On Gay Men’s Birthdays, Self-Esteem, and the Meaning of Life

kh-pp-birthday-balloonsHow many times in a year do I hear that there are people who “hate birthdays”?  Far too many.  For these people, any recognition of a birthday is somehow a validation of their fears of aging, or a reminder that they are “just getting older.”  What can I say about this, as a sophisticated licensed mental health professional??  “PHOOEY!”.  I mean, not to invalidate someone’s feelings, but I certainly want to challenge those feelings cognitively to see if we can re-frame the perception that birthdays are only a reminder of the inevitable decline of Life.

I think it’s important to celebrate gay men’s birthdays, and in my clinical sessions with clients (either therapy or coaching), I always encourage them to celebrate their birthdays.  Why?  There are a number of reasons how birthdays are beneficial to mental health, particularly for gay men.  Here are some, to whit:

1)  Birthdays are a celebration of our existence.  They are a ritualized recognition of the day we entered this Life, and it underscores the idea from “It’s a Wonderful Life” that every life touches so many others, that we can’t “do without” anyone. (This notion is particularly poignant in the wake of the recent gay teen suicides; if only these kids had heard this message, along with the “it gets better” one).  Existentially and in Self-Esteem theory, we are all valuable just because we exist, even before we do any “good deeds”.

2)  Birthdays let other people celebrate us.  When we send a card, a phone call, or even a Facebook wall message, we are acknowledging the important people in lives — or, in the case of Facebook, people whom we barely even know, or don’t know except in the Facebook “pen  pal” sense, and yet we are acknowledging their lives via the birthday message anyway.  It’s as if a stranger on the street came up and magically knew our birthday and greeted us.  It’s kind of nice, and so very “modern”.

3)  Birthdays remind us of where we “are” in life, existentially.  In my practice, I always consider someone’s age, and where they are developmentally in life.  For me, firmly in Middle Age, I can celebrate what that means.  When I work with younger guys (such as in their 20s), I help them celebrate all that being in their 20s means (friends, sex, budding careers).  When I work with mid-life guys (around 40-45, especially), I help them navigate the challenges of this phase of life, too, where so many things are called into question, as we transition from Act One to Act Two of our lives.  When I work with guys in early senior ages, I help them challenge the notion that aging means inevitable decline, and help them embrace the joys (yes, joys) that getting older can bring, and coach them on how to maximize their health when Nature wants to sometimes challenge that.  As Erik Erikson said, every stage of life as its Reward and its Challenge, to savor and to overcome.

4) Birthdays remind us to set aside time for Joy.  While the Winter Holidays (Christmas, etc.) are also a time for setting aside time for joy in nearly every culture across the world, on a collective level, our birthdays are a time to celebrate ourselves on an individual basis.  Sometimes, it’s not about a collective ritual celebration (which are great — Halloween, Thanksgiving, etc.) but it’s about validating, for all us, one at a time, that, “Hey, it’s MY turn today.”

5) For gay men in particular, birthdays are a celebration of various cultural milestones.  First, we made it!  Unlike those poor kids who were the victims of severe bullying that led to their suicides, somehow, by the love and grace of others, we may have survived our own bullying experiences in the school years and made it through.  However, some bullying still exists — bashings, inequality laws (“Prop 8″, DOMA, DADT, delays on ENDA, etc.), and discrimination are the adult versions of anti-gay bullying.  Fortunately, with adulthood comes adult power.  We can vote.  We can protest.  And we can sue the pants off of any person or organization who discriminates us against (in many, but not all, states).  I have helped several of my adult gay male clients manage their anxiety through anti-gay discrimination lawsuits who later received six-figure settlements; sometimes, there is justice.  Birthdays mean that we have survived whatever anti-gay challenges are lobbed at us in the course of the year.  Gay men alive today also have survived the height of the AIDS crisis, and despite ongoing challenges posed by HIV, from health challenges to discrimination to stigma from our own gay brothers, we survive.  Celebrating our (gay) Sense of Self on our birthday is a good thumbing-the-nose to those who would be against us.

6) Finally, birthdays are a time to re-commit.  To our values, our goals, and to all the things that make us, us.  It can be about turning over a new leaf.  I took a yoga class on my birthday for the first time in several years.  Despite the creaks and pops in my body that reminded me that some time had passed, it also reminded me that I’m still a living, breathing, and stretching (well, trying to) creature.  How refreshing and re-juvenating (just that word is great: “re-juvenating”, which means to “revisit youth”.)

When is your birthday?  It’s never too early to start planning to celebrate.  Happy anticipation for later is a mood buoyant today.

Oh…one more thing… Happy Birthday!

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