Ask Sahaj: My birthday depresses me. But I still want to celebrate it.

Dear Sahaj: How do you handle special occasions that only serve as a negative experience rather than something to celebrate? I dread my birthday every year. For the past several years, I’ve noticed that something bad usually happens around my birthday. One year, it was revealed that my dad had been cheating on my mom right after my birthday. Another year, I had a huge mental breakdown and was almost sent to a facility before my birthday. Earlier this week, my boyfriend’s dog was put to sleep and I was very close to him. I’m writing this question on my birthday, so it’s been a few days since the dog’s passing. Honestly, I’d rather forget about it altogether. My birthday is just something I don’t think is worth celebrating, so I’m usually depressed during my birthday.

However, I’ve noticed that there’s still a part of me that wants to celebrate the occasion, but I don’t even know where to start.

How can I turn my birthday, an occasion where bad things usually happen, into something more positive?

Birthday Blues: I’m sorry to hear that there’s been so much pain associated with your birthday.

If you truly don’t want to celebrate your birthday, I’d say: That’s perfectly okay! It’s your prerogative. However, I want to explore the ambivalence in your question further.

You are holding so many different feelings about this day. How can you hold them all at once while also acknowledging that your life is worth celebrating?

You cannot control the circumstances around your birthday, but you can control the circumstances in which you honor and celebrate your life. You have lived through hard times. You have persevered. You have loved and grieved and hurt. You may feel disappointed or angry. You are resilient. You are constantly learning. You are worthy.

All of this can be true at once. Your ambivalence makes sense, but I encourage you to question which feelings you give more power to. It’s important to remember that bad things don’t happen because you were born.

Here are two things to consider:

  1. Think about the good things that have happened around your birthday. Think as far back as you can. Seeing the good can help you counter the narrative that your birthday is always surrounded by negativity.
  2. What are the advantages and disadvantages of celebrating your birthday? Celebrating your birthday or not celebrating your birthday has nothing to do with what else happens around that day. So why then, are you punishing yourself for external things that are not in your control?

Learning to un-associate your actual birthday from all these other painful experiences may require you to lean into celebrating your life in other ways. This might look like celebrating your half birthday, celebrating on the first day of your birthday month, or outsourcing the plans for your birthday and instead allowing your loved ones to plan it for you! You may even want to do something just for you — a small tradition that allows you to celebrate without the hoopla or pressure of involving other people. Maybe it’s journaling, taking yourself out to a nice meal solo, creating a photobook of the last year with things you want to remember, or spending some time making a gratitude list.

The reality is that life is full of suffering, so it’s even more important that we find ways to honor that suffering while cultivating hope and meaning in our daily lives. And remember that joy can be experienced in different ways (and on different days!). You get to decide when and how you do so.

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