My birthday. The one day I dread every year. Not because I’m getting older. In fact, the older I get, the more rooted I am in myself and the happier I become. It’s not the aging. It’s the fact that I loathe the attention. People think I’m just being shy or humble when I tell them I don’t want a big deal made on my birthday. But the truth is it makes me extremely uncomfortable, and I feel as though I have to become someone else just to make it through the day.
For many introverts, what’s even worse than coping with attention is tolerating inauthenticity. That feeling of being fake, pretending you’re something you’re not, smiling politely through gritted teeth when you really want to slam your head against the wall. And yet I choose to do this every year on my birthday because it’s the path of least resistance, and I’ve learned that fighting it causes even more anxiety.
After 44 birthdays, I’ve realized the futility in fighting a long-ingrained tradition of an extroverted world that encourages social celebrations of birthdays. Even those who truly desire to respect my non-outwardly celebratory wishes feel a sense of moral compulsion to celebrate it anyway because they’ve been socially conditioned to believe it’s the right thing to do and they think it’s what everyone secretly wants, whether they admit it or not. But the truth is I really don’t secretly want the attention on my birthday, or any day. And the right thing to do societally is not always the right thing to do for any one specific person.
Those closest to me accept my need for a quiet, private celebration. But still, in the same way that I’m asking them to respect my needs, I too must respect their need to outwardly acknowledge someone on their birthday, and I know that underneath it all, they really do mean well. Although their efforts may be misguided, their intentions are pure, and being the people-pleasing introvert that I am, I don’t like hurting people’s feelings, especially when they mean well.
It’s the one day I pretend to be pleasantly surprised when I’m pulled into a dark conference room that suddenly erupts in loud, bright, and overwhelming “SURPRISE!” cheers, accompanied by blares of paper party horns—all coming from co-workers I barely know. I force a big smile and hold it for as long as the birthday song is sung while 30 pairs of eyeballs are glued onto me (I wonder if anyone can tell I’m about to self-combust).
It’s the one day I pretend all the flowers, gifts, cards, phone calls, texts, emails, and repeated questions about what I’m going to do for my birthday make me feel special when all I really want to do is be alone and turn off all devices that beep or ring with constant “happy birthdays” without the guilt of not responding.
To make my birthday more tolerable and keep from hiding in a bathroom all day, I set my mind to focus on the intention rather than the attention. I start by taking transition breaths. I take a deep breath when I leave the house, get in my car, out of my car, walk into the elevator at work, walk out of the elevator, down the hall, and on and on. Any time I transition from one space to another, I breathe in thinking the word intention, and I breathe out letting go of my resistance to the attention.
By constantly anchoring myself in my breath throughout the day, I remain internally me even though externally I become something else. I remind myself it’s just for one day, and there are 364 more days when I can be blissfully quiet me until the next year.
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