In 2010, a woman scheduled an appointment to talk about free-floating anxiety. Her phone rang within two minutes of her arrival and she excused herself, saying it was urgent. On her return, she told me: “It’s my birthday today, I turn 30 years old. It was my mum’s call and I had to speak to her. This birthday month has evoked all kinds of mixed feelings, some pleasant and others very overwhelming. So I decided that I would gift myself therapy to understand myself better.”
This was the first time a client had reached out on their birthday for a session. In the years since, many clients, across gender and age, have done so. Birthdays are one of those life events that can trigger latent anxiety. If yours leads to sadness, anxiety and uncomfortable feelings, you are not alone. Begin with self-compassion and explore what’s happening within. I often ask clients, “What do you associate your birthday with?” The answers have surprised me, telling me so much about a client’s past and their regrets. Clients talk about how they put pressure on themselves and everyone when it comes to their birthdays, in the hope of experiencing a “perfect day”.
Sometimes I wonder if we put our birthdays on a pedestal and are then disappointed if our expectations are not met. Whether it’s the number of calls, who texted versus who called, who forgot the day, what our loved ones did to make it special, all these can become concerns where we feel let down and experience a spectrum of feelings ranging from sadness to anger and hopelessness.
Then there are clients who hate the attention they get on their birthdays, whether it’s a call, family dinners or even office celebrations. They find these interactions and back-to-back calls exhausting, even anxiety-provoking.
We often associate our goals and accomplishments with age. Birthdays can force us to look at what we have achieved or even examine our relationships and look at the year that has passed. This can be daunting and unsettling. Our milestone birthdays, whether it’s the 16th or those where we enter a new decade, can trigger an existential crisis and remind us of our own mortality. Like the client who turned 60 and hates being called a senior citizen as he feels his identity is reduced to his age.
Some people experience anxiety close to their birthdays, followed by anxiety about why they are anxious. Don’t beat yourself up. Give yourself permission to experience all kinds of feelings, learning to stay with not just the emotions that evoke hope but also the ones that are uncomfortable. Sometimes the very act of listening and bearing witness to our emotions is enough for us to recognise areas which require deep inner work. A birthday is a good time to recalibrate values, set personal parameters when it comes to success and relationships and examine the idea of a well-lived life.
I look on birthdays as a pause, a chance to think about how I want to repurpose my life and deepen ties with the community and family that nurtures me. We often forget that it’s okay to host ourselves just as we host others. Ask yourself how you can hold space for yourself on your birthday and be mindful in your expectations of how others host you.
Sonali Gupta is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. She is the author of the book Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear and has a YouTube channel, Mental Health with Sonali.