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Anxiety's Annual Test: The Challenge of the Christmas Tree

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It’s been five years since I last put up the Christmas tree. I live with my two daughters aged 11 and 16. We always manage to have some kind of tree, but it’s not always the “big” tree — the traditional six-foot tree. Often, the tree seems to be an insurmountable task. This year, I was determined to make sure the big tree was going up.

I live with anxiety and depression. I’m told I’m “high-functioning,” I believe that. Sometimes, I’m over-functioning. The list of things “to-do” seems never-ending. And I achieve much of what’s on it. However, at times, the list is all-consuming and I judge my worth on how much of it I achieve.

This year, my aim for the holidays was to get the big tree out and decorate it with my girls. I thought we could start a new tradition: A tree raising, a celebration. My youngest daughter said to me, “I remember one year you made us put up the tree while you just lay in bed.” Yes, my honey, I remember that too.

I’m not quite sure why that happens. The tree just seems overwhelming. Maybe it’s the memories attached to the commemorative ornaments? Maybe it’s the decision making about which ornaments to include? I’m not sure, but I know most years, the tree just seems too hard. Last year I bought a small tree, just 30 centimeters high. It took about 15 ornaments and the kids decorated it. It was big enough to put the presents under when we put it on a table.

Maybe the tree represents the image of a perfect life? Maybe it’s the pressure to make everyone happy? I feel the need to make everything perfect. I know this is flawed thinking, but the “shoulds” in my head are so strong.

Initially, I started to search for a new tree, thinking I wanted a better one — a softer one. But supply was limited this year for a range of reasons, so two days before Christmas, I decided to put up the old tree. Sometimes, I’m together enough to realize this search was another tactic that masks perfectionism, and I realized the tree we had, was good enough.

To help me reach my goal this year I started planning 12 weeks out. I had realized part of my problem was I was so exhausted from my work, that when it came time to do the tree, I couldn’t cope. I knew I had to manage my stress better, so when the Christmas holidays came, I wasn’t using all my holidays to recuperate from work. I organized to see a counselor every two weeks to help me manage my stress.

When I’m stressed, I get very self-critical and push myself even harder. I work longer hours and sleep less. I eat less regularly and forget to take bathrooms breaks. I lose touch with my body and get lost in my mind. The lists get longer and longer. There are paper lists, digital lists, and lists in my head. I become some kind of machine — a human robot focused on crossing things off the list, and the more I achieve, the more ideas I have to add to the list.

Last year, my to-do list for the Christmas holidays was 54 items long. And the items were not small achievable things — they were things like “clean the garage,” which in reality, is likely to take around 20 hours. It’s no wonder I feel so overwhelmed by the list.

The counselor gave me strategies to help me ground myself and listened to my concerns. It’s amazing how much you can sort out when you recount your problems to someone else. I found I often left that office with ways to tackle the problems I walked in worrying about.

This year, I decided I wasn’t going to create a long list of things to achieve in the Christmas holidays. Instead, I created a small list of about 10 things to do before Christmas. One of these items was to do the tree. Other list items would help me to get ready to do the tree: Tidy the room where the tree would go, sort out the decorations, put up the tree.

And so, two days before Christmas, after dinner, I put on the Christmas carols and my daughters and I trimmed the tree. It only took about an hour. And we had fun. I told them I’d like to try and make this a new tradition. They said that would be great. After it was done, they danced together while I ran around tidying up. I caught myself and said to myself, “Stop. Enjoy this time with them. Dance with them.” I did one dance with them until the pull to perfection took over and I ran off to keep tidying. One step at a time. I am proud of what I did achieve this year. The tree looks great. The next goal is to take it down before Easter!

Getty image by Westend61

Originally published: December 30, 2021
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