I am not afraid or sharks or snakes or spiders. But this does not preclude me from harboring some phobias that are not only irrational, but also highly damaging.
One of these phobias, which I've thankfully addressed and mostly overcome, is atelophobia.
Atelophobia is defined as the fear of not doing something right or the fear of not being good enough. In other words, it’s a fear of imperfection. Etymologically, the word atelophobia is compised of two Greek words: the prefix Atelo(s) means imperfect and the post-fix phobia means fear. Thus, the word atelophobia quite literally means they fear of being imperfect. People with atelophobia often suffer and can develop debilitating depression or anxiety when their perceived expectations do not match reality.
An atelophobe (or atelophobic) worries that whatever he or she is doing is in some way not okay, unacceptable, or completely wrong. Everyday tasks such as making a phone call, writing an email, eating, or even talking in front of others can be very challenging for atelophobes because they fear that they are making some kind of mistake and falling short in their task. This type of thinking is a breeding ground for extreme self-consciousness and feelings of being constantly judged and evaluated.
People with atelophobia often subconsciously make perfection their goal. This goal cannot, of course, ever be reached. Thus, the person is left feeling miserable and useless and ineffective in his or her life. The atelophobe progressively loses more and more self-confidence and self-esteem, reinforcing the belief that (s)he can never do anything right.
Though most people with atelophobia are at least as intelligent and as talented as other people in society, their abilities and potential are masked by the fear of failure and not good enough. These individuals often choose not compete with anyone, nor do they wish to accept challenges. They politely defer to others, fearing that there is no way that they will succeed anyway.
For example, there have been case studies of incredibly talented painters who give up painting or hide their work because they believe that it is not “perfect.” Instead, they remake their art over and over, and change it again and again, but are never satisfied. Thus, this fear of imperfection can inhibit people from doing anything productive at all because they fear that they may not do it right and disappoint and let down those around them as well as themselves.
Others with atelophobia are inhibited more in a psycho-social sense. These individuals fear imperfection to a degree that they feel that they must ensure that each task they perform is done to their perceived degree of perfection. This manifests itself in perfectionism and OCD tendencies. These people are bombarded with intrusive thoughts of worry, fear, and apprehension.
I recently heard a conversation about this topic on NPR in the context of the concern at MIT about an increase in student suicides. The angst-ridden struggle for perfection in an environment teeming with hordes of high-achievers and brilliant minds is fertile ground for the fear of not being perfect. It is a fear fueled by a race after an ever-elusive endpoint and the fear of not finishing the race at the front of the pack. ‘Good enough” is not a sufficient outcome … it is a sign of failure.
Learning to strive for “good enough” is a quality which brings about well-being. In her article in the Atlantic about The Power of ‘Good Enough’ author Olga Khazan writes, “It can be hard, in our culture, to force yourself to settle for ‘good enough.’ But when it comes to happiness and satisfaction, “good enough” isn’t just good—it’s perfect.”
This involves a recognition of being less than perfect, and of also accepting our limits. Others may have other qualities that make us believe that they are perfect or in some way better that we are. And that’s okay.
There is a saying in sociology that one should strive “not to let the perfect become the enemy of the good.” In the quest by someone for that which will “do the job just fine” the discovery of “good enough” can be healthy and satisfying. It does not need to be a judgment of failure. Rather, it keeps the door open and the possibility alive for an ongoing and organic exploration of creativity and success.