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 judgement, or avoiding intense relationships.

This fear of failure stems from the unrealistic belief that anything less than perfection and success is unacceptable.

In the spectrum of this dysfunction - Atelophobia is the full blown manifestation.

Atelophobia, perfectionism, fear of failure

The same disorder can have milder and different manifestations in our everyday lives.

We all have some degree of expression of this fear in our personalities - fear of failing judgement, ridicule and rejection stopping us from pursuing relationships, asking for a raise, trying for a new job and the like.

Salvador Dali

Have no fear of perfection - you'll never reach it. 

The most common expression of this is perfectionism - either I will do it well or not do it at all attitude.

Perfectionism is the enemy of performance.

The great irony is that while perfectionism has an intense drive to succeed at the same time it comes with 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.

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Whether it is the butterflies in the stomach before a performance or not trying anything new due to the fear of failing, it will affect the quality of your life. Learning to manage this fear of imperfection is a vital skill to make sure that you don't live life on the sidelines.

We have come up with 5 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 a 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 exactly of life and death consequence. This often creates an instinctive dialogue within our emotional self and urges us to choose safety over growth.

Atelophobia, perfectionism, fear of failure

After that, negativity bias also comes into the mix and makes us focus more on failure outcomes rather than success.

The University of Pennsylvania 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 evaluations that are more negative.

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, recognise all the negative consequences popping into your mind. Write them down.

Now counter each of them with corresponding positive consequences. You could even add an if-then narrative which outlines what action you can take if the worst case scenario comes true.

Atelophobia, perfectionism, fear of failure

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 dong 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.

Many a times the effect of a success of 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.

Atelophobia, perfectionism, fear of failure

Perfectionists aim for unrealistic goals and impractical standards of performance. This mentality of maximization often set them up for failure even before they have begun. This also stops them from enjoying the fruits of their labour.

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 are subjectively worse’.

Fear of imperfection leads us to see our achievements in either black or white.This makes us risk averse and develop 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 draw conclusions about 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.

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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 the 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 banquet of different choices?

Atelophobia, perfectionism, fear of failure

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 in relation to the larger scheme of things.

So, expand your goals to recognise 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 the state of optimal anxiety can actually 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.

Atelophobia, perfectionism, fear of failure

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 even 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.

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As you progress along this path and take on bigger challenges, your barriers will rise proportionately. As you deal with these challenges your skill, knowledge and competency will also improve.

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 the 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 definitely 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.

Atelophobia, perfectionism, fear of failure

In fact, 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 in spite of 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 own 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 - different response.

The theme of fear of failure is 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 realised, and she was still alive.

Atelophobia, perfectionism, fear of failure

Take solace in the knowledge that it is possible to go from failure to success. Failure is nothing to be feared about, just 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.

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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 (eg checking mail) against high risk activities(eg 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 thinking 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.​

Atelophobia, perfectionism, fear of failure

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 reducing 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 make a commitment 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 in itself is not a terrible thing. A 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.

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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 pursuit of perfection.

Published by Pulkit Zalani

Pulkit has been there and had a roller-coaster ride. He loved overcoming the challenges. Now, he enjoys helping people in their twenties by writing science-backed articles that help them grow.

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1 Comment

  1. Hello Pulkit, thanks for this wonderful post on Atelophobia. Everyday at the hospital, I do receive about 5-10 patients who are atelophobic and needed counselling,I really liked your blog and I’m gonna share the URL with some of m patients.

    Thanks once again.

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