In this article we will talk about a phobia that is not very well known in the clinic, and not very prevalent, although very curious: hamartophobia . It is the phobia of sinning or making mistakes considered “unforgivable” for the person.
We will see how it manifests itself, the causes that can originate it and some therapeutic options for its treatment.
Hamartophobia: what is it?
Hamartophobia is a rather unknown type of phobia: the phobia of sinning . It is a specific phobia, since the object or situation that produces the phobia can be determined (in this case, the action of sinning or making “unforgivable” mistakes).
As such, it is defined as a persistent, abnormal and unjustified fear of committing sin.
Harmamaphobia as a specific phobia could be included in the group of phobias to “other” stimuli, within the DSM classification.
People who suffer from hamartophobia are afraid of making unforgivable mistakes or sinning. The fear of sin often stems from the fact that so-called “divine laws” are written in human language, and therefore, are subject to a constant need for interpretation.
This leads us to think about hermeneutics, the art or theory of interpreting texts, especially sacred scriptures and philosophical and artistic texts. This tradition as a whole is sustained by the lack of concrete and objective evidence that God or the gods really have a plan for human beings, or that the divinities have thought the world from moral and just motives .
The seven deadly sins
According to the first teachings of Christianity, there are seven deadly sins considered as “vices” and transmitted to educate their followers about Christian morality . Thus, hamartogobia could very well include the fear of committing one or more of these seven sins.
Let’s see what they are and what they consist of:
This is the excessive presence of thoughts of a sexual nature, as well as possessive thoughts related to other people, whether they are close or not.
These are destructive behaviours based on abuse, craving and gluttony. It involves excessive eating or drinking , and may include selfishness that affects interpersonal relationships.
It is the apex of selfishness; it consists of the desire to obtain riches, generally material, in order to keep them without sharing anything with others. Greed can also involve spending all the riches at any time without considering anyone.
This sin reflects a person’s inability to realize or accept something. It is based on a lack of maturity, and it often harms other people.
It is related to anger and hatred towards other people; it is an aggressive and dangerous feeling , which can cause irreversible damage such as homicide or murder. It also includes discrimination and sexual abuse.
Envy implies feeling the continuous desire to possess what another has in his power . Sometimes this envy, if intensified, can end up leading to obsessive disorder.
The seventh deadly sin is based on that uncontrollable desire to always try to be or show oneself better than others . It implies believing oneself to be superior on a physical and/or intellectual level, overestimating oneself in an “excessive” or dysfunctional way.
The symptoms of hamartophobia correspond to the symptoms of a specific phobia (defined in the DSM-5), that is, a phobia of a specific stimulus or situation (in this case, the fear of sinning). These symptoms are as follows:
- Accused and persistent fear of sin: this fear is excessive or irrational.
- Anxiety : exposure to the phobic stimulus or situation (sin) causes marked anxiety.
- Avoidance: situations that may induce sin are avoided or endured with much discomfort.
- Interference with normal routine.
- Duration of symptoms minimum 6 months.
The causes of hamartophobia can be diverse. It can appear as a consequence of a rigid religious or moral education , or because of feelings of guilt associated with “impure” acts according to the type of religion, such as sexual relations outside marriage, lying, envy, laziness, pride, anger, etc.
On the other hand, hamartophobia can also arise from classical or operant conditioning (by associating the behavior of sinning with aversive consequences, such as social rejection), or from the appearance of traumatic experiences (direct conditioning).
Other possible causes of hamartophobia are observation (vicarious conditioning) (e.g. seeing someone sinning with very negative consequences, or feeling tremendously guilty, etc.). Also can originate from processes of information conditioning (hearing cases of serious “sins” in other people, for example).
The psychological treatment of hamartophobia should focus on treating a specific phobia; therapeutic options include live exposure (in this case, to situations that can lead to “sinning”, for example lying, hitting, stealing, etc). The aim is to expose the patient to the situation without performing avoidance behaviour. It can be accompanied by relaxation or cognitive-behavioural techniques (e.g. self-instruction).
On the other hand, the exhibition can also be applied in imagination or through virtual reality.
Cognitive behavioural therapy can also be used through cognitive restructuring, with the aim of eliminating the cognitive distortions associated with phobia, as well as dysfunctional beliefs and the meaning attributed to the fact of sinning; that is, reviewing with the patient “what sinning (for him) implies”, “what is considered sin and what is not”, etc.
Once the cognitive distortions have been identified, exercises can be used to replace these beliefs with more realistic alternative thoughts.
On a pharmacological level, anxiolytics (to reduce anxiety) and/or antidepressants can be used to treat the symptoms associated with hamartophobia (depression, malaise, somatic symptoms, etc.), although always in consultation and under the guidance of a specialist (in this case, a psychiatrist or specialist doctor).
- Horse (2002). Manual for the cognitive-behavioral treatment of psychological disorders. Vol. 1 and 2. Madrid. Siglo XXI (Chapters 1-8, 16-18).
- Belloch, A.; Sandin, B. and Ramos, F. (2010). Manual of Psychopathology. Volume I and II. Madrid: McGraw-Hill.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. Fifth edition. DSM-5. Masson, Barcelona.