I like to think of myself as “good at self-reflection.” But I have several areas where I’m prone to overthinking, and one of them in particular has confused me lately: my birthday.
Having worked through some of this confusion, I want to share how I reframe some birthday anxieties—some common to everybody, and some that are particularly acute for multipotentialites.
As a child, my birthday felt incredibly important. But it hasn’t seemed that way in a long time. These days, I rarely think about my age at all—and I have to actively calculate how old I am whenever I’m filling in a form.
However, for the first time in a long time, my age has become mildly remarkable. What I’m saying is: recently, my age, when measured in years, flipped to a number ending in zero. Which is an awkward way of saying that I just turned forty.
I’d like not to be so awkward about this, but I can’t help it. I’ve had an uncomfortable relationship with time for, well, a long time. And birthdays bring this tension out into the open, sometimes literally. Whenever someone congratulates me I can’t help squirming uncomfortably.
If I try to address the source of my birthday-related discomfort, I’m immediately hit by several contradictory thoughts:
“Who cares about birthdays?! All time measurement is arbitrary! There’s nothing special about 365 days. Every day is a new age, why celebrate this one day in particular?! I should just ignore it!“
“But it’s nice to measure milestones. Birthdays help to see how far we’ve come, and to celebrate achievements, and to look ahead to the next milestone.“
“I could do that any day! What’s so special about a birthday?!”
“Well, yes… I could do it any day, but I don’t. And maybe what makes a birthday special is that it’s a day to do that kind of reflection.“
If I’m being honest, the actual conversation between my internal factions isn’t usually as civil or well-reasoned as I’m making it sound here. I simply experience a crushing emotional weight whenever I consider the concept of birthdays. Which means I avoid thinking about them unless I’m forced to by circumstances. (This, I am reliably informed, makes planning a party for me very difficult.)
It seems like I’ve reached a point in my life to face this discomfort head on. I’d like to understand the mystery of my internal resistance to celebrating—or even acknowledging—birthdays. And perhaps I can come up with a healthier way to reflect on future milestones when they inevitably come along.
Where resistance comes from
First, let me rule out the most obvious potential sources of this discomfort. I do like parties. I don’t mind being the center of attention. And I’m not concerned about either my ever-increasing age or my gradually increasing proximity to death. Seriously! Thanks to previous brushes with existential terror, I’ve learned to be comfortable with the idea that I’m somewhere between 40% and 99.9999% of the way through my life—and that I can’t know where I am in that range.
At times, I’ve even found engaging with these sorts of existential questions to be freeing. But this makes my resistance to birthdays even less explicable. Learning to live with death anxiety is supposed to make the celebration and enjoyment of life even more important – so shouldn’t I be better at celebrating my milestones?
I’m individual (just like everyone else)
There’s a part of me which is convinced that the passage of time doesn’t – and, more so, shouldn’t – matter at all, that I don’t need to mark it in any way, and that if I do dare to care about it that I’m somehow giving into societal pressure to be a certain way at a certain time. This part of me is very concerned that I shouldn’t conform to preconceived ideas of what it means to be twenty, thirty, forty, and so on.
The feeling is much the same as the one I’ve always had—and which other multipotentialites often describe—whenever people asked me “what job do you want when you get older?”
My hatred of being put in a box is strong. It drove me to create a unique career path for myself! So, it’s not surprising that I react negatively to the idea that my life is supposed to conform to certain expectations based on my age.
Although, it’s funny exactly how my rejection of conformity manifests in this case. I can see how rejecting standard career paths could (arguably) make me seem interesting, but when it comes to birthdays my subconscious is basically throwing a mini-tantrum. ‘Oh I’m “supposed” to have my life together by forty, am I?! Well, let me shock you: I have NO idea what I’m doing, and I don’t intend to start now!’ This doesn’t seem like a very helpful line of thought! However, it’s not completely irrational. These two examples of nonconformity are actually connected. The overarching life choices made by multipotentialites mean that life milestones could appear to be delayed—or consciously avoided forever!—compared to other people.
It makes sense that forging a unique career path could be slower to achieve stability. While most of my friends were getting jobs, learning the ropes, getting promoted, I was struggling to establish myself as a writer, public speaker, and freelance software developer, each of which required a ton of effort just to gain an initial foothold.
It’s never too late
Birthdays are an inevitable reminder that life is both infinitely full of interesting things and distressingly finite in length. Reflecting over the passage of time brings both celebration of accomplishments and regret over everything that I missed out on doing. Naturally, the list of missed opportunities is much longer. It’s impossible to avoid asking “is it too late?” or “have I missed my chance?”
When I get these dark birthday thoughts, I remind myself that if I’m capable of worrying about it being too late, then it’s still not technically too late. That isn’t to say that all options are always available – the nature of being alive is that options gradually reduce. But we always have multiple options, and I find that that’s generally enough for me.
I don’t have to always have every option available to be happy – just more than one. I find the lack of any choice scarier than any particular choice, so reminding myself that the future is still full of mystery and possibility tends to reduce the fear of being too late.
How to reflect on the passing of time
Now that I’ve finally allowed myself to directly consider the topic of aging and birthdays, it’s becoming clearer which thoughts are helpful, and which are not. For my own future reference—and yours!—here’s a list of ways to reframe some common birthday anxieties:
I’m x years old and I haven’t done y.
- I’m x years old, and I haven’t done y… yet.
- I’m x years old, and I don’t need to do y if I don’t really want to.
- I’m x years old, and I’ll try y next. Or do something else instead!
Oh god it’s my birthday again. That was fast. I’m doomed.
- Hey, I made it through another year. Great!
- Reflect on accomplishments – however small.
- Don’t dwell on failures or things not attempted. Focus instead on something to attempt next.
I’m x years old, and my life still isn’t together.
- Life will never be “fully sorted.” And it would be boring if it were.
- Don’t compare your life against others. Comparison is only useful if it inspires you to positive action. Otherwise, it’s yet another waste of time.
Thinking over all this I feel much more relaxed about birthdays than ever before. With hindsight, it would have been useful to have performed these reflections before my fortieth birthday, so I could have planned a proper party without just feeling awkward about it.
Still, everyone knows life begins at 41. See you next year.
How do you like to celebrate the age milestones you’ve reached? Do you feel like birthdays are different for you as a multipotentialite? Share your thoughts with the community in the comments.