What is harder to handle than failure? The fear of failure.
We have all experienced it to some degree or in some form – performance anxiety, fear of judgment, or avoiding intense relationships.
This fear of failure stems from the unrealistic belief that anything less than perfection or success is unacceptable. In the spectrum of this dysfunction – Atelophobia is the full-blown manifestation.
So, what is Atelophobia?
Think of it this way.
We all have some expression of fear in our personalities – fear of failing judgment, ridicule, and rejection that stops us from pursuing relationships, asking for a raise, trying for a new job, and the like.
However, when you have Atelophobia, your strive towards perfection can become obsessive and irrational, and even paralyze you.
Atelophobia is a Greek word that can be broken down to reveal its meaning – the Greek word ‘atelo’ – means imperfection, and ‘phobia’ – means fear.
But, atelophobia isn’t merely a fear of being unable to attain perfection, and there’s a fine line between the two.
“Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.”
While perfectionism isn’t always unhealthy, atelophobia is considered to be a mental illness (a kind of anxiety disorder) that requires special attention and treatment.
The commonalities between Atelophobia and perfectionism makes the diagnosis of Atelophobia difficult. Just because someone is afraid of being imperfect doesn’t necessarily mean they have Atelophobia. It becomes a problem when it develops into an avoidance behavior and starts causing them a significant amount of emotional distress.
So, how do you understand if something’s wrong? You lookout for the common signs and symptoms associated with this phobia.
Symptoms of Atelophobia
An extreme fear of failure characterizes Atelophobia. Everything less than perfect is tagged as a failure. A person with such a belief system starts avoiding unknown situations and becomes incapable of using their real skills and abilities. They are unable to acknowledge the strengths that make them unique.
Physical Symptoms of Atelophobia
The symptoms of Atelophobia and both mental as well as physical. Let’s start by looking at the physical symptoms first. Some of them are –
- Dizziness or nausea
- Increased perspiration and hyperventilation (due to severe stress)
- Panic attacks
- Oral and skin problems
- Losing sex drive
- Increased muscle tension
- Extreme restlessness
- Increased irritability and sense sensitivity
- Heart issues
- Sleep problems or insomnia
A lot of these symptoms are similar to those associated with an anxiety disorder. So, what exactly sets apart atelophobia from an anxiety disorder?
The difference lies in the root cause behind these symptoms. Those who have atelophobia have associated mental and emotional symptoms that stem from an attitude that says- either I will do it well or not do it at all.
To understand Atelophobia better, let’s have a look at the associated emotional and mental symptoms.
Emotional And Mental Symptoms of Atelophobia
It’s possible to diagnose Atelophobia by paying close attention to how someone functions. Constant worrying, not accepting the challenges, always wanting to run away from the situations, and experiencing a high level of emotions like anger, sadness, jealousy, and hurt – are some of the symptoms associated with Atelophobia.
Let’s look at them one by one.
1. Being terrified of flaws
While it’s okay to be nervous before an important event, someone suffering from Atelophobia experiences such an intense phobia that in their head, it translates to – ‘If I do this, I might die.’
They have unusually strong responses to thoughts about imperfection.
2. Having an avoidance behavior
Someone who has Atelophobia will go to any extent to avoid a situation where they sense a probability of failure or not being good enough.
Slowly, this avoidance behavior becomes a part of their personality.
3. Setting impossible standards
Those who have Atelophobia set such high standards for themselves that it’s almost impossible to meet them. This can result in difficulty in functioning at workplaces and in general.
They become highly critical of their own work and are always looking for mistakes.
4. They’d rather do nothing than do something incorrectly
Those who suffer from Atelophobia become their enemy by being extremely over-critical about themselves, leading to severe difficulty in functioning.
They stop taking action because anything that falls short from perfect is wrong as per their prescribed standard. For them, perfectionism becomes the biggest enemy of performance, and the fear of failure cripples them.
How to overcome Atelophobia?
The great irony is that while perfectionism has an intense drive to succeed, it comes with a crippling fear of consequences of failure.
Fear of failure is not exactly the ideal motivator for success. In fact, it leads to self-sabotaging behavior and procrastination.
Whether it is the butterflies in the stomach before a performance or not trying anything new due to the fear of failure, it will affect the quality of your life. Learning to manage it is possible.
If your personality exhibits the patterns mentioned above, it’ll be helpful for you to seek professional advice. Through psychotherapy, it’s possible to correct the flaws in the thinking patterns and focus on relaxation.
Below, we’ve listed some of the possible treatments of Atelophobia.
- Exposure Therapy – In this therapy, the patient is forced to face their fears so that they can overcome them. By repeating this treatment over and over again, the mind eventually halts the negative loop of fear and inaction.
- Cognitive Behaviour Therapy – Through Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, the psychologist tries to modify the negative pattern of thoughts. At least 10 to 20 sessions are required to get results from therapy.
- Group Therapy
- Energy Psychology
- Anti-Anxiety Medication
Sometimes a mixture of two or more treatments from the list mentioned above might be required to help the patient.
It’s recommended to seek professional help to overcome Atelophobia. However, if you wish to learn to manage this fear of failure of your own, we have also listed five strategies that will help you handle this fear of imperfection and engage fully with life.
1. Work on your mental game - overcome the fear of failure when it starts
The anatomy of the fear of failure
Fear of failure is not a problem in your rational mind. It is more of a primitive evolutionary response.
Fear of failure arises out of the Complex Planning that goes on a nonverbal level in our brains. Complex planning is a subtle skill: it requires you to both conceive future steps and evaluate whether these steps are a good idea. This served us well in the early stages of humanity, wherein we were fighting for survival.
Unfortunately, the same tendency trips us in our everyday situations that are not precisely of life and death consequence. This often creates an instinctive dialogue within our emotional self and urges us to choose safety overgrowth.
After that, negativity bias also comes into the mix and makes us focus more on failure outcomes rather than success.
The University of Pennsylvania’s study on ‘negativity bias and negativity dominance’ says that negative entities are stronger than the equivalent positive entities, and combinations of negative and positive entities yield more negative evaluations.
When this happens for years, we develop the self-schema of all the ways we are not good enough and are inevitably going to fail. So even when a new opportunity comes, we end up reconciling it with our existing beliefs and not trying for it.
Fear is only as deep as the mind allows.
Japanese Proverb –
Right now, your brain is equating failure to death. The only way to prove it otherwise is to show it.
You can do this by overriding the negative voice that preaches unnecessary caution.
Whenever you feel anxiety or fear in the face of an opportunity, write down all the negative consequences popping into your mind.
Now, counter each of them with corresponding positive consequences. You could even add an if-then narrative that outlines what action you can take if the worst-case scenario comes true.
Start working with bite-sized goals at which you can afford to fail. With practice, this process will become more instinctive.
Fear of failure makes you feel powerless to change the situation. Analysing your options and doing a mental rehearsal can make you feel in charge and prepared.
2. Reframe your story - success is not an ‘either/or’ option, include ‘some’ in your narrative.
The effect of success or failure has more to do with how we process it rather than the actual event.
Rewrite this narrative by evaluating how you are processing your decisions, judging the outcomes or even setting the standards for yourself.
Perfectionists aim for unrealistic goals and impractical standards of performance. This mentality of maximization often sets them up for failure even before they have begun. This also stops them from enjoying the fruit of their labor.
Evan Polman’s study into ‘happiness levels of maximizers vs. satisficers’ has found that, ‘maximizers are better at decision making, but their experience of these outcomes is subjectively worse’.
Fear of imperfection leads us to see our achievements in either black or white. This makes us risk-averse and develops the ‘go big or go home’ mentality. Being in this mental space robs you of the opportunity of exercising your innovation and creativity.
Dr. Bill Knaus says that perfectionists think that their self-worth is contingent upon achieving perfection in a given situation. So, partial completion is not an option.
A perfectionist will further escalate the situation by equating a single isolated failure to conclude your skills, abilities, and personality. So, his narrative goes from, “I failed at this” to “I am a failure.”
In reality between success and failure, there is progress.
When you avoid failure and stay in the comfort zone, you also give up the chance to develop skills to cope with future challenges.
Most of our anxiety and fear stems from the pressure to make a perfect choice and worrying about not making the wrong choice.
If you take yourself out of this mental corner, your opportunities expand. Why not try to view decisions as a bouquet of different choices?
Each choice comes with its own cost and benefits. And we only need to pick the good-enough options instead of ‘the best’ option.
Context makes all the difference in the world. Always try to view events concerning the larger scheme of things.
So, expand your goals to recognize the new skills and abilities acquired.
3. Just do it - embrace the fear of failure to overcome it
Failure or fear of it is not a pleasant sensation. But it is natural.
Being in a state of optimal anxiety can enhance your performance.
Fear of failure can help you prepare better and keep you on your toes. But its unhealthy manifestation and can paralyze you into becoming a spectator of life, one who is afraid to participate.
Fear is a limiting emotion.
Emory University neuroeconomist Gregory Berns explains that “when the fear system of the brain is active, exploratory activity and risk-taking are turned off. Fear prompts retreat,”
When we have the attack of fear of failure, logical thinking is replaced by overwhelming emotions, thus favoring short-term solutions and sudden reactions.
Even worse, you could also pass on this fear to your children, hindering their ability to experiment and grow.
When you experience fear of failing, it means you are expanding your boundaries. You are breaking down the mental and skill barriers.
As you progress along this path and take on bigger challenges, your barriers will rise proportionately. Dealing with these challenges will also improve your skills, knowledge, and competency.
If you do it over and over again, failing will become familiar, and you will fear the barriers less each time.
Repeated exposure lowers the psychological fear response. Stanford neuroscientist Philippe says, “Exposure is hands down the most successful way to deal with phobias, anxiety disorders, and everyday fears of any sort.”
Sydney J. Harris –
“Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable.”
Psychologists Tom Gilovich and Vicky Medvec studied ‘The experience of regret’ and came to a conclusion that, “In the long run, people of every age and in every walk of life seem to regret not having done things much more than they regret things they did,”
In the short term, you may regret failing, but in the long term, you will regret failing to try.
4. Know that you are not alone, join the elite club of failures
Failure is not the end; neither is it the opposite of success. It is a part of your journey.
Failure is nature’s way of telling you; you need to change! Failure shows the gap in your knowledge and ability with reference to your goals.
Everybody fails at something. Perfectionism does not guarantee success.
The anxiety over making mistakes may ultimately be holding some perfectionists back from ever achieving success in the first place.
Psychologist Tom Greenspon says, “Our research shows that successful perfectionists are successful despite it, not because of it,”
Failure is the trend rather than the exception.
Take the example of anyone you consider to be a grand success. They have all had to deal with their brand of setbacks.
Travis Kalanick’s startup before Uber declared bankruptcy.
Steve Jobs was thrown out of his own company.
Richard Branson failed when he tried his hands at cola business.
Oprah Winfrey was fired from her job as a TV reporter.
Same fear – a different response.
The theme of fear of failure is the same, but your response determines how you go forward. Depending on your perspective, failure can be a roadblock that merely diverts you or the precipice that ends your ambitions.
Winston Churchill –
“Success is not final; failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
J K Rowling famously said in her Harvard Commencement speech, that to her, failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. She was set free because her greatest fear had been realized, and she was still alive.
Take solace in the knowledge that it is possible to go from failure to success. Failure is nothing to be feared about, just something to be dealt with.
You have the power to decide if this failure is just a footnote or your entire story.
5. Stop procrastinating - Now!!!
Procrastination is the most common manifestation of perfectionism and fear of failure in our daily lives.
Perfectionists are in such crippling fear of being not able to complete a task perfectly; they put it off as long as possible. They are forever waiting for the things to align perfectly so that their chance of failure is zero.
Procrastination is simply the gap between intention and action.
Author Mark Mc Guinness says that we procrastinate for three reasons – either we don’t know what to do, we don’t know how to do it, or we don’t enjoy doing it.
Perfectionists are not lazy. On the contrary, they are hard at work – but with a misguided sense of priority.
So, they choose to do mundane jobs with low risk of failure (like checking their mail) against high-risk activities (like learning a new language) that makes them vulnerable.
Psychologist Dr. Fuschia Sirois says that when we procrastinate, “We’re trying to regulate our current mood and think our future self will be in a better state. That somehow, we’ll develop these miraculous coping skills to deal with these emotions that we just can’t deal with right now.”
Now to the solution – how to stop procrastinating?
Eat that Frog – Always start with the task that overwhelms you, and you are most likely to postpone. Getting it out of the way can make way for other work to flow.
Focusing on the whys and hows of a task instead of thinking about the abstract end goal will help you.
The ‘Construal Level and Procrastination’ research has found that, “merely thinking about the task in more concrete, specific terms makes it feel like it should be completed sooner” and thus reduces procrastination.
“The Temporal Motivation Theory” holds that we will most likely procrastinate any tasks that are unpleasant in the present and offer rewards only in the distant future. Instead of focusing on the end goal as the reward, set smaller rewards for your efforts along the way.
Most importantly, set realistic goals that don’t overwhelm you. And commit to just ‘show up.’ That is half the battle won right there.
The choice is not whether you fail, but how willing you are to deal with it.
Even failure itself is not a terrible thing. Failure points to a gap in knowledge or a poor strategy and pushes us to go back to the drawing board and work on it. Without the check of failure, progress becomes limited and complacent.
Lack of failure does not automatically equate success. But choosing inaction definitely results in failure, which you are not ready to deal with.
Effort is required, commitment and dedication are vital, but perfection is unrealistic. Perfectionism is a moving target – you will never be finished.
In life, success is the consequence of consistent effort rather than the pursuit of perfection.