Fear

Forosophobia: Fear of Taxes and the IRS

“Present fears are less than horrible imaginings.” —Macbeth

Posted Feb 12, 2021

With the advent of tax season in the United States, I wanted to write about the existential dread evoked by tax reporting and the Internal Revenue Service. Aversion and procrastination are widely shared and normal reactions to our annual tax ritual. But some people are so traumatized by the ordeal of preparing tax returns and so terrified of the IRS that their condition manifests as pathological. And that extreme, traumatic fear indicates a phobia. 

Interestingly, a literature review turned up no peer-reviewed studies addressing either “tax phobia or anxiety” or “IRS phobia or anxiety.” Numerous websites and mainstream media articles address these issues, of course. But until now there has been no recognized nomenclature in scholarly literature for “fear of taxes or the IRS.” 

The most credible published commentary of tax-time anxiety comes from law firms and accountants who deal with highly fearful clients and their tax problems. 

One law firm, for example, relates its experience with anxious clients as follows:

People having IRS phobia tend to find themselves in a situation that they feel is beyond themselves or beyond what they can mentally handle. We have seen people refuse to open letters from the IRS fearing the worst. We have seen people close to panic attacks when discussing their tax issues. We have seen people in tears, feelings of stress, and even thoughts of hurting themselves. All these things we have seen is heart breaking.

As far back as 1984, the Washington Post published an article, “Fear of Filing,” which demonstrates how little has changed when it comes to tax-time dread. In the article, David Charney, a psychiatrist, observes that “certain people have an obsessive avoidance of any situation that symbolizes completion, meaning they are able to deal with activities leading up to a conclusion, but not with the finalization.” By this, Charney means the impossible pursuit of perfection as an end in itself, resulting in the derailment of goals and deadlines. One example mentioned is a taxpayer who never filed because he could not calculate mileage expenses down to the penny. 

For others, procrastination rather than perfectionism is an end in itself. The Washington Post article cites the case of a woman who didn’t file for several years even though the government owed her a refund year after year. The task is just so daunting and depressing for many, that they never start working on their tax returns, or eventually give up and fail to file. Procrastination alone is not indicative of a phobia, but fear can lead to paralysis of action and thus to procrastination. (As an aside, my favorite procrastination quote is, “Hard work pays off eventually, but procrastination pays off now.” I don’t know who said it.)

Given that tax trepidation and IRS aversion are generally recognized phenomena, and further, that sufficient anecdotal evidence exists to establish that such fear produces phobic reactions in some people, I submit that there is sufficient cause to name the phobia. Accordingly, I offer forosophobia as the name for the fear of taxes and the IRS. “Foros” is the Greek word for “tax,” and “phobia” of course comes from the Greek word for “fear.”

Pathological perfectionism is a key symptom of obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, although it’s not exclusive to that or any other disorder. Phobias can arise and persist, for example, via conditioning. In fact, excessive, irrational fear of imperfection is a phobia in its own right, namely atelophobia. Now just imagine someone in the grip of such terror, and yet faced with the obligation of reporting and paying taxes. Complications will ensue, be they legal, financial, psychological, or (most likely) a combination thereof.

The American Psychological Association recognizes three general categories of phobias:

  • Agoraphobia: Fear for one’s safety in open spaces, when leaving home, etc.
  • Social phobias: Fear of humiliation or rejection in public
  • Specific phobias: Such as fear of snakes, heights, flying, etc.

Forosophobia would be considered a specific phobia.    

Again, “phobia” means excessive fear, not reasonable fear. For example, if I see a black widow spider crawling on my desk as I write this, my reasonable reaction (after my initial startled reaction) might be to take off a shoe and send it to that great spider web in the sky. However, if a mother spies a spider in her car while driving and abandons the running vehicle with her toddler inside, after which a collision ensues, one might suspect arachnophobia. So obviously phobias can evoke panic attacks, paralysis of action, hyperventilating, and other physical symptoms. 

As Benjamin Franklin astutely observed, “nothing is certain but death and taxes.” Extreme fear of death (as if there were any other kind) is thanatophobia. And forosophobia is the new name for tax anxiety. But what if one is pathologically afraid of both death and taxes? For that eventuality, I generously offer to name yet another phobia: thanatoforosophobia.

"There went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed."  —Luke 2:1