Atelophobia: Conquer Your Fear of Imperfection with These 5 Tips10 min read

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I’m 25 years old and have never had a girlfriend because I’ve always feared disappointing a lady and then getting rejected. Isn’t all rejection a result of disappointing someone (of not reaching or aligning with their expectations/desires)? You could say I have a fear of imperfection or disappointing people, and you would be correct.

Atelophobia which is the fear of imperfection or disappointing people is described as an excessive fear of not meeting expectations, making mistakes, or being imperfect. In some cases, this fear can paralyse us from acting or deprive us of happiness after doing our best.

And, even though atelophobia (as with other phobias) needs to be diagnosed by a mental health professional such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, or licensed therapist, I find that I have a good degree of that fear in me.

For example, even though I know I have sufficient looks, money, and intelligence not to be rejected by any lady genuinely interested in me, I still fear I may grow out of love, or do something that might end up hurting her. I fear the relationship won’t be perfect because of me. 

Atelophobia is a double bind, and one I hope to explore and untangle as we go through this post.

Consequences: How Atelophobia Negatively Affects You

I grew up with parents who had high expectations of me. They believed that they were smart and hardworking individuals, so they expected the same of me. Sometimes, when I didn’t live up to their standards, they would point it out to me, saying that I wasn’t acting like their offspring. I know this sounds harsh, and it sometimes stung, but I am grateful for the standards they demanded of me. However, there were also consequences.

Ever heard of the curse of the silver medalist? Well, I was plagued by it. I would have people see my works and be blown away, yet I would beat myself up for not being as good as the other artists or writers I saw online. I was never really happy with my efforts. I felt someone might find out how much I sucked. I feared I was not perfect, and could never be. I feared I would disappoint, eventually.

Don’t get me wrong, I have achieved so much by being perpetually dissatisfied with my looks, work, bank balance, and so on. It has helped me push myself, but it comes at a cost. Some consequences of atelophobia include:

  • Missed Opportunities: The fear of imperfection or disappointing people may cause someone to avoid taking on new challenges or venturing into new relationships because they are afraid of making mistakes. It is one thing to fear you are not capable, and it is another to fear you will not do it perfectly so decide not to even try. Atelophobia is the latter.
  • Burnout: In a bid to be perfect, to demand more and more from oneself, burnout may ensue. Even though it is good to dream big and set big goals, there is such a thing as biting more than you can chew and trying to chew too quickly. 
  • Social isolation: People with atelophobia may avoid social situations because they are afraid of being judged or criticised. When you are superconscious of not failing others or how others perceive you, you tend not to even show up. It’s one of the reasons even though all my friends think I’m cool to hang out with, I still shy away from meeting online friends in person – because I do not want to be less of what they thought of me. Egocentric, I know.
  • Depression and anxiety: High expectations can lead to anxiety and depression, which can further impair a person’s ability to function in their daily life. This is simply because no one is perfect, and no one can be. Such expectations will surely be broken sooner or later.

Signs: What Are The Symptoms of Atelophobia?

Atelophobia is a relatively common phobia, and even though it is an abnormal/excessive desire to be perfect, it is usually not a life sentence. The fear of disappointing people is a problem that hides in plain sight, masquerading as a positive trait. It will often feel as though acting out those behaviours were in your best interests, but they aren’t.

Here are some of the signs and symptoms of atelophobia  (that may seem okay at first glance):

  • Avoidance of situations and circumstances where mistakes could be made: As much as this will keep you from disappointing people, it will also keep you from countless opportunities. It is how you end up at a low-paying job despite being qualified for so much more.
  • An inability to tolerate even the slightest imperfection: Even though this means you will pay attention to details and often produce great works, it will also mean you will often feel overwhelmed, unhappy, and take too long to execute.
  • Inability to tolerate criticism: Since criticism highlights imperfections, people with atelophobia find it particularly difficult to sit and listen to the myriad of ways they simply are imperfect.
  • Excessive worry about making mistakes: While this can keep you cautious and alert, it can also fill your life with so much anxiety and stress. Sometimes, you just have to accept that mistakes will be made (especially if it is your first time; besides, mistakes are seldom fatal). 
  • Indecisiveness and Procrastination: When you worry too much about things going wrong or being imperfect at something, you often find yourself unable to decide what to do because there is always a risk in everything (sometimes unforeseeable). And, with this indecisiveness comes procrastination (in an attempt to figure out all the variables).
  • People-pleasing and Reassurance Seeking: In an attempt not to be a disappointment, you may find yourself doing more than you are expected or obligated to do. This might manifest itself in terms of trying to be the good kid, or the superhero in every circumstance. The aftermath of people pleasing might be self-loathing, or even spite for the “ungrateful” people you tried to please.
  • Low self-esteem: Always trying to please people slowly erodes your self-esteem. You may subconsciously begin to believe that you have to go to these lengths because you are not worthy, or that the others are better than you and you need to prove that you can be accepted.
  • Social isolation: If you go the route of avoiding social situations altogether (because you do not like the anxiety), you might find that you end up alone.
  • Depression: Depression often follows after feeling you have no control over the circumstances around you. Perhaps you may have tried your best but still seem to be a big disappointment to others.
  • Anxiety: That persistent worry and fear about how things will turn out is a core future of atelophobia. It might often manifest itself in the form of increased heart rate, fidgeting, rapid breathing, sweating, and a feeling of tiredness.
  • Regret and Shame: A deep and persistent feeling of humiliation or distress about your actions and how people perceive you is also a sign to watch out for. People with atelophobia often experience upward counterfactual thinking which often leads to unhappiness and regret.

Before we explore how to overcome the fear of disappointing people, let’s first explore why we have them in the first place.

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Reasons: What Is The Cause of Atelophobia?

As I’ve subtly earlier highlighted some reasons why someone might develop atelophobia. Here are some of the major ones explicitly stated:

  • Childhood experiences: People who were raised in families where mistakes were not tolerated or where there was a lot of pressure to succeed may be more likely to develop atelophobia.
  • Negative self-talk: People who constantly put themselves down or have negative thoughts about their abilities may be more likely to develop atelophobia.
  • Perfectionism: People who are perfectionists may be more likely to develop atelophobia because they are constantly striving for unattainable standards.

Underneath all these is a common factor called unhealthy comparison. While it is good to look at people doing great and try learning from them, using other people’s standards to judge yourself (or kids) can be detrimental. The only reason you should compare should be to learn or get inspired, rather than to discredit your efforts and loathe yourself.

Solution: How Do You Stop Atelophobia?

I’ve always had a hunch that there was something that was impeding my ability to connect with people. I’ve learned about Gamophobia (the fear of commitment), but I thought it was a bit different from my challenge because I really did want to connect with people. Then, a few days ago I had a dream which revealed my deep subconscious leanings. In my dream I saw myself doing all that was within my ability (and beyond) to ensure I helped an aunty of mine fulfil a task. What struck me the most was that I didn’t particularly like this aunty in real life. What that revealed to me was that I had a deep-seated desire never to disappoint anyone, even those who couldn’t care less about me, and who I didn’t like much. And, in that instant, I realised my problem. I was caring about what I could not control. 

Here are some tips for overcoming the fear of disappointing others:

  • Challenge your negative thoughts: When you have a negative thought about yourself, ask yourself if it is really true. Are you really a failure just because you made a mistake? Are you really going to disappoint everyone if you don’t do something perfectly?
  • Set realistic expectations: Be realistic about your goals, and don’t waste your energy trying to change things that are out of your hands. Everyone makes mistakes. And, remember to ask yourself if it is your duty to please them. Psst! it’s not, though you may occasionally choose to.
  • Focus on your strengths: Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Focus on your strengths and don’t dwell on your weaknesses. Not everyone must have 6 pack abs, make millions, and rap like Kendrick. It is okay to be good at your job which pays decent money to take care of the people you genuinely love. 
  • Be kind to yourself: Make out time to list your accomplishments and highlight your awesomeness. For a start, you’ve made it this far, which says a lot about you already. And, even if you feel you need to do better – because there is always room for improvement – learn to be patient with yourself. It takes time and effort to grow up, level up, and step up.
  • Seek Professional Help: If you feel overwhelmed and unable to overcome your fear of imperfection with these tips alone, then it might be wise to get professional help. This can include psychotherapy and medication.

Conclusion: It Is Okay To Be Imperfect

I’m in a phase in my life when I am beginning to take leaps of faith and trust that the wings which I’ve been developing all this time can carry me. And, I am beginning to accept that there will never be a perfect choice. There will always be burdens with blessings, and it is our responsibility to appreciate and make the most of what we’ve got.

“Imperfection is beauty, madness is genius, and it’s better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring.”

– Marilyn Monroe

I enjoy writing long-form SEO content for self-help and personal development blogs. I can also do simple graphics design and copywriting. I’m an author, coach, logician, introvert, and storyteller. I love simplicity.

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