Desperate People Do Desperate Things

ICSA Today, Vol. 13, No. 3, 2022, 2-7

Desperate People Do Desperate Things

By Katherine M. Schneider

I am a terrible person. Most people who know me would (hopefully) disagree with this statement, but I have spent my life convinced of its truth. It originated, seemingly out of nowhere, when I was about eight years old, and I was convinced of its certainty from then on. It explained why I was bullied and outcasted, and constantly felt sad, when everyone around me seemed happy. The pain I felt was at least explained by the idea that I was terrible and there was something very wrong with me that everyone else could see. Though the explanation was sad and unfixable, it provided a greater sense of understanding, and thus control, than having to accept that I just did not fit in with my peers and had an unfortunate predisposition for depression and anxiety. Any explanation was better than none.

My belief in my wrongness was not a passing thought—it was an all-consuming, paralyzing obsession. I did everything I could to change it, but something in my head perpetually told me that there was something wrong within me, and no matter what I did, I could never overcome it. The wrongness made me fundamentally unlovable and unworthy of happiness. 

My desperation to cure the wrongness I felt within me led to joining The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints

My desperation to cure the wrongness I felt within me led me down many paths, including one that led to joining The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (colloquially known as Mormonism or the LDS Church). Church members always seemed inexplicably happy, and this drew me to them. I wanted to know the secret to their happiness, and the missionaries smiled as they told me that all I had to do was join this church and follow its rules. They taught me that baptism into the church would cleanse me entirely, and I was sure this meant that the wrongness within me would be washed away. I would be made pure, and I too could be happy.

The church provided a checklist to ensure I was a good enough person

Unfortunately, the wrongness seemed to remain within me, even after baptism. However, the church provided new explanations for when the wrongness waxed or waned and a literal checklist that allowed me to tick the boxes to ensure I was a good enough person, worthy of love. When the wrongness felt stronger, I had authorities ordained by God to direct me on how to fix myself and find redemption. 

The church continually emphasizes the importance of the temple, a special building of utmost sanctity and utilized for high ceremonies, as distinct from the LDS meetinghouses where regular weekly services are held. LDS doctrine states that only by attending the temple can one find salvation and the happiness it is promised to bring. To enter the temple, one must be deemed worthy to be issued a temple recommend (essentially, an official pass) based on an interview during which local leaders ask questions from the official church manual. These questions, which are presented repeatedly to all church members over the age of twelve, form a checklist of ways to ensure one is good enough to achieve the joy the temple promises (“Church Updates Temple Recommend,” 2019).

The Book of Mormon, a scriptural record key to the LDS Faith, emphasizes the danger of discord and dissent amongst its members (3 Nephi 11:28-30), a lesson the church’s highest authorities constantly emphasize and local leadership re-enforce. Nine of the fifteen sets of questions on the church’s worthiness checklist center around obeying the church’s rules and leadership (“Church Updates Temple Recommend”, 2019).  This article’s list of the worthiness questions includes1:

·         Do you sustain the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the prophet, seer, and revelator and as the only person on the earth authorized to exercise all priesthood keys? Do you sustain the members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as prophets, seers, and revelators? Do you sustain the other General Authorities and local leaders of the Church?

·         The Lord has said that all things are to be “done in cleanliness” before Him (Doctrine and Covenants 42:41). Do you strive for moral cleanliness in your thoughts and behavior? Do you obey the law of chastity?

·         Do you follow the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ in your private and public behavior with members of your family and others?

·         Do you support or promote any teachings, practices, or doctrine contrary to those of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

·         Do you strive to keep the Sabbath day holy, both at home and at church; attend your meetings; prepare for and worthily partake of the sacrament; and live your life in harmony with the laws and commandments of the gospel?

·         Do you strive to be honest in all that you do?

·         Are you a full-tithe payer?...

·         Are there serious sins in your life that need to be resolved with priesthood authorities as part of your repentance?

Unquestioning obedience was emphasized, in hymns, words, and actions, to those in authority, including local leadership and those in higher ranks, regardless of one’s personal beliefs. This included supporting a political position, volunteering one’s time whenever asked, abstaining from coffee and R-rated movies, and the sacrifice of whatever was asked of you.  When a calling (volunteer role within the church) was extended by someone in authority, the very clear expectation was that it would be accepted no matter what the personal or emotional cost for the individual. Expressing opinions contrary to the church’s teachings was taboo, and, on two occasions, each in different congregations, I witnessed people being removed from Sunday School classes expressing views that were deemed unacceptable.

If someone was offended by something said by someone in a position of authority within the LDS Church, the person offended was deemed “ridiculous” (Stephens, 2013) by both church members and authorities, and it was the offended person’s obligation to forgive, regardless of the offense. When I struggled to accept the LDS Church’s firm opposition to gay marriage, I was told I was not in line with the church leaders and was displaying sinful levels of hubris. My difficulty accepting that my gender excluded me from the priesthood was deemed rebellious, and I was chastised by leaders and members alike for lacking faith.

A full tithe (ten percent of one’s gross income) was expected and was an absolute requirement for entering the temple, regardless of the financial strain it put on whoever was writing the check. You may not enter the temple without writing that check, and LDS doctrine is clear that you cannot enter the highest degrees of exaltation without the temple. Though no bank statements were ever collected or scrutinized to confirm that someone was paying a full tithe, messages were frequently delivered from the pulpit chastising anyone who gave less than a full ten percent of their gross income, and there were frequent implications that this act of disobedience could lead to punishments from God.

As many who have experienced life in a high-control group can attest, obedience is difficult to define or measure. One can always be doing more, or else risk not being obedient enough. I might fulfill a calling I loathed, but if I was not doing so with the right attitude, or if I was unwilling to sacrifice sleep for the sake of the calling, or if I was frustrated with all that was being asked of me, God would not approve, and I would be subject to reproach by some church authority. I might be praying regularly, but if I was not praying the right way, or with the right attitude, or in the right place at the right time, it was my fault that my prayer would not be answered. There was always more I could be doing, another way I could be serving, another selfish desire I had failed to sacrifice for the sake of the Lord’s work. Such messages were regularly delivered during Sunday services and from the larger platform of the church’s general leadership. LDS doctrine states that its leaders have stronger connections to God, granting them the authority to speak in his name.

The only way I could absolve myself was to do more and be obedient.

In my mind, the only way I could absolve myself of the wrongness that plagued me was to do more and be obedient. I was perpetually exhausted and stressed but slowing down was seen as selfish. I was told to pray for strength when I felt desperate for rest. When I was frustrated with policies or decisions made and handed down by those in authority, I was met with confusion and frustration.

My bishop (leader of the local LDS congregation, similar to a pastor in a Protestant church) expressed concerns about my rebellious spirit and how I was influenced by worldly ideas instead of by God’s anointed.  Other church members questioned my devotion when I expressed doubts or questions.  I was even dubbed a dangerous apostate by one fellow church member after I expressed my insistence on thinking for myself. Though I laughed aloud at such comments, inwardly, my self-loathing grew stronger as I became increasingly frustrated with my inability to do as I was told and silence my doubts. Surely, I, a woman filled with a wrongness that made her unlovable and perpetually depressed, was in no position to question men ordained by God!

For seven years, I tried to go along with whatever was necessary to achieve the peace and joy the LDS Church promised. When the promised joy or blessings did not follow, I was sure that it was due to the wrongness inside of me seeping through. My rebellion and inability to bite my tongue were further proof of how bad and unlovable I was. I tried everything to compensate, through greater diligence, loyalty, and obedience, but nothing I did was ever enough. The wrongness always won.

I completed the checklist. I ticked all the boxes. I was granted my temple recommend by those in authority over me, and I hoped the temple would unlock the path to happiness that I had always seemed blocked from. The temple was supposed to be the foundation of the church, the most sacred place on Earth, a place that would bring me as close to God as it was possible for a living person to be (“Houses of the Lord,” 2010). I clung to the hope that this closeness would absolve me of my wrongness.

To my shock and disappointment, I did not enjoy the temple. I quickly came to hate it. I did not understand how other people felt such love for it or found peace within its walls. Again, I was sure it was a failure on my part, as I seemed to be the only one who felt this way.  I visited the temple as frequently as I could, in hopes of feeling the magic this place was supposed to offer. Instead, I felt frustrated, confused, and bored. The only relief I ever experienced in the temple came when I accidentally fell asleep and took a brief nap.

I had been taught that the temple would be where I would learn the answers to all of my existential questions, and I would be able to understand my worth as a child of God (Hinckley, 2010). I sat in temple services and wondered when I would get to the part where such learning would take place. I volunteered to clean the temple after it had closed for the evening, in hopes I might discover the room I had not yet been through, where I would gain the answers I was promised. I never found such a room, or any desperately sought answer, no matter how many times I attended the temple, or how well I vacuumed it.

I did not love the temple, and the only reason I could find for this was that God did not love me. Other people might have rebellious spirits, or have things wrong with them, but every other Mormon seemed happy. Every other member of the LDS Church seemed to find peace in the temple and to feel uplifted in church; to find answers to prayers and feel comfort in their souls, as we were promised we would be if we were obedient (Monson, 2013).  It seemed I was the only person who did not. I had joined the church after having been promised it would give me a place to belong and a connection to God that would assure me of His love. I was told Jesus could make my sins “white as snow” (“Elder Neil L. Andersen: Repent,” 2009; and yet, I felt the wrongness lurking within me, like a cancer on my soul.

During my seven-year tenure as a devout Latter-Day Saint, I did all I could to be a good Mormon girl and hide or disguise the wrongness in me.  There was rarely a day that I did not have something church-related to attend to. I cleaned the church buildings, held multiple callings, paid a full tithe, gave up my love of tea, attended the temple, fasted regularly, signed up for every service project, served homemade meals to the missionaries, studied scriptures daily, had a very popular Mormon blog, prayed many times each day, and, yes, I wore the special Mormon underwear. When I did not want to do one of these tasks, I was sure it was Satan attacking me, exploiting the wrongness within me, luring me to disobey the church and anger God.  I would push the wrongness, Satan, my emotions, and doubts aside, as I dove deeper into my church service. I held fast to the hope that if I worked harder and were more obedient to church leaders and commandments, I could finally absolve myself of the wrongness I felt inside.

LDS policies against LGBTQ+ people made me realize how much of myself I had hidden

The pressure to tick all the boxes to be deemed worthy and keep every commandment was immense. I had daily panic attacks and frequently contemplated leaving the church, but the promise of a path to being lovable kept me from straying too far. However, in 2015, the LDS Church announced several policies that were openly discriminatory against LGBTQ+ people (Weaver, 2015). In addition to being infuriating, these policies also made me realize that no one would ever be good enough within the LDS Church. Mormon policies and doctrine condemned people for who they are and for failing to reach the unattainable standards set by the LDS Church.

My mind had long convinced me that there was something wrong with me, but the policies the LDS Church enacted in 2015 began my realization that Mormon doctrine and culture were designed to cast all but an extremely select group of (cisgendered, heterosexual, male) people as fundamentally inadequate. The LDS Church has long taught that sex is only acceptable between a married couple. However, the 2015 policies made marriage between people of the same gender a sin worthy of excommunication. D. Todd Christofferson, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles within the LDS Church (one of the highest positions in the entire church), called same-sex marriages “wrong” and a “serious kind of sin” (Weaver, 2015). Anyone who was in a same-sex relationship would be barred from the temple, serving in a calling, or participating in sacred ordinances (Weaver, 2015).  I was appalled at the thought that a gay person would be told they and their children had no path to God, and no place within the LDS Church, unless they renounced the most fundamental parts of themselves. This was completely in contradiction to what I believed about God, love, and humanity. This was not a path to God I wanted to be on.

In recognizing the hypocrisy and discrimination the LDS Church was showing towards LGBTQ+ people, I realized how much of myself I had hidden since joining the church. I had forced myself to keep quiet about things I felt were wrong, and my self-loathing had intensified as I struggled to quiet doubts and questions that were not acceptable within the LDS Church or its culture. I still felt the wrongness within me, but I was finally ready to stop trying to purge it from myself. Perhaps I was perpetually unlovable, but I was willing to accept this, if doing so allowed me to have my life and my mind back within my own control.

I came to understand the wrongness I felt through a psychotherapy training about scrupulosity OCD

I had attained my master’s degree in social work while still an active member of the LDS Church. I joked that I had chosen this career because it allowed me to help people for a living. In truth, I had hoped that having a career helping others would allow me to further hide the terribleness within me. It took me a long time, and a lot of psychotherapy, to process all that led me to join the LDS Church, remain for so long, and eventually leave. I had been labeled as anxious since I was a young child, but it was only as I attended psychotherapy that I truly understood what this meant and how it had affected my life. I recognized how my anxiety had manifested in self-loathing, and this had led to my belief that there was something fundamentally wrong with me that caused me to be unlovable. This new understanding led me to reconsider nearly every aspect of my relationship to the world around me. It was an overwhelming, terrifying, and beautifully freeing process.

My passion for helping others continued, but I found different ways of channeling this passion that best suited me. I wanted to help others struggling to find peace within their own minds. I pursued my clinical social work licensure and pursued further education to become a psychotherapist myself.

I inadvertently came to understand the wrongness I had felt within myself in a new way during a training I attended. Dr. Edna Foa and her colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania presented a brief course on obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and its many subtypes. To my surprise, I recognized myself in the course materials.  What I had deemed to be wrongness was an obsession about being a terrible person, unworthy of love or belonging. High-control groups so often promise to fill voids or vulnerabilities we feel in our lives or in ourselves. For me, religion had given me compulsions to soothe the intolerable anxiety that my obsession with being a bad person caused (Foa & Franklin, 2001). I had been a licensed mental health professional for six years, and this was the first time I had ever heard of scrupulosity OCD.

Scrupulosity is a term used to describe a specific manifestation of OCD. in which the person becomes overwhelmed (obsessed) by near constant thoughts about right and wrong or being a good person or a bad person. It is often, but not always, associated with religion:

...scrupulosity is best regarded as a pattern of beliefs and behaviors associated with excessive worry about having committed a sin or engaging in immoral acts. Concern may focus either on thoughts or actions already taken or the possibility of committing sins in the future. This results in significant emotional distress, guilt, and despair. (Seay, 2012)

This obsession leads the person to engage in specific behaviors (compulsions) that they hope will help to prove or solidify their goodness. Depending on the person, the compulsive behaviors can take the form of excessive confessing, hours of praying each day, or fixating on details of specific rituals. They may seem to be the only way the person can find relief from the anxiety their obsession produces (Hershfield, 2018). Ultimately, the relief derived from the compulsion is short-lived. As a defining feature of OCD, the obsessive thoughts will return, and the person will again be tormented by the anxiety until they perform the compulsion perfectly. This is the never-ending cycle that plagues those with OCD (Foa, 2010).

As I write this, I am worried I have not sufficiently explained scrupulosity OCD. I fear that those who read it will not understand or will think I have intentionally confused them. My anxiety tells me this will lead to people thinking I am stupid and a bad therapist. All my colleagues will lose respect for me and I will lose everything I have worked for. My anxiety is screaming at me to go back and fix the preceding paragraph. Surely, this is the only way I can avoid the demise of my career. If I were to go back, I would inevitably find more things to fix. This article would never be finished. I take a breath and remind myself to move on. My war against anxiety may never be over, but it is getting easier to win the battles, and I am learning to be okay with that.

High control-groups offer a mirage of relief from anxiety

In retrospect, both as a person who has been treated for OCD, and as a clinician trained to understand and treat the disorder in others, I see that the comfort I sought in diving deeper into my LDS orthodoxy was actually the spurious reassurance that compulsions often give those plagued by obsessions. The relief I was seeking was not God’s confirmation that I was doing enough to overcome the wrongness; it was the temporary relief of anxiety that compulsions provide. It is the same relief I find in locking the door three times to ensure it is truly locked.

Locking the door multiple times is a somewhat stereotypical compulsive behavior associated with OCD (Ladouceur, 1996). For those with scrupulosity OCD, specifically in regard to religion, obeying commandments, following authorities, and doing whatever may be necessary to be good are equally enticing and necessary compulsions. Failing to do so can cause tremendous distress and diminished functioning (Greenberg, 2010).

While I was Mormon, I did not understand my anxiety.  I only knew the desperation I felt to soothe it. People outside of the LDS Church told me it did not make sense that I was pinching every penny so I could ensure I was paying a full ten percent of my income to the LDS Church each month. It also does not make sense that I was filled with crippling anxiety if someone did not smile at me at church, and this would cause me to become convinced that they, and every other person in the world, hated me. Anxiety does not make sense. It does not care about logic. When anxiety takes hold, all that matters is finding relief.

High-demand religious groups often promise relief from anxiety in the form of everlasting peace. I would sing hymns such as “Be Still My Soul” and cling to the hope that I could feel such stillness in my soul.2 Church leaders would tell me peace was possible if I prayed more, followed commandments more obediently, and did all I was told to do. When such peace eluded me, it was always my fault. In reflecting on this now, I see how a high-control group such as the LDS Church presents a mirage of relief from anguish that is tantalizing to those desperately seeking it. High-control groups seem to offer answers and clear paths. When the group then fails to deliver on such promises, it is easy to place the blame on the person who is seeking. The person perpetually feels close to attaining the comfort they seek, and so they are willing to do yet another thing, in hopes this might bring them to their goal.

Not everyone who joins a cult or high-control group has OCD, or even anxiety. My theory, however, is that those who find their way into such groups are often searching for something. Whether the something they are seeking is a place to belong, a safe haven, a reason for hope, a friend, or an infinite number of other things humans naturally seek, high-control groups may offer answers or relief when nothing else does. Just as a starving person will eat from the garbage, one who is desperate for safety from the world or from their own mind will seek refuge wherever it is offered, even if that place depletes them in other ways.

I did not seek out the LDS church so that I could lose my identity or feel consumed by shame; I joined a community that promised relief from the anxiety I had been tortured by since I was eight-years-old. I was desperate, and desperate people do desperate things.


[1] For the full list of the temple recommend questions which were modified and updated in 2021, see this article:

[2] The famous Christian hymn “Be Still, My Soul” was published in German in 1752 by Katharina Von Schlegel and translated into English by Jane Borthwick.


Church updates temple recommend interview questions. (2019, October 6). Newsroom: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Elder Neil L. Andersen: Repent … that I may heal you. (2009, October 3). Deseret News.

Foa, E. B. (2010). Cognitive behavioral therapy of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 12(2), 199–207.

Foa, E. B., & Franklin, M. E. (2001). Obsessive-compulsive disorder. In D. H. Barlow (Ed.), Clinical handbook of psychological disorders: A step-by-step treatment manual (pp. 209–263). The Guilford Press.

Greenberg, D., & Huppert, J. D. (2010). Scrupulosity: a unique subtype of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Current psychiatry reports, 12(4), 282–289.

Hershfield, J. (2018, July 1). Moral scrupulosity OCD: Part one. Sheppard Pratt.

Hinckley, G.B. (2010, October). Why these temples. Ensign, 40(10), 25-32.

Houses of the Lord (photo essay). (2010, October). Ensign, 40(10), 12-19.

Ladouceur, R., Freeston, M., & Gagnon, F. (1996). Obsessive-compulsive disorder. Diagnosis and management. Canadian family physician, 42, 1169–1178.

Monson, T.S. (2013, April 7). Obedience brings blessings.

Priesthood (doctrinal study). (n.d.).

Seay, S. J. (2012, February 8). Scrupulosity.

Stephens, C. M. (2013, October 5). We have great reason to rejoice.

Weaver, S. J. (2015, November 12). Elder Christofferson provides context on handbook changes affecting same-sex marriages. The Church News.

About the Author

Katherine (“Kat”) Schneider, LCSW, is a clinical social worker, licensed in PA, NY, AZ, and UT. After graduating with her MSW from NYU, Kat worked in New York City’s child welfare system for many years. She later moved to Philadelphia, where she now lives and runs a private psychotherapy practice helping people struggling with anxiety and individuals leaving high-control groups. She also provides education and consultation services to help others understand the impacts of high-control groups. She enjoys writing, hiking, and going on adventures with her ridiculously cute dog.