I’m turning 30 and panicking – why are we so afraid of milestone birthdays?
Whether you’re turning 30, 40 or 50, there’s just something about landmark birthdays that feels gloomy and terrifying. One week before her birthday rolls around, CNA Women’s Sharon Salim talks about her fear of hitting the big 3-0 and how she’s attempting to overcome it.
Happy almost birthday to me! I’m just a week away from entering the thirties’ club.
But wait – I don’t feel excited, happy or joyful. Instead, I feel anxious, confused and … scared.
What’s worse, I feel slightly ashamed, even guilty, for feeling this way.
Months ago, in anticipation of turning 30, I googled “why am I so afraid of turning 30” – and found out that birthday anxiety or birthday blues are, in fact, a thing.
NEEDING TO ACHIEVE MILESTONES BY A CERTAIN AGE
You could call it the beginning of “my panic years”. One of my favourite podcasters, UK journalist and author Nell Frizzell, named her podcast series exactly that – The Panic Years.
A big part of our lives centres around reaching specific milestones, be it in education, career, relationships or other aspects of life.
“When I was 28, everyone around me was suddenly getting married, having babies, buying houses and getting promotions. I was single, redundant and living with my mum. It felt like I had single-handedly ruined my life. But actually, it was just my panic years,” Frizzell’s soothing voice sounded in my ears.
While our circumstances are different, she has a point. Thirty seems to be the age where everyone around me is on track to becoming a supermum or making their biggest career move, and overseas at that. So yes, this is probably the start of my panic years.
If it’s any comfort though, a psychologist from Talk Your Heart Out, Punitha Gunasegaran, told me that the anxiety that I – and others – feel towards milestone birthdays is normal and “entirely valid”.
“A big part of our lives centres around reaching specific milestones, be it in education, career, relationships or other aspects of life,” Gunasegaran explained. She said we feel the need for achievement, and to feel that we have completed a certain set of standards set by ourselves or society.
“It arises or escalates especially when we feel that we have not reached this set of pre-conceived standards. This in turn can lead to a range of emotions such as fear, guilt, and frustration.”
WOMEN OFTEN FEEL MORE ANXIOUS ABOUT TURNING A YEAR OLDER
Growing old has a greater psychological impact on women as we typically have a harder time accepting the physical aspects of ageing, said Sophia Goh, a principal counsellor at Sofia Wellness Clinic.
“Self-worth and power are more associated with looks for women, than it is for men. This also has to do with representations of ideal beauty in mainstream media,” she explained.
Social media definitely exacerbates this sense of not living up to our expectations.
Men, on the other hand, tend to associate their self-worth and power from other sources, such as their career.
For women especially, said Gunasegaran, this anxiety is heightened because of expectations set by society – that we need to be in a relationship, be married, and have kids all because of our biological clock.
SOCIAL MEDIA AND THE FEAR OF MISSING OUT
Being on social media results in the inevitable comparison with others who have “made it”, and those who may seem to have it all, said Gunasegaran.
For me, a few minutes of scrolling gives me immediate access to wedding engagements, pregnancy announcements, babymoons, fancy home renovations … the list goes on. The fear of missing out (aka FOMO) is elevated when it appears that everyone around you is moving according to their own or society's expectations.
“Social media definitely exacerbates this sense of not living up to our expectations. Social media takes social comparisons to another level because of the sheer number of people that we can compare to,” said Goh.
It not only gives us endless possibilities of what we could be doing with our time, Goh explained, it also changes the benchmark of what we think we should be accomplishing with that time. For example, when you see someone pursuing a hobby or being in a different career from you, it becomes a possibility we can explore.
“The challenge is that we just cannot do all of it at one time – or within a lifetime. This sense of not living up to all our potential possibilities gives rise to the feeling of not living up to our fullest potential,” said Goh.
This is also the reason why we may feel that the years are passing us by much more quickly or that we are running “out of time”, she added.
But that may not be true at all.
OVERCOMING THOSE FEELINGS OF UNEASE AND ANXIETY
There’s no better way to enter my next decade than to receive timely advice from the experts themselves – I hope it will help you, too, whichever birthday you’re facing.
- Find acceptance of where you are at this exact moment. You have to accept that life rarely happens according to a timeline, said Goh. “We can do our best to plan for it, but we cannot control what happens.”
- Cut back on social media. “As you keep scrolling, your brain doesn’t have enough time to process the enormous amount of information,” explained Gunasegaran. This then leads to sensory overload, which may make you feel exhausted, stressed or tired.
- Pace the need for achievement with what you need and want for yourself. Gunasegaran recommends taking some time to think through realistic goals for yourself. “Every journey is different, and you can define yours by thinking about how you would like your life to be. Doing so helps us to re-evaluate what is important to us and allows us to spend time doing things that are meaningful,” she said.
- See the time you have as a resource rather than a limitation. Citing what she learnt from British journalist Oliver Burkeman’s self-help book Four Thousand Weeks, Goh suggested “consciously making a decision of what to do with our finite time”. “Recognising that we simply can’t live out all of our infinite possibilities in one lifetime helps us to eliminate the feeling that we are never living up to our fullest,” she added.
That said, I can still feel the knots forming in my stomach when I think about crossing over to the big 3-0 in a matter of days.
So I’m taking some advice from the experts. For a start, I’ve deliberately reduced the time I spend on social media by removing the apps from my mobile phone, and only accessing them sparingly on my iPad and laptop. That has reduced my anxiety and helped me focus on the present, rather than thinking about what I may be missing out on.
I’m still working my way to accepting what I can’t control, but in the meantime, I’m thankful that I can find peace in knowing that I am exactly where I need to be, right here and right now.
CNA Women is a section on CNA Lifestyle that seeks to inform, empower and inspire the modern woman. If you have women-related news, issues and ideas to share with us, email CNAWomen [at] mediacorp.com.sg.