overcoming orthophobia

Orthophobia: An excessive dislike or fear of propriety or of always having to maintain proper or “correct” behavior.

An Excess of Phobias and Manias by John G. Robertson (2003, p. 135)

People who suffer from orthophobia excessively worry about always “behaving properly”, including using good manners, always doing what they think is expected of them socially, and basically just always being “correct”. Ortho comes from the Greek word meaning “correct’, and phobia means fear.


What Causes It?

It’s often difficult to find an exact cause for a phobia like this. Some phobias arise from a traumatic event. Many people who suffer from orthophobia may have been raised in a strict household where the authority figures always demanded that the child conform to strict social norms and behaviors. The child then internalizes this and starts becoming afraid of “doing something wrong”. They share a lot of commonalities with perfectionists.

Orthophobic people judge themselves excessively, hold high standards, and always assume they know “what others think”. Severe cases can lead to a kind of paralysis where the person is so afraid of not behaving correctly that they simply avoid taking action, going out, or being seen by others. Others may just get anxious, sweaty, dizzy, or any of the other typical bodily fear responses often throughout the day or when they find themselves in social situations.

Tips for Overcoming It

To beat orthophobia, it’s imperative to change your way of thinking. It isn’t easy, but it’s entirely doable. If you want to enlist professional help, it’s a good idea to find someone who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), because it has been demonstrated to have good results in changing the thinking patterns that cause you to have this fear. To find a CBT practitioner, you can search for one here.

If you prefer to conquer it on your own without professional help, here are some tips.

  • Don’t Resist or Fight It When You Start Feeling the Fear

    Remember this: What You Resists, Persists. The natural response when you start feeling the effects of fear (racing heart, sweatiness, shakiness, dry mouth, panic, etc) is to fight to make it stop – now. However, resisting the fear usually just makes it worse or just prolongs the episode. Try embracing your fear. I know it sounds kind of stupid, but believe me, it works.

    The best thing to do is calmly acknowledge your feelings. Talk to yourself in the third person to get some distance from the uncomfortable feelings. Narrate what’s happening in a reassuring tone. An example would be, “Sam, I notice you are breathing fast and your hands are sweaty. I see you are feeling uncomfortable, but this feeling will pass. It always does. It sucks, but it won’t kill you. You can handle this. You’ve done it before. This is just temporary, so just stand here and notice it and let it pass.

    Trying to actively make fear stop rarely works. Acknowledge it, accept it, let it pass on it’s own. It will pass whether you do something or not. Don’t judge yourself harshly or criticize yourself (“Why can’t you get it together? What’s wrong with you?“). Treat yourself as you would treat a scared child: tenderly and with understanding and compassion. (“It’s alright. Sometimes this happens. You can handle this.“)

  • Examine Your Thoughts and Beliefs

    Fear usually arises from thoughts and beliefs, but if you’ve mastered being fearful, it can pop up so fast that you don’t even realize the thoughts you have that caused the fear response. So get yourself a journal (or use this app) and examine what you were thinking when your fear response occurred.

    Notice what you were thinking, make note of it, then analyze it. Was there some distorted thinking going on there? Which thoughts or beliefs would better serve you and help alleviate bringing on a fear response? Next time something like this happens, what thoughts or beliefs can you substitute instead of the ones you used this time?

  • Drop the Should’s

    “Should” and “Should not” can really get you worked up into a tizzy. Start to take notice of all the times you think “I should/shouldn’t ____”, or “People should____”. Instead of wishing life or people or you yourself would conform to some silly notion of what “should” be, start trying just to accept reality as it is. Byron Katie teaches a method of doing this, and you can read all about her technique in her book, Loving What Is: Four questions That Can Change Your Life.

  • Start Researching

    If you’ve convinced yourself tat there is a “correct” way of doing things or that things have to be done a certain way to achieve results, start re-educating yourself. First of all, where did you get that idea from? Was the person who told you that an expert on all matters? Get online and start finding examples of people who behaved differently or in a way that you consider “bad” or “incorrect”. Find stories where this “incorrect” behavior worked out well. Read about how things are done in different cultures.

    If you put in the effort and do some research, you will discover proof that there’s no “right way” or “one correct way” to do things. Far from it! Gather enough proof, and you will automatically change the belief that you have to act a certain way, which will automatically diminish your fears.

    Utilize your new-found knowledge in the way you talk to yourself. When that fear pops up, say things like, “It’s perfectly okay if I’m not perfect”. “It’s perfectly fine if I don’t act in that manner”. Accept yourself no matter what.

    If you fear people will react negatively to you if you act a certain way, realize that most people think about you far less than you think they do. People spend far more time thinking about their own lives than they think about what others are doing. And so what if they do? It’s not the end of the world. What’s the worst that can happen? Imagine the worst case scenario, get comfortable with it, and accept it. Chances are, it won’t ever happen, but if it does, know that you can handle it just fine.

Orthophobia does not need to induce fear into you for years to come. Start today to notice and change your distorted thinking. You can diminish or eliminate this phobia from your life if you put forth consistent effort.