When Birthdays Are Hard

Natalie Favorite Chen, LMFT 128940 on Oct 05, 2022 in Mood and Feelings

Let’s face it, sometimes birthdays are amongst the harder days of the year. For a lot of us, they are complex days where we hope that those in our lives will celebrate us a little bit extra. Where they will let us know, in the words of Jamie Tworkowski, that they’re glad we were born, that they’re glad we exist, and that we matter. And for many of us, we have been disappointed year after year.

Maybe we come from homes where birthdays were ignored, or maybe the birthday wasn’t actually about us at all. Maybe family is complex, making birthdays hard or even traumatic. Maybe we aren’t in the place we wish we were with our friends and the loneliness is amplified on our birthdays. It can be made even harder when there is a societal expectation to celebrate out loud and there isn’t a lot of space for complexity.

For those who feel complexity, sadness, loneliness, and despair on your birthdays — you truly aren’t alone. The day can look like whatever you want it to. You can honor your pain and loneliness if you want to, and you can also hold the tension that if things in your life are not where you want them to be, that does not take away from the true fact that you still matter. Lonely birthdays, sad birthdays, birthdays that do not recognize how important you are don't speak the truest thing which is that you still matter and that a heavy day doesn’t mean they will always be heavy.

What can you do when a birthday is hard?

I find it helpful and truly honoring to just recognize that yeah, it’s hard. Maybe you don’t have people who love you the way you want to be loved and that’s painful. Recognizing the pain can be useful and also holding space to believe that all isn’t lost. Recognize the hurt now or in the past, and also see ways that you can care for yourself and celebrate yourself.

With that, how do you celebrate yourself? I am never one to turn to classic forms of #selfcare (see my rant) so I am not talking shopping sprees, spa days, and manicures. If you want to do that then sure, go ahead, but I like looking at what celebrating yourself actually means. It might mean: taking some time to go on a walk or a drive in a favorite place. It might mean reading a comfort book or watching a comfort show and letting yourself just be. It might be planning something meaningful with community members you love or asking a friend or loved one to plan something meaningful for you (yes, I know this can be super uncomfy — we can talk about it). It can also be a time to reflect on how things aren’t where you want them to be and that doesn’t mean all is lost — as the incredible Lucile Clifton writes:

“come celebrate

with me that everyday

something has tried to kill me

and has failed.”

Even if things are hard on your birthday, you still have come this far. You are living, breathing, healing, rebuilding. You are fighting for a life that has space for ease and rest and peace and meaning. You might be the first person you know to take on this work.

On your birthday, whatever it looks like for you, I will hold these truths for you: I am glad you exist in this world. You matter to your community and to those around you, even if that’s still being built and you haven’t met those people yet. I see a lot to celebrate in you even when it’s hard.

Maybe it’s deeper than a “happy” birthday. Maybe it’s a meaningful, deep, not-happy but joyful birthday. Joy can exist in the pain because there is an investment in something more to come. It sucks, but it’s so worth it.

So instead of happy birthday, I wish you a meaningful one, whatever that looks like for you, and I am glad you exist.

Natalie Favorite Chen is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist in Palo Alto, CA.

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