Hidden Anxiety Series: Toxic Perfectionism
Atelophobia. I know - weird word. Right now you’re probably wondering where the heck this is going and what that could possibly mean. Fear of telephones? Fear of telling...something? Nope. Atelophobia, my friends, is the fear of not being good enough. “Wait a minute - that’s a THING?!” you ask. Oh yes, it is. I’m betting if you’re reading this you’re already intimately acquainted with the concept, and just didn’t know it had a name.
Let’s explore a few examples and see if you can relate:
Example 1: Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. No, not TikTok. This is the less fun kind of ticking and tocking that happens when you
stare at your email, writing and rewriting a response to your boss. You’re sure she’s going to dissect it line by line and use it to form some massive judgment against you as a person. You have no idea why this makes you so anxious - your boss is actually not a jerk - but it has become *very* important to get every small detail exactly right. I mean,what if she thinks you’re being too direct? What if she hates your answer? Does this line sound stupid? *Gasp* what if she thinks it took too long for you to respond? You haaaaate that you feel this kind of pressure, and yet it always seems to find you. Eventually, you reach a point of strained satisfaction and click “send”, holding your breath as you immediately begin to fantasize about all the catastrophic reactions that might be thrown your way.
Straight A’s, trophies, awards and accolades have charmed your life since grade school. You’re the type of person who doesn’t see failure as an option. “Do your best” actually
means “BE the best”...right? Maybe that’s why you tend to shy away from trying new things, taking risks, or being emotionally vulnerable with people. You wouldn’t want anyone to know you’re actually capable of anything less than perfect, so you simply don’t bother trying.
It’s January 1st, and your New Year's Resolution list is a mile long. It is probably also categorized into different goal areas such as Health & Fitness, Personal Growth, Family, Work, and Hobbies. Your resolutions include things like “Lose ALL the weight I gained during the pandemic”, “Floss EVERY DAY.”, “read the entire Bible cover to cover!” and other lofty, all-or-nothing, and often unattainable goals. Even as you read this, you think to yourself “those seem totally attainable to me, what’s the big deal?”. Until it’s January 11th and you’ve already broken 12 carefully crafted resolutions and are now beating yourself up for, yet again, being a total failure.
Toxic perfectionism is what results when atelophobia is rooted deeply in one's psyche. It’s the action that accompanies the fear. It’s your internal psychological system’s way of protecting you from the pain of failing, saving you from what it perceives as a highly intense threat to your personhood. If you can just be perfect (or even merely “good enough”, for Pete’s sake!), then perhaps you won’t feel so alone, or so rejected, or so abandoned, or so insecure.
We all have negative beliefs hanging around in our heads. It’s normal. But, it doesn’t have to be *permanent*. What if you could teach that perfectionistic part of yourself that it doesn’t have to work so hard? What if you could shrug off your mistakes instead of dwell on them? What if you could find true freedom and healing from the relationships and experiences that made you feel this way in the first place?
Trust me when I say it IS possible, and entirely within your grasp.
Healing from toxic perfectionism is deep, concentrated work - but anyone can do it, with the right tools and the right guide. Here are a few of my most helpful tips to get you started on your journey to accepting the messy, joyful life you long for:
Tip 1 - Quit your job and take a year long vacation. Just kidding, don’t do that (I mean, unless you have the means to, in which case don’t let me hold you back!). But DO carve out some self-care time for yourself. Not sure what that looks like? Find a professional to help you unblock the belief that self-care is selfish and work towards prioritizing your needs.
Tip 2 - Take. A. RISK. Like, try something you’re likely to be absolutely terrible at. Seriously. Do it on purpose. If you have nary an artistic bone in your body, take up painting. If the idea of playing team sports gives you terrors, ask a friend or significant other to take you to shoot hoops. Get out of your comfort zone! You might surprise yourself. You’ll at least learn something new and start to desensitize yourself to the idea of not having your shit together 100% of the time.
Tip 3 - Make a list of perfectionistic thoughts, and another column with positive replacements. For example, replace “I’m the only Girl Scout mom in the troop who never knows wtf is happening” with “I have a very full life and the Girl Scout troop leader is understanding.”
Tip 4 - Throw your goals out the window. (Cue panic) Ok, maybe don’t ditch them altogether, but how about making them just a teeeeeensy bit more realistic? Perhaps “I’m going to follow this weight loss lifestyle/plan for 30 days straight and lose 20lbs” could turn into “I’m going to wake up each day and commit to this plan and I’ll see what happens”. Unachievable, unrealistic goals will only set you up for failure and trigger the cycle of shame and perfectionism all over again. Need help figure out what a measurable, achievable goal actually is? I’ve got your back - feel free to reach out, or contact another trusted therapist.
Tip 5 - Dig deep. This fear of failure, of not being good enough, did not happen overnight. My guess is that this is something you’ve dealt with for a long, long time. Recognize that toxic perfectionism is a symptom, not a cause. Are you ready to find freedom?
Sarah Czopek, MS, LCPC is an anxiety and trauma specialist with a mission to help driven women conquer their fear of not being good enough. Sarah is currently serving women in the state of Illinois. For more information or to schedule a free consultation with Sarah, visit www.graceandgratitudecounseling.com