Erratophobia and the fear factor

Consider how you will solve the worst-case scenario, then work back from there.

It was about week four of renovations that I finally ended up in tears. It’s common knowledge that anything to do with hearth ’n’ home — renovations, buying, selling or moving house — is considered one of the big 10 stressors alongside divorce, childbirth and grief. This particular situation was thrust on me — not out of enthusiasm but necessity.

I managed very well despite the horror of fixing one thing and being informed 10 other problems existed under it, between it, above it, had to be fixed before it or straight after. I had been warned it would be like this, but no one can prepare you for the gobsmacking shock of watching dollars just rolling out the door, or rather rolling under floorboards and into wall cavities.

But I was OK with this aspect. The thing that did me in were the countless decisions. Endless things: timbers, heights, colours, taps. I’ve never been much good at decisions, and finally ended up paralysed, standing in showrooms in a state of frozen terror, feeling inadequate, hopeless, a sense of dread with full-on stomach flips. The stomach flips started coming on morning and night. I told myself I was being ridiculous — I was not sitting in a doctor’s surgery being told “the news isn’t good”, yet the anxiety got worse and worse regardless of all logical attempts to quell and dismiss it.

After doing extensive reading and interviews, it emerged the problem is a common form of temporary social anxiety that affects one in four people at some point in their lives — fear of making mistakes. Erratophobia or errophobia (from Latin errat, erro, meaning mistake).

I don’t have a serious case of it; my anxiety has just been exacerbated by all the stress. But many people do suffer intensely. Faced with decisions, erratophobes feel extremely anxious, dread or panic with accompanying symptoms such as nausea, heart palpitations, breathlessness, rapid breathing, trembling, shaking, feeling a loss of control, and feelings of impending disaster from thinking about the consequences of failing or making wrong choices. The disorder stops many people doing normal things such as getting ahead at work. Some become commitment-phobic, not because they’re avoiding love but for fear of the pain and shame of being trapped in a potential mistake.

And it usually stems from childhood wounds. We’ve all been chastised by teachers and adults at some point, often by parents. It does us no good. According to Martin Antony, professor of psychology at Ryerson University and co-author of When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough, perfectionism is often at the centre of the dilemma: being convinced that we or our efforts are not good enough.

As children we soak up attitudes from adults about them or ourselves being “wrong”, and this is exacerbated as we get older, as bosses, friends and even the media subject us to criticism.

“The constant pressure to improve performance can have the effect of triggering fears of underperforming and of making mistakes,” Antony says.

Having some fear of mistakes can be a good thing if it helps to improve performance and teach invaluable lessons. But excessive fear causes problems. For instance, you may start avoiding certain situations — meetings, dates, jobs, choices — for fear of making some sort of blunder. You may procrastinate for fear of not being able to complete a task perfectly, Antony says. Or you may engage in “safety behaviours” to prevent making mistakes, “small behaviours to protect oneself from perceived dangers”. Like spending hours going over your work to make sure it’s mistake-free to the point of forgoing that opportunity to really shine and be successful.

According to Sydney clinical psychologist David Gilfillan, fear of making mistakes is not a small thing. It can be profound. It may manifest in the form of not being able to choose a bathroom tap or timber decking, but the decision is often about something much deeper. “It can feel like a judgment on who you are as a person, your tastes, your identity, who you’d like to see yourself as, who you used to be and who you are now. It might be steeped in lost dreams or evidence of relationship differences.”

Hence standing in front of bathroom cabinets choosing taps can be fraught with identity confusion or a sense of not being able to reconcile the person you want to be or become with the limitations of your situation.

Often there is also the fear of judgment by others involved, too. Or it can bring up a sense of childhood inadequacy as in “I’m no good at this or that so I shouldn’t even try”. Gilfillan says working on deeper issues towards knowing who you are, being confident in yourself as a person, is often the first step to good decision-making — in other words, making choices from a confident place of self-trust. Then mistakes don’t seem as meaningful.

Alas, I’ve found that until this awareness is reached, it can all be a bit of a mess — from big relationship decisions like living together to the smallest decision to throw away a bit of paper.

Hoarders, for instance, cling to clutter for fear that if they chuck something out it may be a mistake: “What if I need it later?” Obsessive-compulsive thoughts take hold. Others like me may feel scared they’ll be living with something irreversible, so they prevaricate.

Various experts have offered solutions. Gilfillan advises us to embrace mistakes. It’s the natural state of human existence. What would life be if kids were afraid of making mistakes? No one would ever learn to walk or talk. We need to find that free-spirited part of ourselves again and take creative risks, even tiny ones. Let ourselves have a bit of freedom, a bit of colour and fun.

I agree. The regret of not having tried is always worse for me than the regret of trying and making an error — so why not err on the side of creativity not caution?

Some suggestions I’ve heard include: be kind to yourself when you make mistakes; let “good enough” be good enough; don’t dramatise; put the decision in perspective, see the funny side; try to look down on oneself from above.

Cognitive behavioural therapy is said to be effective with techniques to help with decision-making and the use of tools such as pros/cons lists, examining several sides of the issue, and creatively generating options for action.

It’s helpful to identify what you fear in the mistake. Is it rejection, disappointment, disapproval, discomfort? I find it useful to consider: “What will happen if the worse case scenario occurs?” Then, can I live it? Mostly you’ll find you can, so you can work back from there. Also, you will find most things are reversible, albeit at a cost. The best advice? Be like a happy child in a sandpit: do new things and wallow. Enjoy failure, free fall, get muddy, get back up, knock creations over and start again. Most of all, keep laughing.

ruth.ostrow@hotmail.com

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