Having birthday feelings
July 23, 2018 8:05 AM   Subscribe

I have a complicated relationship with my birthday, and I have feelings about it.

Due to moving countries with my family when I was 12, and then having a tense and contentious relationship with said family, and a very difficult and long adjustment period to the new country (it wasn't until my later university years that I started making meaningful emotional connections with people and coming out of an untreated depression without family support), my birthday touches a raw nerve. It feels like a day of judgement where my value to other people is measured, and I usually come up short.

I had a lot of unhappy birthdays with my family in my teens due to being miserable with my family and having very few friends to spend the day with. I was very emotionally isolated and starving for meaningful human contact. Clawing my way out of depression and then making real friends and finding better ways to have open and honest relationships with people has meant that my birthdays have improved over my 20s, and now I have important and intimate friendships with enough people to feel loved and fulfilled - on most days.

However, I still can't help feeling really hurt when I invite friends - ones who I feel love me and whom I love - to my birthday party, and inevitably a few of them flake, or can't make it for valid reasons, and at least a few of them tell me this on the day of (and an hour after the party starts) and offer to take me out for dinner sometime soon. This includes a couple of friends who know this is a sensitive topic for me, and while I obviously won't be guilting them about not coming, I am going to say "yeah, I was bummed" when they inevitably ask me about it (without emotion-barfing all over them). This is people cancelling after the first wave of "sorry, won't be there!" from people who can't make it for other reasons, so I am not expecting a 100% response on all my invitations.

I am conscious of not overloading the day with meaning (it used to be a This Is A Barometer Of How Much You Love Me kind of day, and inevitably resulted in No One Loves Me feelings, and I have worked on this and self-esteem in general in therapy for years), and that I should on the lookout for whether I feel loved and supported and offer the same in turn to my friends on a day to day basis rather than assigning an arbitrary Relationship Test value to my birthday.

But it still hurts.

Less than it did before, now that I expect that a few people inevitably won't make it, and now that I am not having the party on my actual birthday, but a few days before, but it's still painful, and I do know that # of people at my birthday =/= how many loving people I have in my life. My therapist says I play my vulnerability cards close to my chest, and I know being open and vulnerable and loving others is the best I can do, but - how do I take the sting out of this?
posted by elsmith to Human Relations (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Do people in your friend group all have birthday parties? I don't want to discount your feelings, but a lot of people just don't observe adult birthdays. If I'm with my adult kids, I expect us to have a nice dinner and dessert. If I'm not with them, I expect them to call. My parents are dead, and my sisters post "happy birthday" on an online group we have. But my friends and I never do anything beyond saying happy birthday some time around the day. If we happen to be out, we would buy that person a dessert or a drink. But we wouldn't be out just for that person's birthday.

So this is hard to answer without knowing what is normal in your friend group. If one of my friends gave herself a birthday party every year, that would be really weird and I'm not sure how people would respond. But if everyone in your group does this, that's a different story.
posted by FencingGal at 8:19 AM on July 23, 2018 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I actually think it is valid to be bothered by this - albeit for different reasons. You may be a little more sensitive around this, but even without that sensitivity, just flaking out on you is actually kind of rude.

So I would say that "taking the sting out of this" would be to speak up. It doesn't have to be a big dramatic "HERE IS THE REASON WHY YOU SUCK AND YOU MAKE ME FEEL LIKE NO ONE LOVES ME!" kind of thing, it can be more quiet. I actually did this myself once - I had a simlar problem, and I took care of it by taking a couple of my friends aside who were the worst offenders and having a quiet chat. Not necessarily accusing them - I phrased it like, "hey, so here's a thing that I've noticed you do - and here's how I feel when it happens. Just....y'know, letting you know."

In a couple cases those friends apologized and worked to improve on their behavior. In another couple cases, those friends apologized and then explained why they had to be so flaky, and we brainstormed on an alternate solution that would satsify both them AND me. In one or two cases, they apologized....but then things still didn't improve, and I just quietly stopped inviting them to things. You'll notice that in every case - regardless of whether they fixed their behavior or not - they apologized. Which in and of itself made me feel validated, and that itself was a big help.

You also can tell them as much or as little about how you feel when you do this; if you're comfortable giving the full backstory of your past, you can, or you can just say "when you tell me you'll show up to a party but then back out at the last mintue I end up feeling like I'm a bit of a secondary priority for you". Or a more practical "I get frustrated when you cancel at the last minute on me because I prepared for the party based on a specific headcount and I was on the hook for an extra 3 pounds of meatloaf" or whatever.

But yeah, a quiet word at a neutral time all "hey, just letting you know, this is a thing that happens and this is how I feel when it happens." That worked well for me.

Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:26 AM on July 23, 2018 [3 favorites]

Best answer: This is such a hard thing to deal with as an adult. We get so many mixed messages about birthdays and everyone has so many different (and valid) expectations and issues and just, ugh. I'm working on this a lot too. And to add to all that confusion there's the fact that just getting a bunch of people in the same place together at the same time is practically impossible, let alone if it's for a good reason like a birthday party and not a horrible reason like a funeral or a mandatory all hands meeting.

So I think there's some stuff going on that you can't control, and some stuff that you can control. I think that it's totally okay to have important traditions that you're committed to and having "celebrating my birthday" being one of those is a good one to have. You can be really clear with the people you care for that this is important to you, that you put a lot of effort into it and that this isn't a casual thing for you. You can't expect people to just know and understand this about you. You can communicate to people that you expect RSVPs to be true on the day, but you can't control the myriad realities of other people's lives (kids being sick, personal mental or social problems, accidents and scheduling mistakes, surprise visits from in-laws, need I go on) and make them show up.

Another thing that you can try, and this is what I've been trying and am slowly making work, is recognizing that you can do multiple birthday-related things and thus include a wider swathe of friends with different schedules and interests over the course of about a month around your birthday. For example, this year, I will be strong-arming some friends to attend the opera with me (finally! they'll love it and if they don't I don't wanna hear it!!!), then I'll have some other friends out to eat delicious weird sushi with me, and other other friends and their raucous children and ridiculous dogs will come have a grill party in my backyard. With the exception of one person and myself, none of these activities will have groups that overlap. So, maybe you can spread the party out over a few different things. Maybe the people who cancelled last minute before, you could preemptively say "I want to do a birthday dinner, when is good for you in [birthday month]" and some people whose lives have changed recently you could say "let's find a great time during [birthday month] to eat pie!" and so-on. This would allow the people who you've told that your birthday is important to be able to celebrate it with you in a way that is more flexible for them while respecting your wishes.

Anybody who makes you feel crappy for being an adult who wants to celebrate their birthday should be politely asked if they are Jehovah's Witnesses and met with polite shock when they say they aren't.
posted by Mizu at 8:31 AM on July 23, 2018 [6 favorites]

I think you're starting to get it when you mentioned how your party and birthday may not necessarily coincide. "Having a birthday" is not the same thing as "having an event to celebrate my birthday" although you've kind of conflated the two. I understand that it's a great feeling to have friends surround you at an event, where that is the reason for gathering, but if the reason is really for people you care about to be there for you then it's not necessarily how they express that care.

I think, as a partygoer, the thing that bugs me about large gatherings is that I attend because I want to interact with the person having a birthday, but that's impractical in a group of more than a couple people. Some people hate parties for that reason, alone. I think while having people attend reinforces the positivity in your friendship, an inability to attend is not a negative mark.

I used to think people who half-jokingly referred to their "birthday week" or "birthday month" were being kind of self-indulgent, but it's the opposite: it's the recognition that the connection with others, and the impulse to do things with friends and reconnect, can't really be time-boxed into a couple hours on one day. So if you like parties, throw one. And then get dinner or coffee with a few friends, meet up with some others, and call a long distance friend on the phone for an extended conversation. Having friends all able to attend on one particular night, in one place, is a luxury that diminishes with time.
posted by mikeh at 8:48 AM on July 23, 2018 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Adults can too have birthday parties! I am thirty six years old, which I think pretty much qualifies as adult, and just had a birthday party last month. My mother has birthday parties, and she is in her sixties! One thing that makes this possible, though, is that we are both people who host parties regularly, including on holidays (other people's birthdays, thanksgiving), and just because (potlucks, cocktail parties, "I want to cook a huge ton of food and need people to eat it" parties).

I bring this up because I wonder if part of your situation emerges not from people not caring about your birthday, but from your friends not being in the habit of going to parties/associating their friendship with you with parties. This might be especially the case for friends who you usually socialize with one-on-one, which is likely to be your most intimate friends, and they might not realize that their presence at the party matters in a way that's not just about seeing them, but about the party itself and about seeing all of your friends together. They may feel like their substitution of a one-on-one dinner is giving you something more intimate and special, and a chance to celebrate you in a more focused way. And they're not wrong! But they also don't have all the information.

It might help to examine this within yourself, but framing it this way might also help you talk them into showing up--even if just to make a twenty-minute appearance. You can give more context in person, but if they're flaking via text you can say something like, "yes, let's absolutely have dinner next week! your presence would also help make my party feel special, so I would really love it if you could stop by, even if you can only stay long enough to give me a hug!" It's not guaranteed to work, but it might help emphasize your specific desire for their presence, and reassure those who are concerned that they'll be rude if they leave quickly, or get stuck talking to strangers all night and hardly even see you.
posted by dizziest at 9:06 AM on July 23, 2018 [5 favorites]

I didn't mean to imply that I think you shouldn't give yourself birthday parties, just that the way people react might depend on whether it's perceived as normal in your friend group.

That aside, it is rude to accept an invitation and then flake without a very good reason. I gave an annual party for years and had to quit because I got burned out. A lot of people just don't seem to understand that giving a party is a lot of work and having an accurate head count matters. I restarted after a few years, severely cutting the guest list so that I was only inviting my closer friends, and I'm much happier with it now.
posted by FencingGal at 9:20 AM on July 23, 2018

Response by poster: Thanks for the feedback, everyone.

I am not going to threadsit, but I do want to clarify: I am in my late 20s, and birthday parties are absolutely normal for my friends and wider networks.
posted by elsmith at 9:27 AM on July 23, 2018

I totally sympathize, i also get very caught up in my birthday and who shows up for it.

Because there are such different expectations around birthdays and parties within even the same group of friends, I think you'll have to be very explicit with people about what you want and need. Next time, can you have a real conversation in advance with a set of core friends where you tell them "look, I know birthdays aren't a big deal to everyone but they are to me, you being there would really make me feel loved and cared for, is this date good for you and can you put it on your calendar?" And then remind them again before the party. You will still get a couple of flakers but hopefully fewer.

Alternately, what about letting go of the party and taking people up on their offers of one-on-one dinners to celebrate? That way you get extra birthday!
posted by EmilyFlew at 10:00 AM on July 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

Change the party model. I used to struggle with similar feelings about birthdays-as-sign-of-worth, and ditching the expectation of a party helped me tremendously. Now, like mentioned above, I come up with a list of various activities to do during my birthday week and give people plenty of notice to join me for one (or more) of things. So for example last year it was something like, "My birthday is next week! I'd like to go for a walk in [favorite park], see a movie, get a pedicure, and have snacks at [cheap local dive]! Who's in?" And it actually turned out to be so much less weighted with meaning and stressful and was in fact delightful as I got to see far many friends stretched over the course of the week and also had more meaningful interactions with several of them (eg, getting to gab with the three who joined me for a walk, or the one who joined me for a pedi). Also I felt like people were far less likely to flake one they were booked in for the movie or the salon or even the walk. So yeah: anything-but-parties has made for much, much better birthdays for me.
posted by TwoStride at 10:53 AM on July 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

Forgot to add: parties--especially if it's not, like, a seated meal party at your house--make it so easy for people to flake, because it's so easy to assume that with everyone else going your absence won't really be noticed. (And I think this line of thinking is perhaps especially tempting to those with anxiety, or depression, or are just introverts...). So while you can tell your friends how hurtful it is when they flake... it might just be adding more guilt to difficult feelings they might already have about parties, too.
posted by TwoStride at 10:58 AM on July 23, 2018 [4 favorites]

I had one terrible birthday (in my early 30s) where for a variety of reasons, basically EVERYONE canceled on my plans. I pouted and was pretty angry (although everyone had good excuses -- like being sick and such). And this was on the actual day of my birthday. It sucked and I hated it. Even though I knew no one was doing this to me personally, it was still awful.

But also, it taught me a good lesson -- my birthday is what I want it to be. Yes, I want people to celebrate with me but that's just because I want them to have fun! But also, I want to have fun!

I've mentioned in other comments that I had a private-room karaoke party last year and not as many people showed up as I would've wanted. But you know what? It was still amazingly fun. Yeah, I wanted to hang out with my friends, but more I felt sad they missed out on a good time!

I'm assuming since you're posting this now that you have a summer birthday. Those can be hard! (My birthday is close enough to July 4 that everyone gets out of town.) So you can just realize not everyone is going to make it because it's a busy season or you can choose to celebrate your birthday at some other time (I also have a significant life event in February that I sometimes plan around). Or you can just decide you're just going to have fun, regardless. And that's the mode I've been taking.

(My last party was fun, but there was a moment where I wondered if anyone was going to show. But I realized I had some good food and drinks and music and so I was going to have fun no matter what. Admittedly, it took me a while to get there, but I liked the feeling I could celebrate myself in a really selfish way and just enjoy it. Birthdays are good and I felt better once I just decided that was the case. Hugs and happy birthday to you!)
posted by darksong at 8:43 PM on July 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

First of all, this suuuucks and I really feel you.

I think that these days, there is so much emphasis on having ALL the friends, attending ALL the events, and being everywhere. Everyone has FOMO, all the time (thanks social media!) and it's rotten, because for me, what creates a social life that I really get a lot out of, is pruning back often enough that I just don't say yes to stuff where it's not important enough for me to make an effort to show up. But I have friends who you can more or less guarantee will either flake, or show up ridiculously late to almost everything. One particular - she double and even triple-books herself as a matter of routine, always thinking she can do it all and rarely, surprisingly enough, able to.

You have two good options , I think, and you can totally do them both. People here have already suggested pruning the crappier friends out of your invite list after so many flake-outs, which is absolutely valid to do.

The other thing, is that when you have a birthday coming up, or similarly important event, mount a comms campaign. Send the invite, get a few declines. A week before the event, send a message out with times/meeting point/whatever, and include something like "I've made the bookings but want to adjust if our numbers are going to change, so please let me know if you can't make it!". Then, on the day itself, send a last message saying something like "can't wait to see you all later! We're currently a table of [number] if anything comes up and you can't make it please let me know so I can adjust the booking before we get there!".

You might get one or two declines at each level, but at least you know in advance, and can avoid the embarrassment of empty seats for a booking. Also, including the number of people in the last message is particularly important if you've already had some cancellations, as this subtly reminds people that only so many people can drop out before they've basically left you on your own.

Good luck and don't feel even slightly bad for feeling this way. I'm older than you and still love having a birthday party somewhere near my birthday, and feel just as upset when people mess me around.
posted by greenish at 10:15 AM on July 24, 2018

Response by poster: Hi everyone,

The suggestions about reframing the birthday as one day vs an opportunity to have a number of things with friends to celebrate has really helped. I was already kind of doing it when I'd planned my get-togethers around this past weekend, but at the end of my actual birthday yesterday, most of which I spent with 3 friends (I'm a one-on-one kind of friend, and y'all are right that this doesn't mesh well with getting everyone together for a party), I felt special and appreciated and loved. And sharing the shame feelings with one of my friends really helped exorcise the ickiness, somehow.

So uh, thanks for solving my Birthday Thing, MeFi!
posted by elsmith at 6:47 PM on July 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

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