This irrational and obsessive form of perfectionism can lead to paralyzing inaction and numerous stress-related health problems, but it can be treated.
By Lesley Vos
What is your biggest irrational fear?
For many, it’s the fear of snakes, spiders, heights, or closed spaces.
But for others, their greatest fear is not being perfect.
If you are constantly stressed by the pursuit of perfection or find your perfectionism to be paralyzing, you may have atelophobia.
Learn how this extreme form of perfectionism can diminish your life and health, and what you can do about it.
What Is Atelophobia?
Atelophobia is defined as the morbid fear of imperfection in oneself. (1)
The word atelophobia is derived from the Greek words atelès which means “imperfect” or “incomplete” and phóbos which means “fear” or “panic.”
Atelophobia, like other phobias, is an anxiety disorder.
People with this disorder are called atelophobes.
Atelophobes suffer from the fear of not being good enough and often feel that everything they do is wrong.
Atelophobia occurs when a person’s perceived expectations do not match reality.
People who develop atelophobia are often highly intelligent and capable. (2)
Talented, but paralyzed with fear of failure, atelophobes are terrified of making mistakes.
As a result, they choose to give up tasks, not compete with others, and avoid challenges.
How Atelophobia Differs From Most Other Phobias
All phobias are extreme irrational fears, but the nature of atelophobia’s stimulus makes it different than most other phobias.
While external objects (like spiders or snakes) or situations (like heights or crowds) trigger anxiety in most other phobias, the trigger for atelophobia comes from within.
A person’s own judgment about themselves is the stimulus for atelophobia.
Avoidance is a common coping strategy for people with phobias. (3)
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For example, let’s say you have arachnophobia, a phobia of spiders.
You know that you can largely avoid an anxiety response by simply avoiding spiders.
But when your phobia is of an opinion you have about yourself — of not being good enough — you can’t get away it.
And you can’t predict when you will have an anxious reaction to your perceived flaws.
Atelophobia can be challenging to diagnose and is often mistaken for perfectionism (a personality trait) or labeled as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). (4)
Unfortunately, atelophobes will rarely consider that their symptoms are signs of a phobia and often do not seek treatment.
Symptoms of Atelophobia
There are many psychological symptoms of atelophobia — avoidance behavior, feelings of powerlessness, extreme anxiety and dread, fear of losing control, lack of focus, and more. (5)
Physical symptoms include sweating, elevated heart rate, headaches, muscle tension, nausea, shaking, and dry mouth.
Other signs you might be prone to atelophobia include:
Terrible fear of flaws
Though many people are afraid of making mistakes, there’s a big difference between getting nervous before a significant event and skipping it entirely in panic.
The extent of your reaction to possible flaws is what matters.
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Though self-criticism is normal, enormous self-imposed demands and constantly looking for mistakes may be a signal of your fear of being imperfect. (6)
Your motto is: “I’d rather do nothing than do it wrong.”
As long as that is the case, problems at work and issues with your overall well-being will be hard to avoid.
Escape from everyday tasks
Is it challenging to make phone calls, write an email, or talk to others?
Do you avoid cleaning your house because you know it won’t meet your high standards?
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The Difference Between Atelophobia and Perfectionism
Atelophobia sounds a lot of perfectionism — but is it the same thing?
There is a core difference between perfectionism and atelophobia.
Yes, atelophobes often make perfection their goal and fail to reach it because nothing is perfect enough for them.
But atelophobia is more than just holding yourself to high standards.
It’s a specific phobia that’s paralyzing rather than motivating.
Unlike perfectionists who respond to anxiety by working harder and accomplishing more, atelophobes choose inaction to avoid possible failures.
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Perfectionism also often manifests as a desire for achievement and personal success.
Atelophobia has no such upside.
Causes of Atelophobia
No one knows the real cause of atelophobia.
There may be a genetic propensity or it may stem from a traumatic event.
But in most cases, it is a learned response that starts in childhood or adolescence.
Demanding parents requiring perfection and rigid teachers encouraging the highest grades can become core triggers for future mental disorders, including the fear of not being good enough. (9)
When kids or teens can’t meet unrealistically high parental expectations, they often end up experiencing depression, fear of failure, and apathy instead.
Another cause of atelophobia may be human nature.
Overly sensitive people may take it hard when they compete and fail.
Negative comments and harsh criticism dishearten them and can lead to a complete loss of confidence. (10)
Their natural tendency to worry makes such individuals more prone to atelophobia.
Some people may develop atelophobia by constantly comparing themselves with others.
This is particularly common among entrepreneurs who are successful by most measures, but strive to be the next Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg. (11)
To paraphrase social psychologist Dr. Leon Festinger, a renowned expert in social comparison theory, the desire to compare ourselves to others is as powerful as thirst or hunger, but is almost always discouraging because there will always be someone better than you. (12)
The Damaging Health Effects of Seeking Extreme Perfection
Seeking extreme perfection can lead to numerous stress-related physical health problems. (13)
They include, but are not limited to:
- Headaches — Stress triggers and intensifies the tension in your mind.
- Heart attacks — Stress increases blood pressure, damaging your arteries.
- Skin problems — Stress releases chemicals that lead to dehydration, flushes, rosacea, or eczema. (14)
- Weakened immune system — Constant worries about not being good enough are proven to break down the immune system. (15)
- Breathing problems — Anxiety causes muscle tension that leads to shortness of breath.
- Diminished sex drive — Stress affects sex hormone levels in both men and women. (16)
- Teeth and gum problems — Stress can cause nervous tics, teeth grinding and, thus, jaw pain and damage. (17)
The constant stress of seeking irrational perfection can even lead to long-term disability. (18)
Apart from physical health, this kind of perfectionism destroys productivity.
Case studies of talented painters have shown that they give up or hide their work because they consider their paintings not perfect enough.
Remaking them over and over again, these artists are never satisfied; as a result, they don’t complete anything. (19)
How to Overcome the Fear of Not Being Good Enough
If you show the signs of atelophobia, you should consider professional advice.
As is the case with other specific phobias, the first line of treatment for atelophobia is psychotherapy.
By focusing on relaxation and helping a patient understand how to allow imperfection, psychotherapy can help overcome the phobia. (20)
Two specific types of psychotherapy are thought to be effective for atelophobia.
Exposure therapy forces patients to confront their fears in order to overcome their anxiety.
With repeated exposure to triggers that fail to produce the expected stressful reaction, the mind eventually adapts and stops reacting adversely.
Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) seeks to modify negative thought patterns in order to change moods and behaviors.
A combination of cognitive and behavioral therapies, CBT focuses on thoughts as well as actions and behaviors.
It identifies life situations that might have led to the phobia and provides constructive strategies to deal with them.
CBT requires 10–20 sessions to achieve results.
Other treatments for atelophobia include group therapy, meditation, hypnotherapy, and energy psychology.
Sometimes, anti-anxiety medication is also prescribed. (21)
All these types of atelophobia treatment complement each other and work best when used together.
Atelophobia: The Bottom Line
Fear is a natural reaction of the brain to unknown, suspicious, and stressful situations.
But when it becomes irrational, fear can turn into phobias that have a negative impact on professional and personal life, health, and overall well-being.
One of these phobias is atelophobia, the fear of being imperfect.
Atelophobia prevents you from taking action, ruins productivity, weakens your physical health, and impairs your ability to interact with others.
Treatments such as psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, meditation, and medication can help to manage and overcome atelophobia.
About the author
Lesley Vos is a writer and content strategist at PlagiarismCheck.org, a web-based service allowing students, educators, and everyone who writes to create original and plagiarism-free content. She is a regular contributor to many publications on productivity, career, and self-development. Feel free to contact Lesley on Twitter and see more of her work there.