Do you ever feel like you’re not good enough, no matter how hard you try?
Well, you’re not alone.
Many people find it extremely difficult to shake off the fear of disappointing both others and themselves, whether it’s regarding their career choices, relationships, or personal goals and achievements.
Sometimes, it is about small insecurities that occasionally emerge; these insecurities are caused by previous emotional experiences that left their mark, or by the unrealistic standards imposed by the modern society.
By investing effort into overcoming these bumps on the road and taming the need to be perfect, healthy individuals are able to restore their mental balance, focus on doing the best they can, and build resilience along the way.
But it’s often more complex than that.
Our strive towards perfection can become obsessive and irrational, and even paralyze us. If we lose control over it, it can grow into a real anxiety disorder and disrupt our well-being, preventing us from leading a calm and healthy life.
Psychologists have come up with a name for this specific condition: atelophobia. Atelophobia (Greek word atelo – meaning imperfection, and phobia – meaning fear) is the notion that sums up the fears of being imperfect, not good enough, or not doing something right.
Fear of Disappointing Others, Especially Parents
According to the research published by the American Psychological Association which analyzed trends and the levels of social competitiveness from 1986 to 2016, perfectionism is increasing over time. This means the younger generations go through a lot of pressure to meet certain standards, especially in the domain of career progress and lifestyle decisions.
The question is – who sets these standards and what are they about? Plus, isn’t perfectionism supposed to be a good thing?
Well, yes and no.
There are scientific studies that suggest perfectionism can be healthy if it is within the limits of what’s considered to be normal.
Normal perfectionism implies setting high, but achievable standards for oneself, and getting pleasure from working hard and even struggling a bit. In the case of healthy perfectionists, having eyes on the prize doesn’t prevent them from obtaining control over themselves. In addition, they are willing to give up on their precision if the situations demands so, without losing their minds over the fact.
On the other hand, perfectionists who are considered neurotic, experience their need for perfection with greater intensity and cannot settle for anything less, which leaves them highly strung and very anxious. In most cases, they form this habit and crush themselves with continuous pressure due to either:
- Parents’ inconsistent approval (or non approval) and parents’ failure to openly communicate what expectations they have from their child (i.e. what is the standard a child should reach).
- Parents who express only conditional positive approval (or at least this type of approval exceeds unconditional positive approval).
Whereas normal perfectionists set high standards for themselves and perceive them as a challenge, neurotic perfectionists are prone to harsh self-criticism and define these high standards as a crucial necessity.
Parents are also are under a lot of pressure to raise successful children and unfortunately – they sometimes fail to support the life path their child has chosen, especially if it differs from social norms. In addition, each individual has their own pace of progress; the journey of finding inner purpose or life calling is very delicate. Children and young adults need to be encouraged to explore their interests and form their own principles, instead of being rushed to get to the finish line.
Of course, the child-parent relationship is not the only factor that influences individuals and potentially pushes them towards perfectionism.
Fear of Not Being Good Enough – Issue of the Modern Era
Political scientist Mark Blyth is one of the researchers who agree there is a strong correlation between neoliberalism and the rise of perfectionism. Cultural values that society brings influence individuals to a large degree: existing norms of neoliberalism seem to have produced generational differences in personality.
The modern era has grown around this ideology and brought us competitive individualism, in which we have become preoccupied with comparing ourselves with others and feeling uncomfortable with our status or achievements so far. In this context, we use material things do communicate higher status and create an illusion of perfect life to others.
Young generations in particular are likely to experience identity crisis or issues related to self-worth and self-esteem, as they feel they are constantly being judged by others. In an attempt to compensate for these insecurities, people turn to perfectionism as a defense mechanism.
Social media has contributed to spreading the unhealthy need to be perfect and it often deepens the dissatisfaction with who we are and how much we have accomplished so far. It can diminish our successes and set unrealistic standards, whether it’s about how much we travel, the body we have, or how expensive our overall lifestyle is. Of course, social media does have its benefits, but it can also cause depression if we start comparing ourselves to others and make us feel socially alienated.
Curating the perfect image online is not that hard with filters and some knowledge of flattering angles and lighting. The reality is far different, but when people get immersed into scrolling and passively consuming content that others post – it’s easy to oversee the illusion. Perfect bodies and flawless skin become standard, creating a feeling of inadequacy among individuals. In extreme cases, it can even lead towards other mental issues, such as body dysmorphia or eating disorders.
People crave validation from others, they want to be perceived as perfect, and they need to feel engaged with the world, like they belong. All of this takes its toll on mental health.
In addition, researchers have noticed:
- Higher levels of pressure to be the best and excel in academic environment.
- Suppressed anxiety regarding the vast possibilities existing in the modern world and the implication that wealth and status is equally available to anyone who is willing to work hard.
The need to have outstanding grades and showcase exquisite academic performance is what causes distress among students who often reach out to cognitive enhancers and various brain supplements in order to stay focused. The age of distraction has made its impact on our attention span and the ability to concentrate. We are overwhelmed with the amount of information we are exposed to on a daily level.
However, desperate to achieve perfectionism, students also turn to illegal methods in order to enhance alertness or better their levels of productivity. When external pressure gets combined with unhealthy aspirations and disrupted mental state, this can lead towards abusing Adderall and similar medications that are normally prescribed to cure conditions such as ADHD.
Never before in history have we seen socially prescribed perfectionism have such a strong and widespread influence, at least within the Western culture.
Atelophobia: Symptoms and Signs
So, what is the difference between atelophobia and perfectionism?
While perfectionism doesn’t necessarily have to be unhealthy, atelophobia is considered to be a mental illness (anxiety disorder) that needs to be treated.
The atelophobic person has an extreme fear of failure. Given the fact that everything less than perfect is perceived as failure within their value system – they tend to avoid unknown situations. Paralyzed by the fear of doing something wrong, atelophobic often choose to run from any “risky” or challenging ventures and prefer to stay within their comfort zone. This prevents them from growing, both professionally and personally, and building mental stamina.
Combined with the predominant pessimistic point of view and the lack of self-confidence, atelophobia leaves the person feeling trapped, unworthy, lost, and inadequate. Furthermore, individuals suffering from atelophobia become incapable of using their real skills and abilities, as well as of actually acknowledging their strengths that make them unique.
Atelophobia can manifest through physical symptoms, such as:
- Dizziness or nausea
- Increased perspiration and hyperventilation (due to feeling severely stressed out)
- 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
Physical symptoms are similar to ones related to other anxiety disorders, but what’s causing them is rather different.
In most cases, people with atelophobia do not perceive the problem right away or they disregard the existence of the problem in general. It’s the people closest to them that notice unusual or extreme behavior (especially when it comes to handling failure) and then encourage them to seek help.
How to Overcome Atelophobia
Depending on how severe the condition is, atelophobia can be treated with psychotherapy or with the combination of psychotherapy and anti-anxiety medications.
There are two specific types of psychotherapy that have proven to be effective for treating atelophobia:
- Exposure therapy
- Cognitive behavior therapy
Both therapies focus on confronting patients to their fears repeatedly, so to “rewire the brain”, i.e. modify negative thought patterns and strengthen patient’s coping strategies.
CBT starts by identifying triggers and critical behaviours that are excesses. For the specific case of the atelophobic person, this can be any new situation that demands some level of performance, such as transferring to a new work environment or getting promoted. Critical behaviours that occur are then evaluated for frequency, intensity, and duration.
Thanks to the beautiful ability of human brain to adapt and learn from new experiences, by gradually exposing patients to similar unpleasant situations and equipping them with the right set of coping mechanisms, they become able to reprogram themselves and react better in the future, i.e. to overcome or manage their phobia. This helps them straighten their crooked picture of success and perfection and gain control over their lives.
Anti-anxiety medications are sometimes needed to suppress physical symptoms, so that patients can freely devote themselves to therapy, without any additional burden.
In addition to these therapies, experts often recommend various types of meditation and breathing exercises, as well as group therapy. Best results come when different types of treatments are combined.
Over to You: Can You Define Imperfection?
One of the biggest paradoxes of perfectionism is that it often seeks external approval, while it is in fact a highly subjective, internal matter.
People who are prone to perfectionism frequently choose the most extraordinary role models to look up to. The School of Life has explained this problem in layman terms: when it comes to career choice or the standards we set for ourselves, we formulate our ambitions by admiring the greatest works of art or scientific breakthroughs. However, we do so without taking in mind the series of failures that preceded the moment of great success.
And failures are a natural part of learning.
Without this healthy attitude towards failure and without the awareness of how the road to success can actually be rough and full of crossroads, we can easily start feeling mediocre or unworthy.
Imperfections are constantly discussed in the context of physical appearance, but beauty standards are tightly connected to both culture and era, and they have changed throughout history. Given the fact that perfection in this context is determined by various factors and is in that sense intangible – chances are we are all perfect, depending on who is judging us. So, the cliché saying beauty is in the eye of the beholder is indeed empirically correct.
When it comes to perfection in other parts of life, more often than not – we get lost in the rat race and forget that every person has its own natural pace of progress. Modern era has put a lot of pressure on us, with an implied imperative to do everything faster, stronger, and better, but comparing ourselves to others won’t bring us any good.
Opposed to this, Ancient Greeks have come up with a term for a healthy kind of struggle in life, in which you compete, not with others, but only with yourself: agon (ἀγών). The idea is to perceive life as a challenge and do your best to become better than yesterday.
This doesn’t mean you should pressure yourself constantly and push your limits so hard that it influences your well being. It means doing the best you can helps you actually move forward, opposed to taking an external reference of what should be your standard.