Do you criticize yourself constantly? Or think that everything you do is wrong—while rarely noticing what you do right? If so, targeted journaling can help you let go of self-criticism, create balance in your life, and set realistic expectations. This article provides a set of journal prompts for perfectionism and self-criticism to help you get started.
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The problem with perfectionism
Perfectionism isn’t just striving for excellence or a desire to improve yourself.
Perfectionism is holding yourself (and possibly others) to unrealistically high standards – standards that you can never meet, so you always feel like you’re not measuring up.
Perfectionism leaves you feeling inadequate no matter how much you accomplish or how perfect you try to be.
And in the process, perfectionism robs us of the joys of everyday life—the ability to enjoy our successes, accept our mistakes, show up authentically, and connect with others.
How journaling can reduce perfectionism and self-criticism
Perfectionism is stubborn. Even after you’ve recognized how much stress and turmoil it’s causing, it’s hard to break free of it.
The following reflective questions are designed to help you explore your perfectionism—understand what it’s about, where it came from, what purpose it serves, and how to stop criticizing yourself and feel good about who you are.
You can use these questions as writing prompts or journaling prompts. Choose a quiet time without distractions to begin your writing. Plan to write for 5-10 minutes per question, but allow yourself more time if you haven’t finished.
Try stream of consciousness writing, which means writing whatever comes to mind; don’t censor yourself, edit, or worry about what it looks like. The goal is to freely express your true thoughts and feelings.
Depending on your schedule, you can answer one question per day or you can answer several. I don’t recommend trying to do them all in one day, however. Give yourself enough time to truly reflect, let the ideas marinate, and give yourself time to process what you’re uncovering.
Journal prompts for perfectionism and self-criticism
Getting ready to change
This first set of questions is designed to help you evaluate what and why you want to change. It’s perfectly normal to feel ambivalent about making changes.
- What problems does perfectionism cause for you?
- Is perfectionism helpful in any way?
- How do you feel about giving up the unhelpful aspects of perfectionism?
- How will your life be better if you can be less perfectionistic?
Perfectionists are often cruel to themselves. We expect the impossible and then berate ourselves when we can’t meet those standards. We say things to ourselves that we’d never say to someone else. The following questions will help you change your negative self-talk.
- What kinds of negative things does your inner perfectionist say to you?
- Is your negative self-talk helpful, fair, or accurate? Do you hold yourself to a higher standard than everyone else?
- How can you respond to your inner perfectionist’s expectations, demands, and criticisms with understanding and compassion?
- What do you think your inner perfectionist is afraid of?
Understand where your perfectionism comes from
We learn that we need to be perfect from a variety of sources. Usually, our culture, gender, how we were parented, and innate personality play a part. Understanding why we developed perfectionism can help us develop more compassion for ourselves.
- Was perfectionism encouraged in your family or culture? How?
- When you were a child, what happened when you made a mistake or didn’t meet someone’s expectations? Were you harshly criticized or punished?
- What kind of parenting style did your parents have? Did they use one of the four parenting styles that can contribute to perfectionism? How did it affect you?
- How did you realize that perfectionism is a way for you to get attention, validation, and please others?
- What else do you think led to your perfectionism? Do you remember any particular experiences that might have contributed?
- If you could go back in time, what would you say to your younger self when you felt scared, worried, inadequate, etc?
Accept that your perfectionism is trying to help you (but it isn’t)
Some people may be innately predisposed to perfectionism. But at least some of our perfectionism is an attempt to deal with challenges whether it’s a chaotic home life or believing we’re inferior. Brene Brown, Ph.D. described perfectionism as “…the ultimate fear… People who are walking around as perfectionists…They are ultimately afraid that the world is going to see them for who they really are and they won’t measure up…I call perfectionism ‘the 20-ton shield.’ We carry it around thinking it’s going to protect us from being hurt. But it protects us from being seen.”
- What do you think your perfectionism is trying to protect you from?
- What are you afraid will happen if you remove your perfectionism shield?
- If you take down your perfectionism shield and let people know the real you, how might your life be better?
- What can you say to remind yourself that you are enough just as you are?
Resist the urge to do more, fix, edit, or re-do
As perfectionists, we can waste a lot of time perfecting things that don’t need to be perfect. We feel compelled to work incessantly; we’re so obsessed with achieving more, doing it perfectly, and being everything to everyone that we can’t relax and have fun. Use these questions to help bring your life back into balance.
- What’s one thing that you can leave unfinished or imperfect?
- How does it feel to not do something?
- If you feel anxious when you’re not working or doing, how can you calm yourself and tolerate the discomfort?
- What are you giving up because your perfectionism tells you to work harder, do more, prove yourself?
- Why are fun and self-care important to a happy, healthy life? If you’ve neglected these areas of your life, what were the effects?
- What do you like to do for fun? How do you take care of your body, mind, and spirit? How can you incorporate more of these activities into your life?
Shift away from negative thinking
As Perfectionists, we tend to focus on the negatives. We only notice our deficits and failures, never our strengths and successes. We worry about everything that can go wrong. We think in black and white, failing to see that “good enough” really is good enough.
- What are you grateful for?
- What are your strengths?
- How can you enjoy the process or experience rather than focusing only on the outcome?
I hope these journaling prompts for perfectionism and self-criticism will help you to understand your perfectionism better and begin to move you toward greater self-compassion and self-acceptance. To explore these issues more deeply and facilitate greater change, check out the book I wrote: The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism (available from all major bookstores).
©2021 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved. Photos courtesy of Canva.com.
- The Lies Perfectionism Tells Us
- Perfectionism Isn’t About Trying to Be Perfect
- 9 Ways to Tame Self-Criticism
- Practical Exercises to Overcome Perfectionism (video)
Ditch Your Rigid, Self-Critical Thinking
Do you hold yourself—and perhaps others—to extremely high standards? Do you have a nagging inner-critic that tells you you’re inadequate no matter how much you achieve? Do you procrastinate certain tasks because you’re afraid you won’t carry them out perfectly? If you’ve answered “yes” to one or more of these questions, chances are you’re a perfectionist. And while there’s nothing wrong with hard work and high standards, perfectionism can take over your life if you let it.