For the past few years, I’ve gotten really intense anxiety on my birthday. And while it’s true that I’m hurtling toward (and am probably already at) middle age, that isn’t the reason for my anxiety. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but the anxiety was coming from—get this—people wishing me happy birthday on social media. I am perfectly aware that this is the weirdest fucking thing ever to get anxious about, so don’t @ me in the comments section to tell me so. I already know.
But you know how Facebook has that birthday reminder feature where, on your birthday, it prompts everyone on your friends list, many of them whom you almost never exchange words with (or at least not since your or their last birthday), to tell you happy birthday, and you end up with at least a hundred notifications? So many notifications! All day long! HAVE A HAPPY BIRTHDAY RIGHT NOW, DAMMIT!!
That was causing me anxiety. And not just a little. I’m ashamed to admit it had gotten to the point last year that I was honestly kind of letting it ruin my birthday. (Yes. I know I was letting it. I am aware I can choose not to look at social media. But my job is in social media so it is actually kind of impossible not to.)
Now, before I go on, I need to make two things super clear: First, I do not begrudge anyone wishing me or anyone else a happy birthday. I think it’s wonderful! Despite my anxiety, I realize it’s a thoughtful, kind gesture to take a few moments to wish someone a happy day. Second, I am a total fucking hypocrite because I also wish acquaintances I barely know a happy birthday, and I do so with complete sincerity. It doesn’t matter that I haven’t spoken to a person in years, if I see it’s their birthday, I am excited to take a moment to wish them a happy birthday, and I truly mean it!
Nevertheless, for the past few years, the energy being directed at me on my birthday, even though it was positive and wonderful and thoughtful, was just too much. I was having horrible thoughts, like “Why is this person wishing me happy birthday even though we never speak?” followed by “Kristen, you are a big dumb hypocrite who also wishes acquaintances happy birthday, seriously, what is wrong with you?” and the grand finale: “You’re an entitled douchebag with ridiculous first-world problems who doesn’t deserve happy birthday wishes anyway.”
Honestly. Who doesn’t enjoy when people literally wish them happiness?
Turns out, it’s actually not that uncommon to have social media birthday anxiety. I know because I asked on my Facebook page if anyone else experiences similar anxiety, and the comment section exploded with a chorus of “Holy crap, me too!”
Tons of people said they experience social media birthday anxiety, often followed by similar guilt for said anxiety. Many turned off their birthday on social media years ago. Monica, from Maryland, said, “Yes! I absolutely hate it. I hate all and any attention.” It didn’t occur to me until the moment I read that comment, but I think that’s definitely part of my issue. I’ve come a long way from the attention-hungry 20-year-old who threw back a couple of tequila shots and entered a bikini contest during spring break. Please, do me a favor and don’t notice me.
Kristina, from Florida, said all the messages actually made her feel lonely. “It’s a full day of no one actually intimately interacting with you.” This makes so much sense too! When I picture a perfect birthday, I imagine a low-key, chill day spent with the loved ones closest to me, eating good food and too much cake.
Quite a few people expressed distress about thanking everyone for all the wishes. They felt obligated to respond to each and every post, but then also worried they would forget someone and come off looking like a jerk.
This year, in an effort to reduce my weird birthday anxiety, I switched my birthday to private in Facebook. I didn’t do it in previous years because, again, who doesn’t enjoy wishes of happiness? I didn’t want to be a party pooper and I was holding out hope that my anxious ass would chill the hell out over it. Instead, I kept the anxiety and also added guilt and self-loathing for being an ungrateful, panicky turd who apparently can’t handle people trying to be nice to me, and so each consecutive year spiraled into an ever-deepening whirling vortex of panic.
This year, with notifications turned off, was perfect. A few family members and friends with crazy-good memories messaged me privately and posted on my page, which did prompt a few others to respond likewise with happy wishes in the comments, but everything felt much more organic and not overwhelming at all.
I am the first to admit that all of this is sort of a made-up problem. Social media isn’t even real life! Why are we stressing about online birthdays? It’s super weird! And yet, it can’t be that weird because it’s definitely a thing, I’m definitely not the only one, and as much as we’d love to pretend social media is an imaginary place that doesn’t impact our real lives, we all know that’s not the case at all.
I enjoyed my recent quiet birthday with my kids and partner. I was genuinely touched by the people who remembered my birthday even without a Facebook reminder and sent well-wishes my way. It was exactly the right amount of attention for someone with an inflated aversion to attention, so I don’t see myself turning my birthday back on anytime soon.