This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.
You might feel wonderful on your birthday. If so, good for you, this article is not for you. Some people don’t want to celebrate the calendar date they arrived on this planet, and are often misunderstood by their friends and family, who – in fairness, not the weirdest thing – just want to show them love.
If you, too, feel alienated by birthdays, fret not. Lucia Montesi, a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist based in Macerata, southern Italy, says there is absolutely nothing wrong with not wanting to make a big deal out of your birthday. Montesi says there are many reasons why someone might not like their birthday; some come down to personality traits, others to personal history and even social pressures.
First of all, birthdays are a time for self-reflection, reminding us of our place in the world. They “stir up emotions, expectations, reflections and disappointments”, Montesi said. “They’re like a test for people’s emotional condition and relationships at a given moment in their life.” Birthdays are often an occasion for you to come to terms with your past, present and future, which can generate negative emotions and even depressive symptoms, depending on your life satisfaction.
For instance, the day might remind you of “birthdays from a difficult childhood, or of the challenging family atmosphere you experienced at home”, explained Montesi. This might in turn make you reflect on other difficult relationships in your life, or maybe make you sad about not feeling close to many people right now.
It’s also possible that you’ve always loved your birthdays, but recently you’ve started hating them. That might be because you’re going through a tough time – maybe you’re ill, or you lost someone you care about, or your job.
Fear of ageing can also come into play. “Our culture exaggerates the importance of youth, beauty and efficiency as criteria that define a person’s value and their ability to be appreciated or even loved,” said Montesi. “That’s why it’s not surprising that you might not see ageing – whose inevitable progression is made apparent by birthdays – as a normal process.”
This fear of ageing is often compounded by social expectations of milestones you’re supposed to have reached by a certain time. “We have the tendency to set out goals based on age. ‘I want to graduate at 25, I want to get married by 30, I want kids by 35, I want to have progressed professionally by 40,’” Montesi said. “Often the round numbers give us an illusion of a goal or a threshold, even though in reality they’re just regular numbers.”
If you don’t meet these deadlines (and even if you do), chances are you’re going to keep comparing yourself to people who you think have their lives together more than you do, without fully grasping their circumstances. This social comparison can be extremely painful and make you lose sight of the bigger picture, Montesi explained.
“Our own satisfaction and real aspiration often go in a different direction [from the social standard], at a different pace or with different priorities,” she continued. “Despite this, we often struggle to think about our authentic feelings, desires and expectations, and we tend to focus more on what others expect from us or how they may judge us.”
Another reason why you might not enjoy your birthday is simply that you don’t like being the centre of attention. “If you’re more shy and introverted, you might prefer not having too many eyes on you. If you're highly sensitive, you might not like overly stimulating situations,” Montesi said. Some people feel embarrassed when they receive gifts, messages or attention in general. “Some people always need to feel in control and might not like surprises or the idea that their party might not be successful,” Montesi added.
If you have social anxiety, parties might feel like an exhausting performance or a chore. Besides, not everyone likes mixing groups of friends. Maybe you only feel comfortable expressing some aspects of your personality with some people and not others. Or maybe you think your different friend groups might not click right away and that you’ll have to moderate their interactions all evening.
Finally, you might not want to celebrate your birthday as a way to protect yourself from disappointment. Maybe you fear the people around you won’t be able to give you as much love as you’d like them to. “Even people who don’t care about friends and acquaintances wishing them a happy birthday might expect special attention from specific people who are important to them,” Montesi said. For instance, it can be extremely painful not to hear from a parent or a family member on that day, prompting you to avoid celebrations altogether.
In any case, setting social conventions aside, there is no right or wrong way to celebrate your own birthday. It’s just a day, and you can make it feel as special or mundane as you want – and define what special means to you. You can go for a hike with someone you love, or maybe stay home and put your phone on aeroplane mode all day to avoid tiring messages.
“Whether you celebrate it or not, spend it alone or with people, enjoy it to the fullest or do something to make it pass as quickly as possible, the important thing is you try to listen to yourself and accept what you feel,” Montesi said.