How to Handle the Birthday Blues
It's My Birthday, and I'll Cry if I Want To!
It's Your Birthday... but You Feel Like Crying
Everyone knows what birthdays are supposed to look like, right?
Maybe something like this: Having a good time with a bunch of friends, or a romantic dinner with someone special. Feeling secure and happy that your life is on track and you're right where you're supposed to be. Relishing in how young, vibrant, and beautiful you feel!
If that's what it's supposed to look like... then why is it that when my birthday rolls around I find myself lying in bed all day with the covers over my head and my phone turned off? Or spending the day crying into my pillow? Or drowning my blues in multiple bowls of ice cream?
Sound familiar to you?
You many not even understand why birthdays seem to make you want to curl up in a ball and toss obscenities at the world.
There's one big, nasty word that has everything to do with why birthdays end up being exactly the opposite of what we think they should be: expectations.
Sometimes, perhaps even most of the time, our expectations aren't met. This can lead to feelings of disappointment, frustration, and sadness.
Read on to learn more about how this all works—and how to turn things around so you can have an enjoyable birthday this year!
That Nasty Word: Expectations
There are two kinds of expectations that can cause even the best of us to hole up in our barricaded bedroom eating birthday cake in the dark (come on, don't tell me I'm the only one).
- Where we are in our lives, and what we think our lives should look like at this point.
- How we'd like the birthday celebration itself to to unfold.
All too often, birthdays become a reminder of all the things we haven't accomplished, all the ways we are behind our peers, or all the things we are lacking. Birthdays represent a milestone marker for all the expectations we have.
When my best friend turned 30, she was devastated. She cried for days. She had always thought that by the time she turned 30, she would be married with kids, living in her own home, complete with a garden and chickens in the back. Instead, when 30 rolled around, she was single, with no current prospects, and renting a room in a house with two other women. She mourned that picture-perfect life that she didn't have.
As for me, for the past decade I've been deluding myself into thinking that I'm still 21. I feel young and in my mind; 30-somethings are so old! (Apologies to those of you who are in your 30s or older. You are not old.) So when those birthdays come around, reminding me that I am a 30-something, I feel the loss of all that time with little to show for it. Where did a decade go?
Of course, as we age, it seems that there should be changes in terms of how we feel or where we are in our lives. I should finally be confident and disciplined, I tell myself. Instead, the illusion of continuity makes it seem as though I am the same person that I was back when I was 21. The growth is so gradual that sometimes it's easy to feel as if it has never happened. That's not true, of course—a lot of growth has happened. Don't let social media, society, and other influences dictate what your life "should" be like.
Remember, always live in the present, and know that probably everyone in the world experiences these feelings, at least sometimes. We all ruminate over unmet expectations. Focus on the positives, on all the things that you have accomplished, and on all the things that do make you happy.
Read on for more tips to help with your expectations on or around your birthday, or just in general.
When I was growing up, my family always celebrated "birthday week." Not a day, and not just a birthday dinner—a whole week! When it's your birthday week, no one better be asking you to do the dishes. Dinner is always your choice. You get taken out to eat for your birthday at least one day, and you get your favorite homemade meal another day. You get the restaurant birthday cake and the homemade birthday cake. You get a party with friends, a party with family, and if you have a significant other, you get a romantic birthday celebration as well. Presents trickle in throughout the week, and there are always plenty of additional surprises.
As I got older, birthday week started to fizzle out and turned into just one day. However, the expectation that birthdays should be a week of wonderfulness was still there. So after having to do the dishes on my birthday (can you imagine?!), and then marking the day with just dinner and a small gift, I felt neglected and unloved.
As a child, it's so easy to feel that birthdays and holidays are magical, but carrying those expectations into adulthood often leads to post-celebration blues. We focus so much on what things should be that we can't enjoy what is. A birthday dinner can be an absolutely lovely event, but if we use birthday week or any other expectation as a comparison, we ruin what could have been a great time.
8 Ways to Tackle Birthday Blues
So what's a person in birthday-blues recovery to do? Here are some ways to tackle or prevent the birthday blues:
1. Lower Your Expectations.
Easier said than done, but try to lower your expectations. Don't expect anyone to do anything for you. Or expect that your birthday party will be a flop. This way, anything good that happens will be an unexpected and pleasant surprise!
2. Keep Busy.
Don't wait around for someone else to do something for your birthday. Sitting around the house just gives you an opportunity to mull over the passage of time and be sad. You know what you'd like to do on your birthday, so schedule it! Get a birthday massage. Go on a birthday shopping spree. Go to the movies and watch whatever you want.
3. Remember All That You Have Accomplished.
It's easy to gloss over everything that you have accomplished and end up feeling like time has passed with nothing to show for it. Try to focus on the positives because, remember, you are a rock star! So prove it to yourself. Go through old pictures of good times (warning: some people may become more depressed doing this, you know who you are), make a list of accomplishments, or even get a friend to remind you of your victories.
I have a friend who lists all her major "wins" from the previous year on her birthday. Sometimes they are things that are only meaningful to her—like getting into the habit of flossing. Other times, they are big life events—like running a marathon.
Spending time thinking about what you have done will keep you from thinking about all the things you haven't yet accomplished or that you think you should have accomplished. You've already accomplished a lot. Focus on that. Be proud.
4. Don't Wait for Someone Else to Make You Happy.
Every year, for as long as I can remember, my mom has bought herself flowers for her birthday. She had always been disappointed when my dad didn't. So one year she bought flowers for herself, and she's been doing it ever since. She stopped waiting for someone else to make her happy. (They're still happily married, by the way.)
Remember, no one can read your mind, and no one is perfect. If you're waiting for someone else to make things special, you'll be disappointed. If there's something that will make you happy, then make it happen yourself!
5. Make a Plan to Make This Year Special.
One of my coworkers told me that on her 50th birthday, she was afraid she would be depressed. So, she decided to make it an "adventure year." That year, she made it her goal to write 50 letters letting people know how much she loved them, try 50 new restaurants, vacation just 50 miles from her home, and complete 50 random acts of kindness. Try something like this for yourself!
6. Let Your Friends Know.
While there are many who don't want any attention on their birthday, there are others who make it a point to mention it or who would like to be lavished with attention. If you're one of those people, don't be embarrassed to make a point of mentioning your birthday to friends and family.
You can be coy about it, too: "So I think I might schedule a massage for my birthday next week." That's all it takes. I've even seen my more blunt friends post on Facebook that they'll be having a birthday next week, as well. Go for it!
7. Know It's Okay to Mourn.
Sometimes, we just need some time to be sad about what isn't, and what might not be. That's okay. You deserve that process and will feel better afterwards. Let yourself cry about the house that you don't own, the corporate position you haven't landed yet, and the significant other you may not have found yet. Then, get over it. You've got life ahead of you to live—don't waste more time than you need to in worrying about what isn't.
8. Learn From It.
You may want to punch me in the face for saying so, but know that pain is there to teach you something. Maybe your birthday makes you feel lonely—that's true for many of us. However, you can also use that feeling to help motivate you to make an effort to get out more and meet people.
Perhaps you feel sad that you haven't accomplished as much as you feel you should. This might be a sign you need to be easier on yourself or give yourself more credit than you do.
Ask yourself, "How can I be better because of this moment?" instead of letting yourself sink into a dark hole of inactivity and depression. Also, find ways to be more compassionate and loving to yourself. Self-care is crucial, and you deserve it—especially on your birthday.
Remember, it's normal to feel sad on your birthday. This isn't a sign that you're a failure or unloved. Think of someone you love and admire—it's likely they've felt some birthday sadness at one time or another, too.
If you could tell that person something in that moment of sadness, what would you say?
Now, tell yourself those same words.
Happy birthday! You're a rock star!