Education Week: Psychologist details the Spirit and anxiety


Editor’s note: Education Week coverage can be found in this section of the website.

Clinical psychologist Debra Theobald McClendon discusses the relationship between anxiety and the Spirit during an Education Week presentation on Wednesday. McClendon highlighted traits of toxic perfectionism and religious obsessive-compulsive disorder she’s observed working with different clients. (Addie Blacker)

Clinical psychologist Debra Theobald McClendon spoke of the relationship between anxiety and the Spirit during Education Week Wednesday morning.

She highlighted traits of toxic perfectionism and religious obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) she had observed in working with different clients, offering insights to remedy the causes of strife.

The Spirit and anxiety

McClendon discussed God’s use of natural emotions to communicate spiritually with His children, but that anxiety, like other illnesses, can often disrupt the delicate physical senses that assist the Spirit’s receptivity.

“When your anxiety is out of control, it is very difficult to discern the voice of the Spirit,” McClendon said.

McClendon noted that in some cases moderate levels of anxiety can help performance, providing examples of Book of Mormon prophets such as Nephi whose anxiety for the people became an advantage in working diligently to serve them. However, McClendon countered that higher anxiety levels can threaten the ability to serve diligently, using the example of Nephi’s younger brother and fellow prophet Jacob.

McClendon described anxiety as future-oriented, impulsive, fear-based and progressively growing more intense. In contrast, she presented the Spirit as clear and full of hope, focused on the present and offering peace and purpose. Where anxiety clouds judgement and the ability to receive revelation, the Spirit opens and enlightens.

“If you don’t feel any space to ponder, then it’s probably anxiety,” McClendon said.

Toxic perfectionism

Like anxiety, McClendon shared that moderate levels of perfectionism can be a benefit in helping to motivate, set high goals and learn flexibility. However, extreme levels of toxic perfectionism can become a stumbling block to spiritual progress.

McClendon defined toxic perfectionism as constantly needing a perfect solution and stressing over minor mistakes becoming sizable consequences. She stated that one’s personally perceived image of perfection truly doesn’t exist and is rooted in false beliefs stemming from anxiety. Furthermore, an unhealthy crave for perfection rejects the healing power of Christ.

“If you try to perfect yourself, then you don’t need a Savior. You’re denying Christ,” McClendon said.

McClendon used examples from previous General Conference addresses given by President Russell M. Nelson and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland who both described perfection as an eventual destination achieved by continuing effort over time, learning from mistakes and using the Savior’s atonement to receive strength.

“As you repent, the Spirit will help you feel better,” McClendon said.

Religious OCD

McClendon shared her experiences with clients who had let OCD, which McClendon defined as “destructive anxiety,” damage their personal view of God as a “scary dictator”. Responding to claims from those who blame the Church for causing their emotional issues, McClendon stated that OCD materializes internally, not from the outside.

“Research does not show that religion causes OCD, but OCD does often attach to the things most important to us,” McClendon said.

Scrupulosity, where anxiety forcibly enters personal worship to plant toxic guilt, is sometimes mistaken to be a chastening from God, to which McClendon wholeheartedly refuted.

“I have a strong testimony that the Spirit of truth does not bully us; the Spirit does not use Satan’s tactics against us,” McClendon said.

McClendon would label religious OCD and scrupulosity as opposites of faith, going against the idea of pure religion that Christ had taught. While scrupulosity is condemning, critical, overwhelming and demanding, the principles of Christ’s gospel are uplifting, loving, hopeful and forgiving.

“Pure religion is personal and eternal progress,” McClendon said.

McClendon closed with her testimony of the Atonement and its ability to enable, offer peace and see an eternal perspective.

“I can be worthy while not being perfect,” McClendon said. “Christ is my Savior and His atonement applies to me personally.”

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