I tend to use my birthday as a reflective milestone to take inventory of the accomplishments of the past year and what I still hope to achieve. In many ways, I feel proud of how far I've come. But when I compare myself to my friends who have mortgages and marriages, I can't help but feel like I’m lagging behind. The fact that I’m a year older (and thus have less time to achieve the things I want to) doesn’t really help my anxiety, either.
“If you have ever experienced the birthday blues or feelings of anxiety or sadness around your birthday, you are not alone,” says licensed psychologist Rachel Larrain Montoni, PhD. But why does it happen, and how can you deal with it while still enjoying your birthday (or if you’re like me, birth month)? Read on to discover expert-approved ways to approach your birthday with self-compassion and mindfulness.
Common reasons why people get the birthday blues
There are lots of potential reasons why your birthday might not put you in a party mood. “As birthdays represent a marker or reminder of the passage of time, it is not uncommon for us to reflect on our lives when a birthday is approaching,” says Dr. Montoni. (As is definitely the case for me.) “Such reflection may result in sadness, frustration, disappointment, or increased stress for those of us who feel we haven’t met particular goals we’ve set or met expectations that we (or others) have for our lives when our birthday rolls around.” This can be especially true for milestones such as 30, 40, or 50, which can feel representative of a big turning point in our lives.
For many people (including myself), there’s also the pressure to have the “perfect” birthday. The specifics differ for everyone, but in my ideal scenario, I envision having a beautiful apartment, a large and vibrant circle of friends, the hosting prowess of Ina Garten, a beautiful cake, and a stream of jealous comments reacting to my Instagram stories. This pressure may be fueled by societal expectations and social media, which can make an otherwise joyous occasion feel like a mental and emotional burden, according to Dr. Montoni.
Past negative or traumatic events associated with birthdays, like a disappointing or forgotten birthday celebration, or the loss of a loved one around the time of one's birthday, can also cause feelings of anxiety or sadness to arise for some individuals. “For those feeling disconnected from friends or family or struggling with feelings of loneliness or isolation, events and milestones such as birthdays or holidays can compound or exacerbate these negative feelings,” adds Dr. Montoni.
How to accept and process these feelings
If you’re experiencing negative feelings around your birthday, Dr. Montoni says the most supportive way to address these feelings is to first identify unhelpful or negative thought patterns that are contributing to your anxiety. “Taking the time to self-monitor and identify both body sensations, such as pressure in the chest, racing heart, or nausea, and thought patterns such as negative self-talk, shoulds, or what ifs, will help you become more familiar with the signs and signals of anxiety,” she says.
Mindfulness and grounding exercises, such as deep breathing or brief meditations that focus on the breath and body, can also be helpful. “While it may be tempting to try and push down, avoid, or numb out negative or uncomfortable feelings, the most effective way to address negative feelings is to allow ourselves to feel them and practice sitting with them,” says Dr. Montoni.
Utilizing meditation apps like Calm or Headspace can provide additional support, but the key is to observe your thoughts and feelings without attempting to change them or assign moral value to them. “By developing a sense of how anxiety manifests in our bodies, we can recognize when it interferes with being present in the moment and use grounding exercises to return to the present,” Dr. Montoni explains.
When it comes to negative self-talk, she recommends reframing or restructuring negative thoughts by checking the facts (e.g., do I have evidence to back up this negative assumption?) or challenging your thoughts directly with alternative options that are more neutral. For example, if you find yourself thinking, “I’m such a failure compared to my friend,” counter that thought with something like, “My friend is super accomplished and so am I.”
If meditation or deep breathing exercises aren’t your speed, talking to a therapist or a trusted friend can also be helpful in managing emotions and concerns. Opening up and being vulnerable about your feelings surrounding your birthday with trusted individuals may feel uncomfortable if you're not accustomed to expressing your emotions assertively, but it can bring relief, validation, and support.
Letting go of the pressure around birthdays
Licensed therapist Roma Williams, LMFT, advises making your birthday about you, not others. “Focus on what you truly want to do without worrying about cameras, social media, or external pressures.” Take a moment to consider: What would you really want to do if no one was looking? Perhaps it's a nostalgic movie night at home by yourself rather than an elaborate dinner soiree. By prioritizing activities that bring you joy, you increase the likelihood of finding fulfillment and creating meaningful memories on your birthday.
Often, the pressure to achieve perfection stems from a desire to control and predict our environments, stressors, and lives as a whole. “While it's valid to want a perfect celebration, we risk disappointment or failure if our need for perfection gets in the way of being present during the celebration or if we can't handle uncertainty or changes in plans,” says Dr. Montoni. Instead, focus on enjoying yourself and spending time with loved ones, rather than stressing over every detail.
It's natural to feel upset about a past bad birthday experience, but be mindful of getting stuck in a thinking trap or cognitive distortion, such as assuming the worst will happen (like: No one will show up!). “If you are operating under the assumption that the worst-case scenario is going to occur, you run the risk of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by setting yourself up for failure or disappointment,” says Dr. Montoni.
“Birthdays can symbolize a new beginning, but it's important to remember that a bad day or week doesn't necessarily predict the rest of the year,” adds Williams. Instead, reflect on what made the past birthdays disappointing and address those specific issues. For instance, if you hate being the center of attention and have felt pressure to throw large celebrations in the past, consider opting for a low-key affair this year. On the other hand, if you often feel disappointed when leaving celebrations up to your friends, take the driver's seat and plan something that you will feel satisfied with. Think about how you want to feel on your birthday and which activities would help you feel connected to others, comfortable, and loved. Avoid expecting others to know what you want without your input, as this often leads to disappointment.
To that end, talk to your friends or loved ones about your ideal birthday to ensure everyone’s on the same page. “Use ‘I-statements’ to clearly convey your honest wants and needs regarding your birthday. It's important to manage others' expectations if you have specific preferences for how you want to celebrate—or not,” Dr. Montoni says.
“There’s no denying that having a negative, unpleasant, or painful experience on one’s birthday can be frustrating, disappointing, or hurtful. It’s important to validate and normalize feeling upset around a negative or distressing birthday experience,” says Dr. Montoni. However, practicing gratitude and utilizing emotion regulation techniques, such as diaphragmatic breathing to calm the body, can help regulate emotional discomfort and even alleviate feelings of panic.
By incorporating these strategies into your coping toolbox, you can navigate challenging birthday experiences with greater resilience and emotional well-being. (And hopefully, an extra slice of cake.)
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