For the last several years, in the week before my birthday, I’ve started feeling sad and angry. It comes in waves. I might wake up and cry about nothing for a half hour. Just about anything can irritate me. I don’t know why I experience these feelings. I have no “birthday trauma,” I have a long list of accomplishments, and I’m not uncomfortable doing things for myself or having a special day for myself. I simply feel awful in the few days before and after my birthday.
This year, I decided to research the phenomenon and find out if I was alone, and I discovered that I’m not. In fact, there are quite a few articles and Reddit posts about birthday depression. It’s not at all uncommon. So let’s talk about it.
What is Birthday Depression?
Birthday depression is when you feel sad or depressed in the days surrounding your birthday. You might notice some of the following symptoms:
- Feeling sad or hopeless.
- Feeling tired and a lack of enthusiasm or energy.
- Increase in anxiety.
- Increase in irritability.
- Experiencing a change in appetite.
- Experiencing a change in sleep patterns.
- Loss of interest in activities.
- Lack of confidence in yourself.
- Difficulty focusing and concentrating.
Why Do Some People Experience Birthday Depression?
Societal pressure and expectations
Everybody expects you to be happy and excited on your birthday. There’s a ton of pressure to celebrate on your birthday. People wish you, “Happy birthday!” and expect you to have a big, special, epic day – particularly if it’s a milestone birthday.
If you don’t feel the feelings you’re “supposed” to feel, people may not understand (or they might, you could be surprised). But there’s a whole lot of pressure about what you “should” be feeling on your birthday.
Social media and comparison
Facebook reminds everyone to wish you happy birthday. All those birthday wishes piling up can serve as a reminder and exacerbate your feelings. Or, fewer people wishing you happy birthday than you expected or hoped for can lead to feelings of sadness.
With so many points of comparison on social media, it’s not hard to find happy people celebrating birthdays, often with their families. It’s not hard for people to compare their experience to what they see on social media. “Why don’t I feel that happy?” and “Why isn’t my family a happy family like that one?” we think.
For some people, growing up, nobody bothered to celebrate their birthday, while around them, they saw kids having parties and celebrations. As an adult, the memories of those sad birthdays can lead to birthday depression.
If your parents argued on your birthdays, the one day when you wished they wouldn’t, it can lead to birthday depression. Even if they didn’t argue on your birthday, but you felt the dread and worry that they would, you can experience that trauma around your birthday.
And if you’ve had a particularly bad birthday or a few, when things just went horribly wrong or the wrong person forgot, then that can lead to birthday depression, too.
For many people, growing up, their families made a huge deal out of birthdays. Surrounded by all their friends and family, basking in all that attention, they felt warm and loved. As adults, we don’t make such a big deal out of birthdays, and many people may feel sad at the loss of those experiences.
Discomfort with being the center of attention
If you’re an introvert, there’s almost nothing worse than sitting at a table with a cake in front of you, all eyes on you, with people singing, “Happy Birthday” off-key. Many of my introvert clients say that anticipating opening presents in front of other people and trying to make sure you have the right reaction to each one can feel worse than death.
Questioning your accomplishments
Many folks experience birthdays as a time to reflect on their lives. “Is this all there is?” is often a question that comes to mind, not to mention, “I haven’t done nearly enough to be this old!” Even those who are deeply accomplished experience the feeling that they haven’t done nearly enough.
We’re so unforgiving with ourselves and our appearances. While some women will post “naked face” photos (photos without makeup) on their birthdays with hashtags like, “#thisis49” and “#thisis50” these posts ultimately serve as points of comparison for other women. We ask, “Do I look younger than her? Do I look older than her? Fatter?” and we berate ourselves for letting another birthday go by without having achieved our ideal weight.
Existential crisis/the march toward death
Speaking of feeling old, we’re all getting older, and that means eventually we’ll all die. Every birthday is another nail in the coffin. It’s almost impossible to ignore that. For many people who experience birthday depression, part of their sadness comes from the inevitable march toward death, nonexistence, and perceived irrelevance.
Certainly if you come from or are a part of a dysfunctional family, you may wish things were different and that you had a happier or more peaceful family, or a family where people could come together and show love and kindness toward each other.
If you’re grieving, you may experience birthday sadness because you’re not celebrating with someone you wish was there. This feeling may not go away for a very long time. My mom passed away in 2004, and I still wish she was here to share my birthday with me.
You might be grieving for other reasons – maybe you’re estranged from family. Maybe you wanted children you could never have. Maybe you lost a job you loved or maybe you lost a pet.
Whatever reason you have for grieving, grief can lead to birthday depression.
Why Do Some People Feel Shame Around Birthday Depression?
Societal pressure and expectations
You’re not supposed to feel sad on your birthday. There’s a ton of pressure to experience your birthday the way that other people are used to, and if you don’t, then you’re expected to still act appreciative and grateful for whatever good wishes come your way, even if they serve to make you feel worse. If you don’t actually feel appreciative and grateful, you may feel ashamed and want to hide your birthday depression.
Placing importance on what others need
Other people seem to need to wish you a happy birthday, and you’re “supposed” to let them. People seem to need to cheer you up and fix what’s going on with you, and if you feel a need to let them have what they need, you may not be honoring what you need. If you place a higher importance on what others need than on what you need, you can feel ashamed of your feelings.
Feeling bad for feeling bad
We’re not “supposed” to let ourselves feel bad. We’re supposed to try to feel better, right? That’s one of the great lies of the personal development world. One of the great truths is that if you want to feel better, then you need to let yourself “feel the bad.” It is okay to feel bad sometimes, and you don’t have to push it away. Society would tell you that you should try to push it away, but you don’t have to do that, and in fact, doing so may be harmful to your health and well-being.
Worrying you’re not normal
When you’re feeling something that you don’t see other people feeling, you may worry that you’re abnormal and that can lead to hiding your feelings and feeling ashamed of them. Birthday depression is common and you are not abnormal.
How to Manage Birthday Depression
Feel your feelings.
It’s okay for you to feel bad. Pay attention to your feelings. If it helps, journal about them. Lie in bed and cry. Punch a pillow when you’re mad. Listen to sad songs and sing loudly (and badly) in the car or shower. Feel it all.
(Note that it’s very helpful to have a support partner who can keep tabs on you, so that if you go on for too long, they can help you out of the abyss. My husband and I have an agreement that he’s to gently help me out if I go for longer than a week or two in my birthday depression funk.)
Tell your friends and family what you’re feeling and ask for support in the way you need it.
Let your family know that you experience birthday depression, and ask for exactly the support you want. Be clear in what you’re asking for. If you don’t want to celebrate your birthday, let your family know what you do want to do. Ask them to support you in the way that you need.
Understand that everyone may not understand.
Even if you are clear in communicating your needs and desires, everyone may not understand. People will still tell you to find a way to celebrate. They’ll tell you to do something special. It’s important to recognize that your birthday depression may make other people feel uncomfortable. They may try to cheer you up or fix it, and that may or may not be what you need. In fact, it may actually make you feel worse.
One of the ways I protect myself from people who don’t understand is by avoiding social media on my birthday. I know people won’t read anything I post before they do their due diligence in wishing me a happy day, so I just avoid social media altogether.
If someone sends me a card or a gift, I set it aside until I’m ready to open it. When well-meaning friends who I know don’t understand what I’m going through, I let their calls go to voicemail and listen to the messages another day. Remind yourself, “It’s my birthday, I get to protect myself and have the day of my choosing.”
Plan ahead and be intentional about how you celebrate – do what works for you.
I don’t mean that you should have a fully-planned day with a party. I mean that you should be intentional about your day, otherwise others may decide for you. If you want to snuggle up in a blanket and watch Netflix all day, let people know that’s your plan. If you want to work through the day, then schedule your workday. The point is, don’t let your birthday happen to you. Make your birthday work for you.
Practice active self-care – take a long bath, watch your favorite show, eat comfort food, and have a glass of wine. Give yourself permission to do whatever is healthiest for you on this day.
Decide if you want to reschedule your birthday.
This is my particular favorite in recent years. I simply reschedule my birthday for another day when I will feel more like celebrating, usually the following week. When you reschedule your birthday, you’re just picking a random day after the period of time when you’re feeling horrible, a day when you may feel more like being with family and friends. In fact, you can even say, “I prefer not to celebrate my birthday, but I would love to have a regular, nice dinner with you next week.”
Remember your mantra: “It’s my birthday, I get to protect myself and have the day of my choosing.”
Plan a special day for yourself – or do something for yourself, even if it’s not on the actual day.
One of the reasons why people are uncomfortable with birthdays is they uncomfortable doing special things for themselves. It is okay for you to have something special for you and only you. So I recommend that you plan something special for yourself- not just on your birthday, but regularly – so that you begin to get used to special things for you and only you. You are worthy of something special. We all are. And that includes you.
Face your age and mortality
We’re all getting older, every day. It’s not just on your birthday that you’re older. You’re older every minute, every day.
One of the things we fear about mortality is that we’ll disappear and never have mattered.
I recommend that you keep an email folder for emails when people tell you that you mattered or that they appreciated something you did, so that you can reflect on those emails and remind yourself that you do matter. Every act of kindness, every moment when we do good in the world, no matter how small, it’s a moment when we matter.
Few of us get to be remembered or memorialized like famous authors, composers, or historical figures. If you really need to be remembered in that way, get cracking on how you’re going to change the world. Otherwise, think about how you can matter to at least one person each day or each week – whatever works for you.
Do something that helps someone else.
Birthdays can be hard. They’re certainly hard for me. I hope some of these ideas have helped you get through your birthday a little easier. Writing this post and thinking that maybe I’ll help someone by having written it has helped me feel a little better on this birthday. Maybe there’s something you can do on your birthday that will make someone else’s life better. If you can, that just might do the trick.