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Milestone Birthdays Don't Need to Be the Big 'Uh-Oh'

You can turn a day that is often fraught with emotion into a celebration of life

posted by John R. Sharp, M.D., May 24, 2012 More by this author

yellow happy face cake

John R. Sharp, M.D., is a psychiatrist and neuropsychiatrist who serves on the medical staff at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.


yellow happy face cake
Birthdays are particularly significant days on our emotional calendar — the inner calendar that we use to find out how we are feeling, past, present and future. Milestone birthdays — like 50, 60, 70 — are even more significant. Why is this? How does this change with the years? And what can we do about it?
 
These are especially pertinent questions for us to answer if we want to feel happier, more fulfilled and in control of our lives. I will try to explain it all, briefly, based on my research for my recently published book and on the experience I have gained in treating patients and teaching for the past 20 years.
 
Here are four enormously important facts about birthdays: They are occasions for reminiscing. They disturb reality. They hold deferred angst about aging and death. And, more than anything else, birthdays are a tribute to life.
 
Birthdays make you reflect on how your life is adding up. Some of us enjoy taking a panoramic view, whereas others prefer to focus more narrowly. We remember how we started out in life, what we wished for, what happened unexpectedly, where we wound up, who we held dear, what happened next, and so forth.
 
Reminiscing allows you to relive your life to some extent — the happiness, the sadness and everything in between. The emotional calendar you carry in your heart is there for you to take a closer look at anytime. Your birthday, more than any other day, is a natural time for you to do so. 
 
Whether you reminisce a little or a lot, cheerfully or begrudgingly, do yourself a favor by trying to vary the width of your natural perspective. Zoom out and take a broader view. Zoom in and take another look. Then come back to the present, and remember that not everything in your emotional calendar has been written. How you decide to navigate going forward is largely up to you, and constitutes what you will — one day — look back upon.
 
Anniversary Reactions
 
As we get older and wiser and understand more about ourselves and our preferences, we take comfort in life’s routines. Whether it's “keeping on keeping on” or “dancing with the devil you know,” some kind of order sustains us. Birthdays disturb our everyday experience simply because they are not the ordinary day.
 
Your emotional calendar is filled with such “hotspots” — dates that hold special emotional significance. I can suggest potential hotspots, but only you can determine yours, based on your life experience. Think of very significant things that have happened to you in your life. What stands out? Notice how you are triggered to remember some aspect of the experience — a snapshot memory or an emotion — at the same time of year, year after year. This is an anniversary reaction, often triggered by familiar sensory input — sights, sounds, smells and textures. Long story short: Birthdays are hotspots to enjoy and manage. Accept that birthdays disturb everyday reality and that it’s not a bad thing at all.
 
Angst About Aging
 
Most of us don’t worry about getting older on a daily basis. We are reminded of aging and of our own mortality once in a while. Birthdays certainly remind us. A friend of mine, a prominent psychiatrist on the West Coast, nearly collapsed (emotionally) when he turned 70. The reason, as he explained, was that he had deferred all his angst regarding aging to the next milestone birthday, from 50 to 55 to 60 and so forth until he couldn’t avoid dealing with the reality that he was getting, in his own words, “old.” Now that he is dealing with his feelings and addressing his own issues about not being young, he is feeling far lighter and less burdened. He was able to accept his worries and let go of a lot of them. To me, he now seems greatly relieved, and in a sense more youthful. Happiness and contentment, by the way, have been clearly shown to increase with age. The prevalence of these desired emotions rises decade by decade. Remember this and try to go with the flow. Accept changes and address your feelings. There is happiness along the way.
 
A Tribute to Life
 
More than anything else, birthdays are about life. They are in essence acknowledgments and/or celebrations of your life. Most people enjoy their birthdays for a long while and eventually try not to make too big a deal about them, perhaps trading a larger scale party for a more subdued quality experience of one sort or another.
 
The reasons that some people claim to want nothing to do with their own birthdays include not feeling loved, not feeling worthy, not feeling comfortable being the center of attention, not wanting to feel disappointed when things don’t go as hoped. Most of the time unpleasant birthday reactions are learned behaviors based on past experience, which, while understandable, need not doom the future. Friends and family can often prevail or a few sessions with a counselor can really help identify the nature of the problem and the key to the solution.
 
How to Have a Happy Birthday
 
It may sound a little corny, but I’d like everybody to be able to have a happy birthday. And I believe it’s profoundly possible.
 
On your birthday, perhaps on this day more than on any other, you want to have it your way. Whether you want a big party or a small nod to the occasion from a few loved ones, a day full of plans or something entirely laissez-faire, it certainly feels like what you do and who you are with should be almost entirely up to you. Of course, someone may request a command performance of some type. You can be generous with your time or not; it's your call. 
                                                                                                            
Feeling like you must have the day go a certain way is exerting a form of control. Everybody wants to feel in control of something. It’s comforting. Indeed, it is difficult for most of us to see how controlling we are. But the reason we are controlling isn’t just to be difficult or to have our own way. On a deeper level, being controlling shields us from a fear of not being able to get through the potential chaos and pain that threatens us. By insisting that we do this and not that, by living within a grid of dos and don’ts, we feel less exposed and vulnerable. Most people take this way too far, however. Learning to let go a little and loosen up can be one of the better ways to grow older. And this can be achieved even though we are creatures of habit. The main point here is to try to enjoy your routine and understand what it’s all about — on any given day and, especially, on your birthday.
 
So, in a nutshell, here’s what can be done to improve milestone birthdays using knowledge gained from your emotional calendar: First, recognize where you are headed emotionally on your next birthday in advance, based on what you are conditioned to expect from your past. Next, take some time to try to appreciate more about how this affects your outlook and expectations.
 
Then start to consider what you’d like to include in your plans for your next birthday. Preparation is everything. (Even if you want to be simply spontaneous, you can have a plan for that.) Be considerate of your loved ones, but be sure to do what you like. If you’re already a pro at having birthdays turn out nicely and on your own good terms, then this will be a piece of cake.
 
If you’re less optimistic, try trading worse problems for better problems. Eventually, in this process, circumstances will turn favorable. A long time ago when I was in medical school, my roommate from China told me that in his culture there are only three milestone birthdays: age 1, celebrating life; age 39, celebrating youth; and age 88, celebrating life again. Milestones are what you make of them.