination fears. Hopefully we can meet in Atlanta next time!

    • Janet Singer says:

      Hi Brooke, I do remember that comment but I was sitting near the front and didn’t turn around. I guess we were very close to meeting one another. Yes, definitely in Atlanta!

  6. Tina Barbour says:

    I had never heard of social scrupulosity, so this was very informative and helpful for me. Not wanting to give my opinion, not wanting to make a scene, wondering if I’ve hurt someone’s feelings and obsessing over it–yep, I recognize it all too well.

  7. Janet Singer says:

    Thanks for commenting, TIna. Yes, social scrupulosity seems to cover a lot of ground…..as you know!

  8. laurenc129 says:

    I had always related it to a religious context as well. I’m glad you wrote this! Because that is a very true statement. And something so many of us do simply in general. Now I’m going to research it more! Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  9. As the presenter of the workshop on Social Scrupulosity at OCF I am delighted to see that this concept is resonating with those of you who wrote in (great examples!). People with this problem assume that bringing up a difficult topic or addressing a problem is potentially hurtful or insulting to the other person. However, the reality is that being assertive can actually BENEFIT others as well as oneself IF it is done in a caring and skillful manner. The handouts from my presentation are available from OCF–I just spotted them on google. Also, my book, “The Guide to Compassionate Assertiveness, How to Express Your Needs and Deal With Conflict While Keeping a Kind Heart,” was partly written to help people with social scrupulosity. The term, which I believe I coined, is described on p. 2 of the book. I wish all the best to those of you struggle with social scrupulosity, and hope that the slides from my talk–and/or my book–will be useful to you.

    All the best,
    Sherrie Vavrichek, LCSW-C
    Senior Clinician at the Behavior Therapy Center of Greater Washington, Silver Spring, MD

  10. Great to hear from you, Sherrie, and thanks for commenting. As you can tell from this post, I learned a lot in your workshop. Thanks for your insights and resource information!

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