The previous article in this series introduced the subject of perfectionism, and the harmful effects that can be results of perfectionist thinking. This article is a continuation of the topic, and introduces a helpful tool that an individual wishing to change their perfectionist habits can use.

Thoughts: we have them ALL the time. Our constant stream of thoughts is something that defines us as humans. When we consider our behavior, it really is not situations by themselves that make us react in certain ways, but it is our internal thoughts and perceptions about situations influencing how we behave. It may seem counter-intuitive, but our never-ending thoughts often lead to a lack of consciousness of what we are thinking. A thought that happens without our awareness is called an automatic thought. Sometimes automatic thoughts are fairly neutral. For example, when you are driving you might think, “The light is red.” Sometimes we have automatic thoughts that have a positive spin: “This shirt looks nice on me.” Other times, our automatic thoughts are negative. You might think, “I am so bad at math.” Perfectionists may experience more negative automatic thoughts then other individuals due to their unrealistic, self-imposed high standards. This can be unhealthy. It’s practically impossible to stop having automatic thoughts because our thoughts are intricately connected to our emotions and what we feel. However, the ability to reflect on an automatic thought can be a healthy skill for individuals wishing to change their perfectionism to use. One way to develop this skill is by using a thought diary. Here’s how:

  1. Start by writing down a situation or an event that you experienced. For example, your presentation in history class.

  2. Write down all the things you were thinking to yourself. For example, write down thoughts you remember having before, during, or after the presentation you gave in history class.

  3. Highlight a specific thought that stands out to you as particularly negative. For example, “I sound stupid.”

  4. Assign the thought you highlighted a number (1-10) based on how much truth you think that thought has. In this example, you might assign “I sound stupid” a 9, which would mean you believe that thought to be very accurate.

  5. Make a list of words describing your feelings during the situation/ event:

    frustrated, embarrassed, annoyed, angry

  6. Highlight the feeling word that fits the best with the event/ situation, and give that word a number (1-10) based on how strongly you felt that feeling at the time. For example, you might choose “embarrassed” and give it an 8.5.

  7. Write a description of how you were physically feeling during the situation or event.

    I felt like I was blushing, and I had sweaty palms. I felt shaky.”

  8. Look at the thought you picked out in step #3, and make a list of all the evidence that you believe supports this thought. Then make a list right next to the evidence for the thought, and make a list of any possible evidence that this thought is not true.

    This next step as well as the next one can be the most challenging, but are also the most crucial steps in creating change. When doing these steps, try to remain as objective as possible.

  9. This step requires you to gain perspective on your thoughts. Reflect on the following questions:

  • How would someone who isn’t a perfectionist view this situation?

  • Is it helpful for me to have these thoughts?

  • Are there other perspectives I could take on this situation?

  • Are there positive aspects that I am not taking into account?

Finally, reconsider the thought you choose in step #3. Try to form a more neutral or positive version of that thought, and write it down:

“I felt nervous during my presentation, but I knew what I was talking about.”

For a second time, rate the feeling you choose in step #6 (1-10) with your new thought in mind.

For a second time, rate the validity of your original thought.

Hopefully you will find this tool useful! Stay tuned for more tools, strategies, and interventions on this topic and other topics related to education!