Ever since I can remember I have eagerly anticipated my birthday. As a child, I dreamed of my special day where I was entitled to guilt-free attention and presents. As the day got closer, my excitement would build. What will I get? What will my parents do for me? My fantasies ran wild with images of great celebrations and even a real surprise party.
Then came the disappointment.
I wasn’t neglected on my birthday. My mother made me birthday parties and I got presents. But as much as I was excited in anticipation of my special day, I was cranky and in a bad mood at the end it. My birthday never met my expectations. And then it was over. I always felt empty and angry.
Years later, I would transfer those same birthday expectations from my parents to my romantic relationships. I’d get my hopes up and dream I’d get the perfect gift with a loving card and a festive evening out. The gift didn’t have to be expensive, just incredibly thoughtful and romantic. I’d want a magical day that would make me feel special, appreciated, and secure. Every year, I’d be disappointed. Sigmund Freud called this a repetition compulsion.
Here’s a list of the way people disappointed me on my birthday:
· Not the right gift
· Not a big enough gift
· Not enough gifts
· Not a loving enough card
· No flowers
· Not enough fuss
· Didn’t like the restaurant we’d go to for dinner
· Not enough attention
I never spoke of these feelings. I pretended everything was fine. But deep down I felt miserable, and guilty for being such an “ungrateful baby.” I was ashamed of myself and angry at the people I wanted to feel close and connected to on that day. In retrospect, hoping someone would guess what I wanted for my birthday and meet my silent expectations was way too much pressure, not to mention unrealistic. It set my partner up for failure. The experience was also hard on the relationship.
Around the age of 40, a few things happened. I met a new guy, I finished my masters in social work, I learned about emotions and the Change Triangle so I could process my feelings, and I matured. I did not want to keep repeating the same birthday disappointment cycle again and again. I was sick of it! But how could I change this life-long pattern?
One day I had an epiphany. It came to me like a lightning bolt. I realized that I could take control of my birthday and break the cycle of disappointment. I could pick the restaurant. I could invite who I wanted. I could ask for a card. I could request flowers or anything else I wanted within reason. The first year I took charge of my birthday, it worked like a charm. I had a wonderful day that for the first time did not end in disappointment.
Giving up fantasies of how things “should” be is not easy, but neither is repeating a miserable cycle. We have all heard that the definition of “crazy” is repeating the same thing over and over again expecting different results. The day I took control of my birthday, I broke that longstanding pattern of disappointment. I still feel proud that I figured it out. I also learned that I could get other needs of mine met by simply having the courage to speak up.
My birthday is coming up this month. My husband knows I like a card. We discussed the gift I wanted. My family and I will sit down for a nice Italian meal together at a restaurant I chose. There may not be any surprises, but that’s just fine with me. I know I’ll have a good birthday that will meet all my expectations because I made it that way.