How journaling is helping me overcome perfectionism

Writing down my thoughts has kept me grounded

Julia's hobby has evolved into a strategy to work through her worries.
Photo: 
November 4, 2020: If I’m not my good grades, the hours I put in at the gym, or the clothes I spend hundreds of dollars on, then who am I?
 
I bought my first journal at the beginning of Grade 12. 
 
Originally, my intention was to start a food journal, but I soon realized I could use my journal to address my mental health in addition to my physical health. I enjoyed the freedom of writing, but I was also scared and ashamed to admit certain things to myself. 
 
Since elementary school, I’ve been labelled a ‘model student.’ I’ve always been quiet, sweet, and focused, and done as I was told. 
 
I did well in school, and every ‘A’ I nonchalantly showed my parents made them so proud. When I came home one day and announced that I wanted to be a doctor, my parents were delighted.
 
Somewhere along the line, I began to attribute my self-worth to my academic accomplishments—if I could succeed in school, everything else would fall into place. My plan was always to excel in university, get into a graduate program, and land an impressive job. I would have a good salary, a nice house, and, surely, I would stumble across a Prince Charming who would be impressed by the life I had made for myself. 
 
Meanwhile, the compulsive perfectionist inside me was always whispering, “If you miss a beat, your life will fall apart. Eventually you will fail, and people will be disillusioned by your incompetency. Your success is fragile. The illusion of success you have meticulously crafted is bound to break, and you will be nothing. Because you are nothing.”
 
Although I excelled in high school, I began to recognize that university was going to be a much bigger challenge. In first year, I was very disappointed in myself after receiving my grade on my first university exam: the infamous PSYC100 midterm. 
 
November 1, 2018: I got my psyc[hology] midterm back today. […] It was a wake-up call. […] I didn’t dwell on it though.  I was shocked at first but then I said to myself: what would a doctor do? […] Roll with the punches, learn from your mistakes, and don’t give up on yourself.
 
Keeping a journal has given me the space to challenge my inner perfectionist. When I write things down on paper, I’m given an objective view of the seemingly earth-shattering situation at hand. 
 
Even now, when I receive a bad grade, I get a sinking feeling in my stomach that says, “Of course you failed. You’ve gone as far as you can go and now you are starting to lag behind the others. You were never as good 
as them.”
 
Writing things down helps  rationalize this pessimistic voice. Life is about problem-solving and taking accountability for your failures, not being perfect.  
 
My journals are a testament to who I am beyond my grades. They hold my most precious memories, my goals and dreams. The tear-stained pages are humble reminders of the trials and failures that have made me who I am.
 
***
 
Perfectionism isn’t limited to my academics; it has also metastasized to my outlook on 
my body.
 
Throughout my childhood, I was always very thin. I danced, played hockey, and was happy with my body. Then puberty hit, and I gained a lot of weight—suddenly, I had this weird, new body I wasn’t very fond of.
 
In first year, I realized I had the opportunity to form new health habits as I transitioned into living on my own. I decided to make my health and fitness a priority: I swam several times a week, went rock climbing, did spin and Zumba classes. Over time, my body started to change.
 
For years, all I’d wanted was to be thinner, yet, when I finally started seeing results, I wasn’t satisfied. I thought losing weight would make me feel better about myself, but instead, when the number on the scale actually started going down, it felt like a game, and the number on the scale was the score. How low could I get it to go?
 
I maintained healthy eating habits, but my mindset going through these changes was not healthy. Nothing ever seemed to be enough. 
 
In the midst of this transformation, I reflected on the greater purpose that bodies have. Women’s bodies are not objects to please men, they are not trophies, and they don’t need to be perfect to be beautiful.
 
December 2, 2018: 
 
To my body,
 
You’re supposed to be thin, you’re supposed to be strong, you’re supposed to be sexy, your skin is supposed to be perfect, your hair is supposed to be flawless, and you need to wake up every day and look the part. You’re thin, but not thin enough. Strong, but not strong enough. 
 
Do boys even see you? Why does my skin look like that and why is my hair sticking out that way? 
Why do you have to look like this?
 
I shouldn’t be so hard on you. My legs have taken me everywhere I’ve ever wanted to go. My hands let me hold things: books, pens, babies, and other people’s hands. Sometimes I like my hair best when it’s a mess and when my mom used to run her hands through it when I was little. My eyes have let me see the world and my mouth will someday kiss someone I love. My skin may never be perfect but it’s nice when people touch your skin because it’s the closest they can be to you. And abs… just because I can’t see you, it doesn’t mean you’re 
not there. 
 
I try to take care of you not because I hate you but because I love you. I want you to be healthy. I need to learn to love you because you’re beautiful. Really, I mean that. I’m not used to saying it and I’m bad at telling you, but you are beautiful.
 
***
 
Journaling has helped me solidify an identity for myself beyond my academics and my physical appearance. When I get caught up in the unattainable expectations of the world, my journal helps me ground myself. 
 
Inevitably, I will fail to meet the standards for success and beauty imposed by our society, but that’s okay—it’s normal, even. Journaling helps me to better handle the uncertainty that comes with failure.
 
In her book Becoming, Michelle Obama writes: “failure is a feeling before it becomes an actual result.”
 
As long as I don’t give up on journaling, I will never give up on myself. Failure is more of an obstacle than a finish line.
 
The less time I spend trying to be perfect, the more time I can spend being myself and discovering who I am. At the end of the day when I turn off my laptop, put on my pyjamas, and open my journal, I ask myself: who am I today, and who do I want to become tomorrow?
 

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