Every birthday from thirteen to nineteen featured two things: me being cussed down and then being thrown out of the house. Nothing drastic or dreadful ever happened to trigger these rather strange birthday ‘gifts’ other than the arrival of the birthday itself, and my head would be near spinning at the speed at which nothing or something that seemed minor, could escalate into chaos and then, if there were guests arriving, switch back to acting as if everything was perfectly normal.
For a while I thought it was not cleaning the house to a high enough standard or helping out enough, or buying the ‘right’ gift, and then I realised that it didn’t matter what it was–these occasions, which included Mother’s Day and Easter, were very triggering for my mother.
For a number of years, these experiences were baffling, painful and embarrassing, until I discovered that a number of my own friends as well as plenty of Reclaimers, have been through similar experiences where their parents wrecked occasions that should, in theory, be a source of happiness and good memories.
It’s not something that’s talked about a great deal, possibly because aside from all of the associated memories and feelings, there’s a societal expectation that we’re supposed to be happy at these times and that if we find it difficult, that there’s something odd about us, so we grin and bear it to fit in, while often experiencing great pain within. In fact, just like the images of motherhood that are often at odds with reality, we’re peddled this idea that ‘everyone’ has positive memories of birthdays and that if they don’t, well, there must be something wrong with them.
Just like with Christmas and what can be the 12 Weeks of Self-Esteem Torment that start from around the end of November through to Valentine’s Day, some people just aren’t that into birthdays or big occasions.
Some of the reasons that people have shared with me are:
- The anxiety about bringing unpredictable family members together
- The fear of your day being hijacked yet again (being sidelined in the past or feeling as if you have to dim your light so that a sibling/parent doesn’t get upset, gradually takes its toll)
- Feeling as if you have to be on guard and reading the room/babysitting a grown-up instead of present with your loved ones and enjoying yourself
- Feeling obliged to invite family (or other people) who have demonstrated more than once that they will do the equivalent of watching everyone having a good time and then pulling down their pants in the middle of the room and having a massive tantrum
- Worry about people not turning up (just like a party from long ago)
- Feeling as if you have to get everything right and give everyone The Best Time Ever TM even if you don’t have a good time
- Feeling obliged to celebrate because everyone else wants to even though you don’t
- Having to force happiness and then suffer through comments about your age, your relationship status, life choices etc
- Associating these times with being reminded about how you have ‘failed’ to live up to someone else’s expectations
These times are associated with the likes of neglect, embarrassment, humiliation, rejection, being forgotten, confusion, jealousy, envy, drama, lack, excess, anxiety, abandonment, stress, worry, fear, depression and loss to name but a few.
My celebration dramas continued into adulthood (I won’t even begin to list the occasions…) and it’s been a relief to discover over the years that I am very far from being alone. These could have continued to be huge sources of shame for me but employing the antidote of compassion, humour and forgiveness, has helped me to gradually transcend these experiences.
Far too many of us do things because we think it’s what is expected of us or what society tells us we need to be and do in order to be happy, instead of doing things from a place of desire, and it’s no wonder we wind up feeling resentful, short-changed, worn out and disillusioned.
We put this huge amount of pressure on ourselves, and spend copious amounts of money, time, energy, effort and emotion trying to keep up with the imaginary Joneses. This doesn’t fill the void created by these past experiences; if anything, it widens it because it causes us to become even more disconnected from ourselves and to feel increasingly lacking.
We will struggle to give us what we need, either overcompensating by trying to make up for all of those past experiences or feeling undeserving and so coming from this place of lack where we starve us out and struggle to give us what we need. With the latter, we’d do something like throw a party for someone else or buy them a fancy gift and then balk at the idea of doing that for us.
It’s my fortieth at the end of July and after imagining myself throwing a mix of a nineties rave, a homage to House Party and the best of r&b, all possibly dressed up like a member of Salt n’ Pepa, I realised that I’d rather do a few trips and something smaller, no doubt including that music. Of course, I’ve had a number of people say, “But you have to have a proper party! You’re only 40 once!”
Now, I admit that it’s a strange time with my father being sick and knowing that I’ve got to wrap my head around all of that, but the truth is, I’ve had ‘occasion fatigue’ for a few years and as I get ready to leave my childhood (I think turning 40 makes me an official adult!), I really want to focus on doing more of the things that feel good and right for me.
I also want to create more positive associations around birthdays and big occasions, and I can’t do that if I keep allowing my inner pleaser to take the reins.
This isn’t about finding ways to make these events a big deal; this is about showing up for these from an authentic place that allows me to differentiate my present from my past and allows me to give myself permission to be a grown-up, and so able to listen to my own feelings, needs etc.
If, like me, you find that birthdays, occasions etc., are a source of discomfort for you, acknowledge that baggage in your past that you might still be a bit (or a lot) hurt, angry, embarrassed etc about. It’s one of my favourite exercises and works across a broad range of subjects:
Pick the occasion and write down any negative memories that you have about it. They might pertain to you or other people who were around you in the past but if it springs to mind, it should be on there. Anything on that list, especially anything that causes an emotional squeeze of sorts right now, is the source of emotional charge that’s influencing, not just how you feel during these times but also how you behave during and in the run up to them.
You now have a list of experiences that you can work on forgiving you over so that you change the underlying narrative. In some instances you might feel that you can straight away have that compassion for your younger self and even anyone else involved and feel able to forgive you and others, but the anger etc., that you might not have known was there, needs to be processed via an Unsent Letter (or other means).
This work is important because you would be amazed at how these experiences impact on your attitude towards giving, receiving, internalising your accomplishments and achievements, and basic self-care.
And look out in this week’s podcast coming out on Friday where I’ll be sharing some tips about how to handle the boundaries around birthdays and occasions so that you don’t keep setting you up for a fall by trying to appease