I don’t particularly enjoy my birthday.
I hate the pressure that comes with my birthday. I hate people asking me what I want to do, where I want to eat, or how I feel now that I’m older. I hate the eyes on me, the constant reminders that it’s my day, the expectancy with which I’m asked if I’m having fun.
I can’t ignore it either, of course — nor do I want to, which I think is the true headache here. I do want people to remember I’m a year older, to wish me well, but I also feel guilty for those expectations. I’m caught trying to balance my own expectations with those of everyone around me, and I think that makes it hard for anyone else to understand how I’m feeling. I’m not sure anyone ever really believes me when I try to explain it to them — especially because, in many cases, saying you don’t want a party (or don’t want presents) is code for the opposite.
I’m only faced with this anxiety-inducing quandary once every year; consequently, it seems fairly inconsequential, and so I’ve never thoroughly attempted to understand it. I’ve accepted it into my character, assimilated this discomfort into my personality, and consciously avoided questioning it. Now, however, I’m worried this depressive outlook on a day supposed to hold personal meaning for me may actually be symptomatic of some larger, vaguer issue — ergo, I feel as if it’s important I at least attempt to process some of these feelings.
I plan on quickly walking myself, step-by-step, through relevant advice common in articles concerning the ‘birthday blues.’ I invite you to join this journey with me, in hopes it may help you better understand either yourself or someone else in your life suffering the same annual emotional predicament.
Pinpoint the cause of your anxiety
Deakin University clinical psychologist Glenn Melvin suggests four key motivators for birthday-related anxiety, the first of which is broader social anxiety. “Some people don’t like being the center of attention,” Melvin says. “To receive gifts and have a fuss made — it can trigger a type of social anxiety.”
I could probably just end this article here. I don’t consider myself a typically socially anxious person, but I do strongly dislike being forced into the limelight. I like to feel as if I’m needed, but not to feel as if I’m receiving pronounced attention — I’m still learning how to accept compliments, and I’m constantly nervous about taking up too much space in any given situation. It’s uncomfortable, then, when others reserve space for me with the expectation I fill it — like they do on my birthday.
Melvin’s second proposed factor is traumatic experience, the thought that any anniversaries of negative or stressful past birthday experiences might trigger similar emotion. I don’t think this is the case for me, personally — I’ve had fantastic birthdays; nights out at comedy clubs with friends, all-day alcoholic soccer-themed barhops, family ping-pong tournaments — but it’s an eminently understandable possibility.
Melvin also suggests that our birthdays can bring intense self-reflection, that these days throw into sharp relief our personal career achievements or life milestones — as well as everything we’ve failed to attain or accomplish. It’s this pressure we place on ourselves that causes depressive anxiety — and, coupled with the (fourth) innate memento mori that is a birthday, it makes sense that these days can trigger intense feelings of stress or frustration.
It’s unclear whether I can claim any of these four potential ingredients as responsible for my own personal predicament. I can’t think of any potential traumatic memories, I’m relatively unworried about my ‘life accomplishments,’ and I’m as yet unconcerned with my own death. I don’t have diagnosable social anxiety, either — though I do strongly dislike being the center of attention, so we’ll accept that as our immediate answer for the time being ( why I dislike being the center of attention is an altogether deeper question for another time).
Communicate with those around you
I’ve already briefly mentioned how difficult I find it to make anyone around me understand how I’m feeling. Still, every article I’ve found emphasizes the importance of communicating with your friends and family, and so I’d like to try.
I’m not sure what I want. I hate the idea of planning my own party, making my own reservations anywhere, or coordinating several different groups of friends — but I also hate the idea of asking one of my friends to do it, because burdening anyone with such an intrinsically self-centered responsibility makes me extremely uncomfortable. It seems odd to expect or throw a surprise party for anything other than a milestone birthday, too, so that’s out, and the thought of doing nothing also feels awful.
I’m left in the gray zone, feeling guilty about this uncertainty, but simultaneously recognizing that I do have some vague, undefined expectations that will inevitably leave me anxious regardless of whether they’re met or not. It’s an unfortunately unwinnable paradox — but one I’m starting to figure out how to mitigate.
When I think about the birthdays I’ve enjoyed most, I’m struck by one thing in particular: I enjoy participating in activities that focus on specific external things, that draw eyes away from me. If I need to use my birthday as an excuse to make that happen, fine, but anything after that needs to be collaborative. I need paintball, an escape room, a stand-up comedian — I need something else to be the focus of collective attention so we can all enjoy ourselves without burdening any individual with expectations of unadulterated happiness. I don’t want to be a focal point of concern on my birthday, I want to be relieved from that responsibility. I think that’s as comprehensible as I’ve learned to make the situation so far.
I’m not sure I’ll ever fully enjoy celebrating my birthday. I’m learning to accept that. I’m choosing to fill my life with people who care about me, to share the gifts I’ve been given with those around me.
I probably need to learn to be a little more self-centered, but not at the expense of my self-awareness. I’m a work in progress — wow, this is sounding infinitely more inspirational-cliché than I intended — and that’s okay. I’m figuring out how to to weaponize my birthday, to use it to unite my community in a way that doesn’t place me at the center, and that’s all I can do for now.
Originally published 7/6/20.