Everyone knows someone who has described themselves as a perfectionist. Maybe you’re talking about why they’re dissatisfied with a creative endeavor. Maybe you just wiped your perfect makeup off to start again.

In any case, it’s often a relatively harmless personality trait, or perhaps even a blessing in some cases.

But sometimes, perfectionism can spiral into a condition called atelophobia. It’s defined as “an exaggerated or irrational fear of imperfection.”

Too much of a perfectionist? Let’s hope it’s not a case of atelophobia.


Atelophobia – Condition, Symptoms and Cases

AtelophobiaAtelophobia is considered a form of anxiety disorder that is characterized by extreme, unhealthy perfectionism. Perfectionism itself is considered by modern psychologists as a personality trait. It causes one to strive for flawlessness and set high-performance standards.

In 1798, D.E. Hamachek said that there are two types of perfectionism: normal or neurotic. He said that normal perfectionists will pursue excellence, but rarely compromise their self-esteem during this pursuit. Neurotic perfectionists, on the other hand, are prone to set impossible goals for themselves. They feel dissatisfied when these goals aren’t met.

But the consensus on this condition and its forms are far from simple. There are dozens of different theories on levels and types of perfectionism, as well as whether or not the condition can be positive.

There are many researchers who believe that perfectionism will differ throughout different domains of a person’s life. For example, the behavior may be very pronounced in someone’s academic and professional domains, but not so much in their home lives and relationships.

Yet T.S. Greenspon argues that typologies and severities of perfectionism are irrelevant because the condition can never be positive. Perfection itself is a construct that is impossible for a person to achieve. He further says that perfectionism should be separated from behaviors that he denotes as “striving for excellence”.  Those who strive for excellence can take mistakes as incentives to work harder. While a perfectionist would consider their mistakes as personal defects and feel anxiety concerning them.


Defense Mechanism – Blessing or Curse

AtelophobiaIn the book Too Perfect: When Being in Control Gets Out of Control by Jeanette Dewyze and Allan Mallinger, both say that perfectionists are a sub-type of those with obsessive personalities. They say that the point of perfectionism is remaining in control at all times in order to protect themselves and loved ones. This is both from obvious things such as disappointment, but also against unforeseen issues in their environment, such as crime, weather, and accidents.

Perfectionism is not regarded as a negative trait by everyone. Some of the world’s geniuses were, in fact, perfectionists. Isaac Newton, in particular, was known for tendencies that bordered on atelophobia. But the list also includes people like Leonardo Da Vinci, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Kafka, Stanley Kubrick, and Steve Jobs. Many people believe that perfectionism drives people to achieve heights that they would not normally have strived for. But it can’t be denied that the pressure that some people place on themselves due to this condition has negative effects. There is an undisputable connection between atelophobia and maladaptive methods of dealing with stress.


Diagnosis and Treatment

AtelophobiaThere are multiple “Multi-dimensional Perfectionism Scales” that have been developed by psychologists. This is to determine how many behaviors associated with perfectionism a person performs and what level of perfectionism a person suffers from. One of these is the Physical Appearance Perfectionism Scale (PAPS), which is used specifically to determine the level of perfectionism a person feels in relation to their physical appearance.

This particular tool is useful in cases of anorexia nervosa, bulimia, body dysmorphia, and other anxiety disorders related to appearance.

Treatments for atelophobia are essentially the same as treatments for any other phobia – behavioral therapy, anti-anxiety medication, psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and exposure therapy are all viable options.  It should also be noted that perfectionism is not always a negative behavior, and thus may not require treatment at all.


Media Manipulations

Atelophobia, like many other irrational fears, can appear as a sort of subtle undertone in many horror movies and novels. The plot for many basic horror movies, whether it be the rampage of a sadistic killer or the awakening of a terrible supernatural force, involves a certain lack of control on the part of the victims.

They are often forced into situations that they could not have predicted or protected themselves from. In the eyes of a perfectionist that follows Dewyze and Mallinger, this could be terrifying. The reality that no amount of trying can save you from the wicked forces of the world.

In more concrete terms, there are few pieces of horror media that actually use perfectionism as a plot point.

There is, however, a film that was released in 2018 called The Perfection. Written and directed by Richard Shepard, the film follows a pair of musical prodigies named Lizzie and Charlotte. The pair strike up a friendship while assisting their mutual mentor, Anton, at his prestigious music school.

The events of the film eventually put the two women into competition with each other, and the film’s goriest scenes are inexorably tied with the concept of being able to play a piece of music perfectly.


Atelophobia in a Disordered World

In some ways, perfectionism is an admirable trait; those who suffer from it seem devoted to bringing a bit of order to a world that is unpredictable. Unfortunately, that desire can often bring about fear and anxiety, and ultimately lower a sufferer’s quality of life. The events of horror movies show this better than anything. They often depict normal people thrown into a situation that no one could have anticipated, no matter how regimented their lives are.

That’s what makes them scary; the idea that, at any moment, we could be swept into a life-or-death situation. Roaming serial killers, supernatural forces, and natural disasters don’t care how organized we are, or how well we do at things in our daily lives. Keep your head on a swivel; you’re never really safe.