Atelophobia: Symptoms, Causes and Treatments

Atelophobia is a specific phobia where the sufferer fears imperfection, above all, their own.

Unlike other phobias in which the sufferer is afraid of an object or a specific situation, in this case the stimulus is a subjective interpretation.

Atelophobia

Such an abstract stimulus means that atelophobia can be a serious condition, debilitating for the sufferer.

In this article we will talk about the fear of being imperfect, we will explain the causes, and we will discuss possible treatments.

Specific phobias

Atelophobia can be a difficult condition to diagnose, unlike many other psychological disorders.

This is because of the stimulus: imperfection.

The fact that someone is excessively afraid of not being perfect may suggest a disorder to do with an obsessive and perfectionist personality rather than an anxiety disorder.

However, although cases of atelophobia are sometimes associated with a neurotic personality, this condition may sometimes be an anxiety disorder: a specific phobia.

Specific phobias are a type of disorder characterised by the presence of clinical anxiety in response to a specific object. This can usually lead to avoidance behaviours.

Atelophobia often results in extreme anxiety when the person thinks about imperfection.

What is the phobic stimulus?

The stimulus of atelophobia is being imperfect, being unable to act perfectly, or believing that you do not have perfect ideas or beliefs.

Unlike with other specific phobias, such as arachnophobia (the fear of spiders), the anxious response doesn’t appear when the person is exposed to a specific stimulus. It can appear at any moment, whenever they have thoughts to do with imperfection.

While someone with arachnophobia can make sure that they won’t make themselves anxious by staying away from spiders, predicting when someone with atelophobia is going to have an anxious reaction is more difficult.

It is sometimes possible to predict the onset of symptoms: sufferers of atelophobia will feel anxious in certain, specific situations.

For example they will probably feel anxious when they fail at something, or don’t do a task well.

However, the idea of imperfection is completely subjective, and defining which situations will trigger a response and which will not is usually impossible.

In fact someone with atelophobia may have an anxious reaction in a situation in which they detect imperfection, while those around them may not see anything wrong.

The only person who is able to detect the stimuli is the sufferer, as they can recognise their thought patterns.

What happens when you have thoughts about imperfection?

An atelophobe will experience disproportionate, irrational, involuntary and maladaptive fears when they think about imperfection.

As long as the sufferer is in a situation that makes them think about imperfection they will experience significant anxiety.

This anxiety will cause physical, cognitive, and behavioural symptoms.

When faced with thoughts of imperfection the individual will experience physical symptoms. The central nervous system’s activity increases causing certain physical changes.

These include an elevated heart rate, increased respiratory rate, sweating, and generalised muscle tension.

On a cognitive level the sufferer will have a series of thoughts about the situation and their ability to confront it.

Such thoughts include imperfection being unacceptable, that not being perfect will lead to other problems, or that they will never be happy because they are not perfect.

Finally, the individual may start to develop a series of behaviours that allow them to avoid anxiety and negative thoughts about imperfection.

Consequences of atelophobia

Imperfection, the phobic stimulus, is subjective and depends on the thoughts and traits of the individual. However, this phobia can lead to other negative consequences.

If we continue with the comparison made above, the only consequence of arachnophobia (spider phobia) is the avoidance of situations where spiders might appear.

So, this condition does not have a significant impact on your life: it is easy to make changes in your life that allow you to avoid spiders as they don’t appear particularly frequently.

Most houses don’t have spiders lurking in them so this is relatively easy to achieve.

However, with atelophobis the stimulus to be avoided is the development of thoughts about imperfection.

So, someone with this phobia may develop behavioural patterns based on their fear.

They may become very critical about anything they do or say, or may be constantly afraid of their own actions, as anything they don’t do perfectly will cause extreme anxiety.

Typical behaviours

The fear of an atelophobe in any situation where they might feel, think or experience failure can seriously affect their wellbeing.

Every time they have a thought about imperfection they become anxious. This leads them to try and avoid the appearance of these thoughts.

The phobia, then, may lead to an obsessive need to avoid failure.

The atelophobe will have to be constantly alert, monitoring every situation to make sure that nothing happens that will show them to be imperfect.

Thoughts about imperfection are their biggest fear. Therefore, they will behave accordingly, and will develop patterns that allow them to avoid such thoughts.

In other words, they may adopt certain behaviours that are centered around perfection despite this being completely unnecessary.

Inflexibility and perfectionism

It is common for atelophobes to be perfectionists. They are often obsessive, inflexible and demand a lot from themselves.

Most of them measure their abilities in an attempt to evaluate how perfect they are in each area of their life.

This means that they are constantly trying to perfect, redo or improve something that is already considered by others to be good.

These behaviours often cause problems in their personal relationships, and their performance at work and at home. It also affects their ability to function in society.

It is clear that these behaviours are avoidance tactics.

In atelophobia avoidance tactics can become very serious. Someone with a spider phobia will simply avoid spiders. For someone with atelophobia it is impossible to avoid the phobic stimulus. In their attempt to avoid it they often end up developing pathological behaviors.

Causes

As with all specific phobias the causes of atelophobia can be divided into two parts: genetic and learned.

Childhood education plays an important role in the development of atelophobia, as do the behaviours of those who educated them and those they grew up with.

So, these environmental factors and the conditioning that they are exposed to during childhood may lead to the development of atelophobia.

Education that is rigid, that encourages you to demand a lot from yourself, and that requires perfection can be significant in causing this disorder.

So, if a child’s parents have obsessive personalities or behaviours, if they are inflexible and unwilling to tolerate imperfection, they may contribute to the development of atelophobia.

Unlike other phobias atelophobia may be closely linked with specific personality traits.

The fear of imperfection can be seen through a phobic response, through certain behavioural patterns, or through a certain type of personality and the way of being that comes with this.

This is obvious in the behavioural patterns developed by the individual, and the way they function day-to-day.

However, it is difficult to actually define the root  of the problem.

Phobia or personality?

As we have seen atelophobia can cause a series of behavioural changes.

However, we have also seen how a particular lifestyle and personality can make you more vulnerable to developing atelophobia.

We may also want to investigate what causes each of these factors.

Is atelophobia caused by an inflexible, obsessive and perfectionist personality? Or does atelophobia create these personality traits?

Asking this question is a bit like asking which came first, the chicken or the egg.

Atelophobia is an anxiety disorder and treatment is centered around the phobic response. However, a lot can be learned from investigating the role played by obsessive and perfectionist personality traits in the development of symptoms.

Furthermore, even though personality certainly does play a part in the development of this condition, it is usually better to treat the anxiety.

Overcoming atelophobia can soften such personality traits, but these should still be taken into account during treatment as they can sometimes slow the patient’s progress and make treatment more difficult.

Treatments

The first choice treatments are those used for other specific phobias.

So psychotherapy that focuses on relaxation and exposing the sufferer to situations that trigger anxiety – in this case thoughts of imperfection – are the most appropriate treatments.

It is believed that allowing the patient to get used to having ideas about imperfection and thereby eradicating their symptoms can help them to stop avoiding these thoughts and let them overcome their obsessive, perfectionist ideas.

However, this type of phobia can sometimes cause issues when it comes to treatment.

This is particularly obvious in people who are very obsessive and perfectionist. Exposure and relaxation therapies may not be enough as the sufferer may continue to pursue their ideal.

Personality disorders are usually more difficult to treat. In these cases treatment is still necessary but a combination of different treatments may be needed, for example cognitive therapy or medication.

References

  1. American Psychiatric Association (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.
  2. Antony, M.M. y Barlow, D.H. (1997). Fobia específica. En V. E. Caballo (dir.), Manual para el tratamiento cognitivo-conductual de los trastornos psicológicos, vol. 1 (pp. 3-24). Madrid: Siglo XXI.
  3. Capafóns, B.J. I. (2001). Tratamientos psicológicos eficaces para las fobias específicas. Psicothema, 13, 447-452.
  4. Fernández, A. y Luciano, M.C. (1992). Limitaciones y problemas de la teoría de la preparación biológica de las fobias. Análisis y Modificación de Conducta, 18, 203-230.
  5. Hekmat, H. (1987). Origins and development of human fear reactions. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 1, 197-218.
  6. Silverman, W. K. y Moreno, J. (2005). Specific Phobia. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 14, 819-843.

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