When my next birthday comes around, I will have the impulse to crawl into a hole and put a blanket over my head and wait until it passes. And eat waffles. I’m assuming I’m probably not the only one.

What is it about birthdays that makes some of us want to run away and hide while it drives others to loudly or ostentatiously celebrate? 

It seems that we have a pretty neurotic relationship with birthdays. We love them, we hate them. We eagerly await their arrival. Once they do arrive, we ignore them and command our loved ones to do the same. We make sure to have big plans. We make sure to schedule nothing. We get drunk. We diet. We double-check that we have the privacy on our social media accounts set, so that no one would know when they’re here. We desperately try to adjust our social media accounts, so that everyone will know they’re here.

Even when they seem like they are not a big deal, they actually are. What is it that sets us all off into the “birthday freak out?”

Candles Vs. Fire Hazard

When you’re a kid, birthdays seem to take forever to arrive. However, the older we get, the more quickly they seem to come around. Soon, the collection of candles on our cake becomes a type of token or alternatively, there’s an insulting three-candle piece, instead. Or, ultimately, our loved ones come up with something creative to basically avoid the fire hazard.

Whatever our cakes look like, we all know that we also focus on their décor or eat them ravenously or obsessively order them from the same place every year — often to avoid our birthday feelings.

For example, many of us experience the “birthday shame.” Birthdays become a marker of time, in which we judge ourselves and compare ourselves to others. We look around us and meticulously take stock of what we do not have and others do; and what we have not accomplished and others have. We focus on what isn’t, and the only “what is” that we can acknowledge (with horror) is the added candle.

We live in a culture that not only glorifies youth, but also glorifies quite improbable achievements while you have any youth; where if we do not own a Ferrari and rule a small country by 30, then we have failed. And so, birthdays easily become the perfect hook to hang our sense of not being, doing, or having enough.

When presents turn to presence

Have you ever seen an eight-year-old child tear into a birthday present? It’s like whatever is inside of that box holds the power to make it all happen. How many forty somethings do that in the same way?

Everybody still likes presents, but somewhere along the way, we stop ripping the wrapping paper off. Do we come to realize that life isn’t perfect or as ripping-the-wrapper-worthy, or do we learn that the perfect present can’t make it that way?

Maybe what we start to really desire is not lots of presents lined up on the floor, but lots of presence in our lives — of meaningful relationships, security, spiritual and emotional accomplishments, adventure, love, a sense of identity, joy and gratitude. Maybe it is this kind of presence that we actually crave (and have always craved) for our entire lives, not the kind we can find on-line and get free shipping for.

Some reasons to celebrate

As we get older, our birthday often become more about reflection and gratitude than about desire for the latest remote-control car or fanciest headphones. At the same time, they can often be filled with fears, regrets, challenges, insecurities, loneliness and even heartbreaks. For all of us. And, just as birthdays are a part of life, so is all of that. Even if birthdays hold hope and possibilities, wonderment and gratitude, we can’t help but sometimes experience some of that other stuff, too.

While no one wants to start a fire, it seems like we should probably get all of the candles back on the cake. The candles on the cake celebrate our recognition of the journey and mark our gratitude for life. The life that you have lived so far, the one where there’s no way you get out unscathed. Nobody makes it through life without failures, heartaches, challenges and periods when we are down-right scared. Nobody makes it through without feeling ashamed, less than, or disappointed. If we didn’t feel all of this, we wouldn’t be able to experience all the good stuff, too. The time when we got proposed to in the best and worst of ways; the time when we had three quiet and peaceful Sundays in a row without a surprise disaster; the time when we sobbed with joy because we triumphed over an addiction; the time when we bought ourselves flowers and just smelled them for 10 minutes, like we didn’t have a care in the world.

Perhaps, then, we should begin thinking of those candles as less of a fire hazard and more of a celebration of our humaneness. After all, birth and birthdays are about as human as it gets. And perhaps if we stop running away from the things that make us human, like ridiculous amounts of candles on a birthday cake, we could then become increasingly more open to the delightful and glorious parts of our humanness, too.




I’m Kate Petrosky, one of the therapists you could see at Wright Institute Los Angeles where we offer Affordable Therapy for Everyday People!

Kate received a doctorate in clinical psychology from the California School of Professional Psychology. She primarily draws from psychodynamic and object relations theories in her work with clients. Kate has particular interest in new motherhood, life transitions, and the process involved in becoming our true selves.