Atelophobia (ah-tel-o-fobia) is an excessive and persistent fear of imperfection. It causes a person to worry intensely about making mistakes or not being good enough. As a result, a person with this phobia may avoid tasks they could get wrong.

Phobias are a type of anxiety disorder that cause significant disruption in a person’s life. Although similar to perfectionism more generally, atelophobia is extreme and may cause difficulties at work and in relationships.

Keep reading to learn more about the symptoms, causes, diagnosis and treatment of atelophobia, as well as how the condition differs from other phobias.

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Atelophobia is the fear of imperfection. It is a type of specific phobia, which are a group of anxiety disorders in which a person has a strong fear of a specific object, animal, place, or event.

Atelophobia is similar to perfectionism, which is when a person pursues excellence due to a feeling they are not good enough or must always meet high standards. People with perfectionist tendencies tend to be excessively critical of themselves, which can negatively impact mental health.

However, while perfectionism is common and can be mild, atelophobia is more extreme. For a person to meet the criteria for a phobia, their fear of imperfection must have a significant impact on their day-to-day life and ability to function. The fear may guide many or all of a person’s actions and decisions.

The main symptom of atelophobia is an excessive fear of imperfection. Worries about being imperfect may dominate a person’s thoughts, making it hard to focus on anything else. This may cause a person to feel:

  • stressed
  • afraid
  • panicked
  • burned out
  • angry or irritable
  • sad

People with atelophobia can also feel:

  • extremely sensitive to criticism
  • unable to cope with conflict or pressure
  • a need for constant reassurance
  • emotionally detached from others

As with other anxiety disorders, atelophobia can also cause physical symptoms, such as:

  • increased heart rate
  • rapid or shallow breathing
  • dry mouth
  • sweating
  • changes in appetite
  • changes in sleep

Doctors do not know the main cause of phobias. Sometimes, a person can identify a specific event that caused the fear. For example, a person with atelophobia may have made a mistake in the past that caused intense stress, resulting in a long-term fear of imperfection. This type of event is known as a trauma.

However, not everyone with a phobia can trace their fear back to a specific traumatic event. Other factors that may play a role include:

  • having a panic attack in a specific situation
  • witnessing another person experiencing harm due to a certain activity or event
  • hearing a tragic story involving a certain object or activity

Sometimes, atelophobia may stem from a combination of factors.

Atichyphobia is the fear of failure. It has some similarities to atelophobia, as people with atichyphobia may also fear making mistakes, have low self-esteem, and avoid pursuing tasks or goals.

However, a person with atichyphobia is mainly concerned with the outcome of a task. If they feel a mistake seriously threatens their chances of success, it may cause them significant anxiety. But if they feel a mistake or flaw is unlikely to affect the result, it may not cause anxiety.

In contrast, a person with atelophobia will fear any kind of mistake or flaw, as every perceived imperfection reinforces the underlying belief that they are not good enough as they are.

Social anxiety is a fear of judgement from others. This can make a person feel anxious in social situations, or when they feel others are watching them.

Sometimes, people with social anxiety try to appear perfect in order to avoid this negative judgement. From the outside, this might look similar to atelophobia.

However, the two conditions are different. People with social anxiety do not fear imperfection in itself, but rather the potential for others to notice it, and the social rejection or exclusion that may follow. People with atelophobia fear imperfection whether others perceive it or not.

Doctors generally base an atelophobia diagnosis on a person’s symptoms and their social, medical, or family history. They will do this by asking questions about how a person feels, and how their anxiety is affecting them.

In some cases, they may suggest additional tests to rule out other causes for the symptoms, such as brain imaging scans or blood tests.

Sometimes, atelophobia occurs alongside other conditions, such as depression or other anxiety disorders. A mental health examination can help diagnose these.

Treating atelophobia takes time and perseverance. It may involve a combination of:

Psychotherapy

The main treatment for phobias is psychotherapy, or talk therapy. This tackles the underlying thoughts and beliefs that reinforce the phobia.

There are many types of psychotherapy, but for phobias, doctors often recommend exposure therapy. This involves gradual exposures to the thing a person is afraid of, starting with small exposures and working towards bigger exposures.

For example, a person might start off by sending an email with a small spelling mistake in it. When they feel comfortable doing that, and can see there are no serious consequences, they move onto the next exposure.

Another option is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This teaches people to challenge unhelpful thoughts that contribute to their anxiety, eventually replacing them with more balanced ones.

Lifestyle changes

Lifestyle changes can sometimes help a person reduce anxiety in day-to-day life, and promote healthy coping methods when a person is feeling anxious. They may include:

Learn more about coping with anxiety.

Medications

In some cases, doctors may prescribe medications to reduce the symptoms of atelophobia. Medications do not cure the condition, but they can make it easier to begin therapy or to carry out daily tasks.

Learn more about anxiety medications.

Atelophobia is the fear of imperfection. It is more extreme than perfectionism and can cause an array of mental and physical symptoms. Doctors do not know the cause, but factors such as a prior traumatic experience may play a role.

Atelophobia is somewhat similar to atichyphobia and social anxiety, as all three conditions can cause a person to fear making mistakes. However, they are distinct conditions. A doctor or mental health professional can make a diagnosis.

Treatment may include exposure therapy, CBT, and lifestyle changes to cope with the symptoms. In some situations, a doctor may suggest medications.