As Lesley Gore’s hit 1963 song “It’s My Party” makes clear, sometimes our so-called “happiest days” can be our most emotionally challenging. For me, birthdays have always brought on anxiety. Since I loathe being the center of attention or making people feel like they need to be somewhere or do something on my behalf, what’s usually considered a celebratory, joyous occasion tends to feel overwhelming and heavy. Last year, I even had a mild panic attack.
In the months leading up to my birthday, I am often plagued with negative thoughts and feel the weight of expectations I’ve created for myself, a feeling psychologist Lauren Appio said is actually quite common. “Our relationship to our birthday is complex, and so all of those emotions are normal,” she told HelloGiggles. According to psychotherapist Emily Roberts, “Birthdays are a reminder that we are turning another year older and wiser, but many look at them with a lack mentality,” meaning we tend to think about what’s missing from our lives rather than who we’ve become and how we’ve grown.
Appio believes this mentality could be due to a few things. “We get a lot of cultural and social messages about what birthdays are supposed to be like—big parties, lots of presents, etc,” she said. As someone who’s more introverted and tends to have social anxiety, it’s always been hard to figure out the best way to celebrate my special day with all the different folks who mean something to me. This is exactly why I decided to go away for my 30th this year with a singular friend who I always have fun with.
Beyond this, Appio believes that if we grew up in a household where birthdays were dismissed or stressful in any way, we can re-experience feelings of anxiety, dread, shame, or disappointment around our birthdays as adults. Hearing this made sense for me because I was raised in a rather dysfunctional home. But also, I can recall that in some of our home videos of my young birthday parties, I was very quiet while everything happening around me was loud and all-consuming.
Furthermore, said Appio, as we are inundated with messages about what a successful life looks like—from not making “30 under 30” lists to seeing others’ accomplishments blasted across social media—we sometimes “get caught in the trap of comparing ourselves to others and feeling ‘behind’ in life.” Appio pointed out that it is worth noting the ways our society tends to be ageist and obsessed with youth. “So many of us have fears about what we think we’ll lose as we get older, such as attractiveness, status, or respect,” she said. As someone who is not married and has not launched my own company, there have definitely been times when I’ve been too hard on myself for not living up to the successes of some of my peers.
While birthdays mark the passage of time, acting as benchmarks in our short lives, the emotions we feel are actually full of messages about what need and how we can approach things in the future. Said Roberts, “It’s natural to be anxious because your body knows that it’s another year and anxiety is just a reminder to do something to take action and do something different so you feel better.” She suggested focusing on how we’ve evolved and what we’d like to do in the next year to continue growing. Going one step further, Roberts recommended asking yourself some self-reflective questions, such as, “What is it that I want to accomplish this year? Who are the people I want to spend my time with? What are my goals right now?”
As your birthday nears, Appio advised checking in with yourself and seeing what you can learn from how you’re feeling and considering the ways you might benefit from showing yourself more self-acceptance. “Treating yourself with more self-compassion is a change in itself, and it supports us as we make other changes, so self-compassion is a good practice in general,” she said.
Another thing worth considering is how we compare ourselves to others. “If you have a tendency to dismiss your own progress, talk with a trusted friend, mentor, or therapist about the changes they’ve seen in you,” Appio offered. Social media can also feed into this habit, so it’s worth consider taking a break from social media around your birthday and focusing inward.
And when it comes to figuring out how to celebrate, don’t worry too much about having a party or taking pictures. Instead, Roberts said to do something that honors you and makes you feel good. For example, on her birthday she likes to go to the gym to do something for her body, and then pamper herself in some small way.
Ultimately, it’s important to remember that feelings aren’t facts nor are they forever. “Remember that you have agency to determine what meaning your birthday has for you, and if nothing else—your feelings, as always, are temporary,” Appio said. It’s your birthday, so you get to choose what it means for you.