Existential Psychology

Birthdays Are The Worst Days

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“Birthdays was the worst days now we sip champagne when we thirsty.”

– Biggie Smalls

It was Irvin Yalom who made the incisive observation that while birthdays in adulthood seem like festive, cheerful affairs they’re usually tinged with darker emotions like sadness, regret, and anxiety, though these uncomfortable feelings are carefully hidden from others or banished from conscious awareness. Every birthday is a visible reminder that life is passing us by, that we’re on a timeline, and that at the end of that timeline lies our demise.

When we stop to think about it the celebrating, the presents, the festive atmosphere, all the pomp and circumstance, are a reaction formation to counterbalance what’s really going on underneath. The whole birthday paradigm in adulthood takes the authentic repressed material in the deeper recesses of the psyche and broadcasts it in equal and opposite force to the world. Desperation underneath ebullience on the surface. Sadness underneath happiness on the surface. Anxiety underneath contentment on the surface.

Most of us are successful most of the time at repressing the unbearable dread we experience around aging and what it really means, around the fact that our secret belief in our personal immortality is nothing more than a childish fantasy. But our birthdays are visible reminders, they’re undeniable markers of the passage of time.

The real problem though is that awareness of our mortality shouldn’t be repressed in the first place, it should be brought into conscious awareness on a consistent basis. It’s only when we fully recognize how short and precious the human lifespan really is that we feel motivated to live to the fullest, to ‘trivialize the trivialities’ as Yalom would say, to make every day special.

Repressing that unbearable dread produces some psychic relief in the moment but at a terrible price, which is continuing to go about the hum drum daily routine, viewing existence as mundane and unremarkable. We convince ourselves that those important projects can wait, those important conversations can wait, those important decisions can wait, life can wait, when we convince ourselves that despite all the undeniable evidence to the contrary we’re immune and have all the time in the world.

For many adults birthdays are the worst days precisely because they can’t contain their existential anxiety in those moments like they do most of the time. The defense mechanisms break down under the environmental pressure and that anxiety comes in waves despite the cheerful veneer.

But wherever we happen to be in the lifespan, we retain the freedom to decide that right now is the time to start really appreciating the moment, to do something meaningful with whatever time we have left, to be happy now, to suck the nectar out of life. Because time turns a deaf ear to whether or not we repress those painful thoughts and feelings around our mortality. Time just keeps right on marching at that same steady clip. That same outcome keeps on waiting for us. We can choose to recognize this fact or ignore it and to time it’s all the same. But when we do fully recognize our mortality instead of repressing those painful thoughts and feelings we stop wasting our lives and start really living, we start using the one and only opportunity we’ll ever have to connect to life in a meaningful way, in a way that produces authentic happiness and contentment now despite what’s waiting for us down the line.