For most of my life, birthdays were a source of disappointment. I thought it was because of other people. I was so wrong.

When I was in the 7th grade, about ten minutes before the first bell was due to ring, I stood outside the double doors leading to the hallway of my locker. One of my classmates approached and asked me what I was doing just standing there.

“I’m giving my friends time to surprise me,” I answered confidently.

“Huh?” he gaped.

“It’s my birthday,” I explained, “So I know they’re decorating my locker, and I just want to be out of the way until they do.”

He said nothing as he walked through the doors behind me. Just as I set my thoughts back on my daydreams, imagining balloons and ribbons, he burst back through the doors, laughing.

“There’s no one at your locker! There’s no one there,” he laughed so hard, he snorted.

My heart sank. I gulped and gazed through the dirty rectangular glass embedded in the thickly painted blue door. He was right. There was no one there.

I went inside. My heart danced in my throat as I turned the combination on my barren locker, its scratched metal surface screaming with rejection. I spent hours on the verge of tears until, finally, my friends figured out what had happened. At lunch, one of them distracted me while the other smothered my locker door with construction paper and pictures of Eminem.

I remember feeling a little better, but the damage had been done. I realized that day how distant I was from these people I called my friends. They all went to each other’s houses regularly, participated on the same sports teams, and lived in the same neighborhoods. I was the occasional friend who was occasionally allowed out of the house. The one who would occasionally make them laugh. The one who never felt important.

Birthday disappointment. This had happened before, like the birthday party I had in grade 5 where I ended up crying because someone had to leave and I took it really personally. And it would happen again. For a majority of the years I lived with my parents, I spent my birthday grounded.

After I left home, my birthday became a day for two things. One, the people in my life, having heard my sad birthday stories, would try to make me feel special. This seldom worked as they’d planned. Because I was so convinced that people would never do their best for me, never try their hardest, never give their all—I could never feel their intentions. I only felt my assumptions.

The second thing that would happen is I would get unbelievably drunk and pass out, black out, or, as happened a whopping two times, get a concussion. Either way, I’d wake up the next day with a headache and a glass of disappointment.

I had an awakening a few months before my birthday in 2012. I had changed drastically in a short period of time. I had quit drinking. That evening, I spent sober at a bowling alley with friends who all seemed like they had somewhere else to be. It was Friday night. I ended up paying the bill. I got in a fight with my best friend at the time that was so damaging, our relationship never recovered. It was not a pleasant day.

Since then, I’ve been learning about myself and learning about expectations. Last year, for my birthday, I focused on giving and universal love. This was a step in the right direction. A few weeks ago, I shared the story of how I was able to maintain peace of mind while making a sacrifice by focusing on my own feeling of self-approval instead of awaiting the approval of others.

Well, my birthday was last week. The week leading up to the day, I vaguely noticed that everyone was being a little distant, but that was understandable. We were still at Jamie’s family’s house. His mom had just been released from the hospital and her meds were giving her awful side effects. His brother has a business to run. His sister works. People get tired. People get busy.

A few days before my birthday, I got to thinking about the meaning of this day and my relationship to it. I realized that this day, more than a celebration of my individuality, is an opportunity for me to be grateful for existing. I wrote a Facebook post about this that I scheduled to go out on the 1st. Here’s that post:

I woke up on the morning of my birthday, drank coffee with Jamie, and called my mother to thank her for carrying me for 9 months. There were few plans made for the day, except everyone said we’d go out for dinner later. Jamie asked me what I wanted to do, and I said I wanted to just go on an adventure. So, we did. Having no plans meant I got to make them as we went along. This is one of my favourite things to do.

I went to a yoga class. We had lunch at an awesome eco-friendly café. We went to a driving range, did mini putt. We walked by the side of the river.

A few hours before sunset, a little voice in my head said, “No one bothered to plan much for you today.” But it didn’t hurt. It had no meaning. I said to myself, “No, I guess they didn’t, and maybe that would have felt nice, but this feels nice too. Having an adventure. Feeling gratitude to be alive. Appreciating my life instead of waiting to be appreciated by others.”

I was at peace. It felt strange to be at peace like this, because I’d never before had a birthday that was not tainted by the heavy disappointment of broken expectations. Because I hadn’t formulated any. I expected nothing.

As we walked up to the house, I was thinking of how I could take a shower really quickly because we were running late. When we walked in, there was darkness, silence, confusion. And then… “Surprise!”

There they were—Jamie’s whole family, surrounded by the dishes they’d been secretly cooking, the presents they’d been secretly planning, and the card they’d been secretly making. We all laughed together as they told me about how they’d been sneaking around planning this evening, and I told them how I had rationalized their strange behavior.

After the stories were told, and I had time to admire the gigantic card they’d hand-made for me, I went to go have a shower while they finished dinner. In there, alone with my thoughts, I finally realized what had just happened.

I noticed how I felt. I feel deeply appreciated. And I felt an even deeper appreciation for the efforts of these people who are not my blood family, but who have embraced me with open hearts. Finally, I had a birthday that was full of love, not disappointment.

Then, I realized why I felt this way. I had arrived full of self-approval, full of self-love, and without expectations. In that state, I could feel connection, excitement, gratitude. If I had been disappointed, I could not have felt those feelings. Just like getting my locker decorated at lunchtime felt like too little too late, this would have felt the same.

If I starve myself of connection to the world and then put the responsibility for bridging that connection into other people’s pockets, no gift can ever be enough. I am the one who makes myself ready to receive—by not expecting to.

This realization reminded me of birthdays past and the efforts my friends and lovers had made. A surprise hiking trip in some underground caves. A scavenger hunt with clues to look for gifts. Rose petals and a poem. And even those Eminem posters.

People had been trying to appreciate me all along. I just couldn’t feel it. Because the truth is—just like a flower cannot grow in moldy soil no matter how much sunlight or water we give, feeling appreciated by people cannot grow in disappointment no matter how generous those people are. And just like moldy soil happens for a reason, so does disappointment. It comes from expectations.

When I woke up the next morning, on Facebook, I found my community full of warm wishes, heartfelt letters, heartwarming videos, and even a piece of birthday art! And let me tell you—I felt the power of those gifts. Because I didn’t expect them. Because I had tended to my inner soil.

So I finally got to have the feeling I wanted, and I realized that I could have had it long ago. No one made me feel appreciated. People extended their hands, like eager dance partners, towards me, and instead of waiting to be claimed as the “Belle of the Ball,” I just danced. We danced. Together. That’s where the feeling came from.

Before anyone could give that feeling to me, I had to give it to myself.

And thank goodness I did.

Thank you, to all my amazing dance partners, for an incredible birthday. It was, honestly, the best I’ve ever had.


(Photo by Will Clayton)


7 thoughts on “A Birthday Without Disappointment

  1. Reading this just made me cry, but in a good way
    I had zero expectations for my fiftieth.and yet it was the loveliest day even though I was at work

    Yes absolutely we must remain open to love and other people. Tis was a timely reminder for me today
    Thank you

  2. I know this article is a few years old. I sit here on the eve before my 38th birthday. I can honestly say I know the feeling of disappointment. Even though my 20s were descent with good friends the later years started to turn and go down heal. We all parted ways due to life circumstances so I was spending more time with family. They aren’t really intuned to peoples feelings and no matter how much I explain my bday is very important to me bc of depression and suicidal thoughts. I am happy I made it each year bit I learned not to expect much from people and enjoy the day I was born. I deserve to be happy and love.

    1. You do deserve to be happy and feel love, it’s true. Thanks for being here, and happy birthday. It’s interesting you’re commenting on this now because I just spent my birthday mostly alone without much celebration, and you know, it was a relief. I think the special birthdays of the future will be that much more special because of these uneventful or boring ones.

  3. Hi Vironika,

    I am also years late to this great piece of writing, I burst into tears reading this. I will be turning 30 in a couple of weeks and I’m already starting to feel anxious about the day. I’m looking forward to stepping into my 30’s… but ever since I can remember, I have cried on my birthday. I have felt so let down, repeatedly by my parents who could never let it be about me (my childhood birthday parties my family were always away boating and my birthday turned into a reason for them to drink and party with their friends, there were rarely other kids around and the day was never about me. this hurt me deeply and still does. when I expressed my sadness I was called self-indulgent), in my adult years this has manifested differently with friends. I feel like I’ve had more pity parties over the years than birthday parties, not for lack of trying to celebrate but ‘friends’ being unbelievably flakey at the last minute, and me feeling I have to ‘be cool’ about it, when I’ve put in effort to planning something it’s incredibly hurtful. On the inside I die a little each time and hold on to a feeling of unworthiness. And exactly as you say, my expectations have also blocked me from enjoying the friends that do show up for me, because I do have those special people in my life too. It just feels awful. I must say the best birthdays I’ve ever had I’ve either been working or travelling somewhere far away, just me or me and my partner. I enjoyed it because there’s no risk of being let down, and I think taking that pressure away allowed me to embrace the day and relax. It is after all just another day. How do I open up and trust people to show up for me now that I can’t run away somewhere this year? and it’s one of those rounded numbers that is probably worth celebrating.

    Thank you for sharing this and helping me understand a few things.

  4. Yesterday was my 45 birthday. It was a huge disappointment. Thank you for this article, it gives me much food for thought.

    1. Aw I’m sorry to hear it was disappointing. Happy Birthday, for what it’s worth. I hope you found some parts of yourself that need love and gave it to them <3

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