What Atelophobia Is, And Why It Sums Up The Motherhood Experience

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Ah, atelophobia. You may not recognize the word, but if you’re a mom, its definition will undoubtedly resonate. That meaning? The fear of imperfection. It’s a term that seems like it was made for motherhood, amirite? These tiny humans we get the privilege of raising — they don’t come with instructions. What’s up with that? After this long, you’d think someone would have nailed down this whole child-rearin’ gig. Sadly, no. There are plenty of theories. Lots of good books, parenting courses, and experts sharing their knowledge on the subject. But no one really knows what it takes to grow an awesome kid. We’re all just fumbling our way through and hoping for the best. Your neighbor/sister/co-worker may look like they’ve got it all figured out (especially in those tiny squares on social media), but it’s mostly an illusion. Promise.

Enter atelophobia and how much it captures the parenting experience.

The struggle is real. No lie.

What makes your kid tick is gonna be different than what makes my kid tick. They’re each their own unique person. That means that what works to discipline your kid may not work for mine — and vice versa. And what it takes to connect to your kid will differ from what it takes to connect to mine. Hence why so many different schools of thought on what it takes to be a “good parent” exist. It’s also why we need to lose the fear of getting it wrong.

Do you love your child? If you’re here, your answer is clearly yes. Are you working each day to give them your very best? I’m guessing the answer to that is also yes. Our best is going to vary from day to day, along with our capacity. That’s OK, though. Consistent effort, at whatever level we can give, beats sporadic greatness any day. You were made to mother your kids — whether they came from your womb or not. You are all they need. If you get nothing else from this piece, let it be that.

You. are. all. your. children. need.

OK, maybe not all. They still need food, clothing, shelter. You get the gist. But hear my heart: You are enough.

Atelo-what? Let us explain.

Now, let’s switch gears a bit. Circling back to our technical term here, atelophobia. You may have heard it floating around the internet. Maybe not. If that’s the case, congrats! You’ve got a big fancy word you can now toss out in casual company. You’re welcome. But what does atelophobia mean beyond the fear of imperfection?

Atelophobia often gets described as a sort of extreme perfectionism. However, Dr. Gail Saltz, associate professor of psychiatry at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell Medical College, says it’s more complex than that. “As with any phobia, people with atelophobia think about the fear of making a mistake in any way,” Saltz told Healthline. “It makes them avoid doing things because they would rather do nothing than do something and risk a mistake, this is the avoidance.”

So, it is perfectionism — to the extreme. Maybe this is a struggle for you. If I’m being honest, it is for me. Not all the time, but on a pretty regular basis. It isn’t something that consumes my every thought, but I have a real fear of screwing my kids up. I lay awake at night and analyze my choices from the day before. I second-guess myself on a more than regular basis. Heard the phrase “mom guilt”? Hey, hi, hello! *insert frantic waving* That’s me. That word pairing may sound a little cliche, but cliches are that for a reason. Guilt, anxiety, fear, worry — these are things most moms deal with on the daily.

If this is you, know you aren’t alone.

What are the symptoms of atelophobia?

If you feel you may have atelophobia, there are a few ways to tell. Sometimes anxiety can get the best of us, but if you think it stems from something more specific, here are some symptoms to look out for:

  • Panic attacks
  • Dizziness
  • A strong desire to be perfect in everything
  • Anxiety and trouble relaxing
  • Prickly sensations
  • Palpitations
  • Difficulty making decisions

Wanna feel better? Read on.

So, what’s the answer? Well, as with mom-ing itself, there isn’t only one answer. Often, atelophobia can be managed by making a few lifestyle changes. Prioritizing your physical health is super-important. The mind-body connection isn’t a bunch of woo-woo; it’s the real deal. Poor sleep, dehydration, vitamin deficiencies, and other ways our physical health lack can contribute to anxiety and depression. Obviously, it isn’t the only factor, but it sure is a biggie.

Making sure you get enough sleep, eat well, and move your body are ways to improve your physical and mental health. The benefits of rest, H2O, good food, and sunshine shouldn’t be underestimated. For quick relief, practice deep breathing or step away for a short walk. As a last resort, hide in the bathroom with your emergency stash of wine and chocolate. We won’t judge. In fact, we may just join you. We call that self-care at its finest.

Above all else, if you find lifestyle changes aren’t enough and fear is consuming your everyday life, remember it’s OK to seek help. Your mental health matters. That whole oxygen mask thing (you’ve got to help yourself before you can help others) — it’s for real. Talk to your doctor about possible treatments, such as behavioral therapy and psychodynamic psychotherapy. Do whatever it is you need to do to feel better.

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