Atelophobia

I’m not one to have a lot of fears. I don’t have irrational fears of sharks, spiders, insects, or wild animals. Unlike my 11-year-old, I don’t fear every storm will produce a devastating tornado. There are things I’m afraid of, sure, but I am not inhibited by fear.

My twin brother, for example, is terrified of spiders. It doesn’t matter what size of the spider, what type of spider, or even a real or fake spider. He has a fear of spiders. There are numerous stories, some of them quite comical we could tell about his “run-ins” with spiders. However, I will spare you and him.

There is one fear; however, that has plagued me most of my life. There is a phobia I harbor, though irrational, it is highly damaging. It’s called Atelophobia. I only recently learned of this phobia.

Atelophobia is defined as the fear of not doing something right or the fear of not being good enough. In other words, it’s a fear of imperfection. The term “atelophobia” comprises two Greek words: the prefix Atelo(s) means imperfect, and the post-fix phobia means fear. Thus, the word atelophobia quite literally means they fear of being imperfect. People with atelophobia often suffer and can develop debilitating depression or anxiety when their perceived expectations do not match reality.

According to an article in the Huffington Post, “People with atelophobia often subconsciously make perfection their goal. This goal cannot, of course, ever be reached. Thus, the person is left feeling miserable and useless and ineffective in his or her life. The atelophobe progressively loses self-confidence and self-esteem, reinforcing the belief that (s)he can never do anything right.”

For example, there have been case studies of incredibly talented painters who give up painting or hide their work because they believe that it is not “perfect.” In reality, their portraits are better than most; in their minds, it’s just not good enough.

This particular phobia has plagued me most of my life. I wrestle daily with this crippling mindset. I’m afraid of not being good enough. Early in my adolescent years, I chose not to try. My reasoning was this if I fail because I don’t work; at least I didn’t fail because I wasn’t good enough. I take criticism, even perceived criticism, extremely personal. If I don’t succeed at something or it seems people do not like me personally, I assume it’s because there’s something wrong with me.

I discovered this when I resigned from Pastoring last September. I learned that even I didn’t know who I am. I was so scared of not being good enough that I built an idol of perfection, and I hid inside of it. I never allowed myself to be vulnerable. I never shared my struggles. I was always the guy with the answers, never the guy with the questions. Did I struggle? Absolutely. Did I have questions? You bet I did. I was too afraid that people would see my inadequacies and that I would no longer be good enough.

I’ve published four books. Yet, after each book is complete, I struggle to publish it. Why? Because I think it’s not good enough for anyone to read. To this day, I cannot fathom how I’ve sold over 800 copies of my first book, King in a Cave. The truth is, I don’t ever feel like I’m enough. I’m not talented enough. Not attractive enough. Not a good enough parent. Not enough to ever be loved. As a pastor, I wasn’t good enough. I didn’t love enough. There’s always a sea of “not enough” that drowns my mind.

Through my life’s success and failures, I’ve had to learn something very hard for me to grasp. I wasn’t created to be enough. God created us to depend on Him for everything. Alone, we are sinful, wretched people, capable of nothing good. Even our best attempts are filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). We can’t do anything of value without Christ. It’s not my job to be perfect; it’s His. That’s not a disappointment, it’s a relief! I don’t have to hide in the idol of perfection I’ve created for myself. I can be weak. I can be vulnerable. I can be human. Because in my weakness, when I crawl out of my idol of perfection and recognize where I’m lacking, I discover a powerful truth – His strength is made perfect!

Also, name one person God used mightily that was perfect? Most of the greats in scripture were tragic failures. David murdered and cheated. Jonah ran. Elijah couldn’t hold himself together. Samson couldn’t control his lust. Moses struggled with his anger. It even cost him a trip to the Promised Land. Peter denied Jesus. Paul persecuted Christians. The list goes on and on. The trouble is, we focus on the good stuff these people did. We focus on their successes and their victories. Know why? Because the Bible is written to help us do just that. It’s the perfect reflection of exactly how God sees us – not as the summary of life’s failures, but as the success of His mercy and grace.

None of our favorite Bible heroes were “enough” by the world’s standards. Moses wasn’t a good enough speaker. Gideon wasn’t a good enough soldier. Eve wasn’t a good enough wife or mother. Peter wasn’t a good enough leader. It’s a good thing too because if they were perfect, we would look to them instead of the cross.

Hebrews chapter 11 captures the highlights of these incredible people. We see the exploits of great men like Abraham, Noah, Moses, Jacob, Isaac, David, Gideon, Samson, etc. Yet, Abraham lied and doubted God. Moses had anger issues and missed out on the Promised Land. Jacob was a deceiver and manipulated his father to receive the blessing. Isaac favored Esau, even though God favored Jacob. David was an adulterous murderer. Gideon built an ephod and, in turn, brought idolatry to his house. Samson struggled with women his whole life. Yes, they accomplished a lot. They also made colossal failures.

Is it any wonder that after the writer of Hebrews gives us a full chapter about the heroes of faith, that he opens chapter 12 like this:

“Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us,
Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.” – Hebrews 12:1-2 KJV

This “great cloud of witnesses” is not a collection of perfect people. It’s flawed people – people who made mistakes. Yet, their lives were defined by the God who empowered them despite their shortcomings. So, in turn, we must lay aside every weight – the inadequate feelings of not being good enough – and understand the He is the author and the finisher of my faith. He makes me good enough. He works through my mistakes and my shortcomings.

It’s not because of me that I’ve been successful. It’s because of Him. At times, I still struggle with feeling inadequate. The fear of not being good enough again threatens me daily. Yet, daily I remind myself – His strength is made perfect in my weakness. When I learn to embrace who I am, He can empower me to be what I’m not.

Published by Joshua McElhaney

Joshua McElhaney has served over 15 years in ministry, serving as both an Assistant Pastor for over a decade, and as lead Pastor. During his time in leadership, Joshua learned many valuable lessons about leading. Using his own experiences and the troves of Biblical treasures, McElhaney has created resources that will enlighten, empower, and enable leaders across the spectrum to lead the way God has called them to lead. Joshua married Karena, his college sweetheart, in June of 2007. Together they have three beautiful children; Mayli, Jaxson, and Asher.

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