One Introvert's Take on How We've Gotten Birthdays All Wrong
So today I want to talk about birthdays. Yep, you read that right: birthdays. Seems like a random topic, no? Except it's not to me. You see, I just celebrated my birthday. (I'm inching closer and closer to the 30-year mark — it's a very unpleasant experience and I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy. Also: no offense meant to anyone who has already passed that milestone. You know how dramatic us Millennials can get.)
Birthdays are weird when you're an introvert. Every year I wage an internal war with myself: I fluctuate between wanting every person I know to shower me with attention and wanting no one to even acknowledge the day. (Like I said, weird.) I also struggle with deciding what to do for the big day; sometimes I want to celebrate with a non-standard birthday tribute, other times I want a stereotypical party or outing, and there are even times I don't feel like organizing anything at all. (Though I will never turn down celebratory cupcakes 😁.)
This year I began thinking a lot about why I feel so conflicted every time my birthday approaches, and ever since I've been trying to unravel those thoughts. And I realized that the reason my birthday causes inner turmoil every year is due to the cocktail of my introversion, standardized extrovert behaviors, and the social norms under which I was raised. Let me explain.
As Kids, We Set Ourselves Up for Disappointment
As children, our families and friends engulf us with gifts, love, and adulation on our birthdays. I remember year after year of wonderful birthday celebrations growing up — joyful, smiling faces crowding around, towering stacks of glossy presents, ornamental cakes as delectable as they are exquisite. Whether I was at Chuck E Cheese's or home for a sleepover, I always felt loved and idolized simply for being me. And it's important for young children to feel that way (our self-esteem would be abysmal otherwise). However, these traditions normalize the idea that a birthday is a special day where one must always be celebrated.
In the minds of impressionable children, this setup forges an irrefutable connection between the birthday and a time of extravagant bashes with lots of people, presents, and adulation. Kids end up mentally unprepared to deal with the bleaker reality that is celebrating your birthday as an adult. Frequently the gifts, people, and praise are outright gone or offered in much smaller quantities. Because the truth is that every day is someone's birthday. Eventually you realize that the number of people who really care about your special day is limited: perhaps your immediate family (relational obligation), maybe your closest friends, potentially your significant other (if applicable). (Or in my case, my S.O.'s family weaned him off of the fantasy birthday model years ago, so only one of us gets our dreams crushed when the world doesn't stop to say happy birthday.)
Basically we've been indoctrinated to believe that our birthday is all about how many people love and value us — but we've got it all wrong. A birthday should be a time for self-love, self-worth, and self-reflection. And by teaching children to expect certain treatment on their birthday, we end up ignoring a true teachable moment about birthdays — that the best takeaway you can gain from a birthday is by spending some time with yourself.
Why I Feel Birthdays Should Be a Time for Introspection
No matter who you're with or how you celebrate (or don't), your birthday will always be meaningful to you. (Though I guess that's not really applicable if you're a Jehovah's Witness, in which case you should probably just skip this entire post.) Spending quality time with people that matter to you is wonderful, and we all deserve to have that on our birthdays if we want it.
But I think many of us have also lost sight of what the birthday stands for — you've made it another year in the world, faced (and conquered) new challenges, had new experiences, and potentially made progress in your career or love life or mental health. (Go you!) So your birthday should be as much about celebrating your obstacles, milestones, and inner progress with yourself as it is about others celebrating you as a person. (This may also just be my introverted side talking. Being introspective is kind of in my nature, remember.)
This birthday, I spent some time thinking about how far I've come and all the changes I've made to better myself — and it was eye-opening and empowering. I recalled some of the big steps I've taken: starting a new job with more self-confidence, moving in with my boyfriend, launching a blog and putting my introversion out there. And I remembered the smaller things as well: surviving a hurricane wedding (true story), seeing some of my favorite bands live with some of my favorite people, drinking a teeny bit too much at my first overnight work conference, and dying of laughter at hilarious texts from my friend David. (You really need to go check out his blog, One Millennial's Guide. After you finish my post, of course.)
Why I Think Social Media Can Be Damaging to Birthdays
I don't know about you, but I feel conditioned to calculate my worth based on how many people react to my birthday on social media. (I'm pretty sure it's a byproduct of those unintentionally traumatizing parties I had as a kid. Turns out there is such a thing as too much attention for a young introvert.) And this is despite knowing that others who get dozens or even hundreds of birthday wishes receive bland "happy birthday" messages that are basically meaningless. I fully recognize the absurdity of this logic, and yet it pops into my head every. single. year.
Now I totally understand that I would lose the contest of how many people acknowledge my birthday to an extrovert in the same situation. (Don't worry, I realize this is not an actual competition.) But that has nothing to do with how much people value me, and it shouldn't be a measure of how much I value myself either. I'm an introvert, and because of that I will always choose fewer yet more meaningful connections.
So for my birthday this year, I made the decision to stay off of social media. (And I even stuck to it. Yay me — I deserve a cupcake as a reward.) This resolution was entirely for myself — my own mindset and mental health. I feel as though social media is a reincarnation of the birthday attention many of us received as children, and I started to grow weary of the expectations it was rekindling inside my mind. I appreciate the virtual well-wishes, but I don't want to estimate my value based on how many people do or do not acknowledge my birthday. So I stayed away. And I ended up loving that freedom. I was able to appreciate and celebrate myself and my life on my own terms.
Why It's Okay to Redefine (or Just Defy) Celebration Expectations
I've experienced the extroverted birthday charade for so long that a part of me will forever crave that attention — even though I hate attention. (Confused? Me too.) But this year I came to terms with the fact that I don't need to have some big party or gather my closest friends for dinner, or anything else for that matter.
Now I don't mean to knock anyone's desired way of celebrating their birthday. However you choose to celebrate is good with me, as long as it's what you want. I've had really memorable birthdays that fit the conventional celebratory setup, like the time my high school friends came to visit me at college and surprised me by bringing another friend I wasn't expecting. (Let's just say there was ugly crying.) I've also had simpler days, like last year when the boyfriend and I spent my birthday hiking in Big Sur.
My point is that how we choose to celebrate (or not celebrate) our birthday in no way correlates to our worth as a human being. Yet many of us have a tendency to impose expectations of grand birthday festivities onto ourselves and one another, as well-intentioned as we may be. And I'm guilty of it too: my standard happy birthday remark is almost always accompanied by wishes for a fun and memorable celebration. Of course I mean well, but I'm contributing to the very same problem I now find myself grappling with. So I also need to work on letting go of the connotations we place on the word birthday.
This year I decided to try something different. An almost non-birthday birthday, if you will. My boyfriend spent the day at work, I'm not celebrating with my family for a few more weeks, and the obligatory colleague birthday wishes were absent because my birthday fell on a weekend. At first I felt odd, like I wasn't celebrating the "right" way. Every time someone asked me about my plans or wished me an amazing weekend, I thought how do I respond to that? For me, spending the day reading, relaxing, and reflecting on life ended up being a great day. Yet I didn't share my non-plans with many people, because I felt like most people wouldn't comprehend my decision to spend the day solo. But now I'm realizing that's okay — the only opinion that matters is mine. And I had a great birthday, thanks for asking.