The Quest to Celebrate the Self Every Year

By Nkechi Njaka. Photography by Anna-Alexia Basile.

I’ll admit it: historically, celebrating my birthday always brings unwanted feelings of dread and drama. This is has been true ever since about age 18 when birthdays began being horrible for me.

"The more you praise and celebrate your life, the more there is in life to celebrate."―Oprah Winfrey

Such a profound quote. But also so simple. Why wouldn’t we celebrate the very day we were born? In the most wonderful way we can imagine?

From ages 5 to 18, I lived in the sentiment of shameless self-celebration. I got it. As a child, I simply had no problem celebrating myself. I had no problem asking others to celebrate me. I did so with gumption, irreverence, without drama and with power.

I have a summer birthday, and every year growing up, I looked forward to throwing the party of the summer. I loved that there wasn’t a sense of urgency around which weekend to host a party because I felt I had several weeks to do so. And if I was really lucky, I would use that to my advantage--and often I did, celebrating my birthday more than once!

So when did that change? I don’t know if it is because having a summer birthday suddenly meant that, as I got older,  I couldn’t celebrate with my new college friends.  I started feeling like it was too much to ask for a birthday party, especially from high school friends that I was slowly growing apart from. There were no cool, coastal California trips to plan, crazy campus parties, or downtown LA clubs to accommodate me in Minneapolis, which is where I spent my summers.

Was I too old? Was I supposed to “get over” the desire to celebrate the birth of myself with all the people I love in the way that I wanted to? Was I resigned to a future with no more huge parties, elaborate gifts and gift bags, or over-the-top decorations? Was I fated for small, last minute dinners and obligatory Facebook messages?

For years, that’s what happened. The likely result was my crying at some point (or several points) during the day either because expectations were unfulfilled or I didn’t feel special enough. It was some weird combination of wanting to be important, then feeling guilty in getting too much attention. I often wondered if I had missed that important stage of life where I could easily turn off that desire in order to be fine with those obligatory Facebook messages and texts from friends I would only hear from once a year. Maybe I could switch from wanting to be celebrated to celebrating the things around me that give my life meaning.

A couple years ago, when I entered in my third decade and turned the  Flirty Thirty, I spent some time reflecting on things I could be grateful for because I wanted to change that “as I get older, birthdays get more and more horrible” mentality. It was an awkward transitional time for me; I had just moved back to San Francisco and wasn’t sure that I even had friends to celebrate with. At the time, it felt strange to throw myself a party, but I knew it was an occasion to celebrate because everyone kept asking “What are you going to do for your 30th?!” So I asked the new friends who showed the most interest and they helped me. People showed up. I felt celebrated. I was grateful. This was a huge lesson: No one is going to do anything for me unless I ask. I loved that I felt celebrated and I also felt guilty because it secretly didn’t fully meet my expectations.

I cannot be ashamed of the deep desire that I have to be celebrated. It became clear to me that what I needed was to make two asks. Got the first one. The second is an ask of myself to really feel no guilt. This year I embraced the inner child. I declared loudly that I wanted a party. And I was going to plan it, even if it gave me anxiety from all the years of not asking to be celebrated the way I wanted to be celebrated. My birthday fell on a Saturday. So hell YES I was going to have a party. How could I make this unlike any other birthday I have had as an adult?

I wanted to celebrate in full fashion. I wanted a party dress. I wanted balloons! I wanted desserts. I wanted prosecco. I wanted an amazing plant-based dinner with close friends. I wanted dancing. I wanted to FEEL amazing through out the entire day, leaving me with the residue of glamor and beauty for the rest of the night.

“People of our time are losing the power of celebration. Instead of celebrating we seek to be amused or entertained. Celebration is an active state, an act of expressing reverence or appreciation. To be entertained is a passive state--it is to receive pleasure afforded by an amusing act or a spectacle....Celebration is a confrontation, giving attention to the transcendent meaning of one's actions."―Abraham Joshua Heschel

I thought very carefully about what I wanted my day to be like. I asked myself: “Nkechi, how do you want to feel? What is going to make you feel connected, loved and appreciated? What can you control and what do you have to surrender to?”

I thought about all the things that make my life what it is―interesting, beautiful, purposeful. I chose to schedule a psychic reading in the morning followed by a sit in the hottub and then a delicious brunch with an old friend. From there, I had a 2.5 hour massage that took me to other places. I returned back to Earth and went shopping for my perfect look (which literally took me 10 minutes) and then I had dinner at Millennium, my favorite vegan restaurant in Oakland. With every activity I had planned, I was so grateful for the experience. I was aware of the ease and flow of the day―everything was perfect. There was no drama. There was no feeling bad. My expectations had been exceeded. And that is truly what made the transition from 31 to 32 the most magical.  

What really happened is that I first celebrated who I am in my deepest heart. By honoring exactly what feeling I wanted to experience, I chose things to do during the day that I knew would support that. I chose not to feel self-indulgent or self-absorbed because those thoughts are limiting and demeaning. I chose first to love myself. Then, I was able to experience love all around me by requesting my friends to participate, and most importantly―I accepted their love.

The greatest lesson I learned was that I fully deserve to celebrate my own birthday in the exact way that I want to: without the tears, without the drama, fully expressed with beauty, joy and love everywhere.

Nkechi Njaka is the founder of NDN Integrated Lifestyle Studio where she curates lifestyle and wellness content for brands and individuals. She is a woman of color, deeply concerned about personal and global well-being. Nkechi holistically approaches her wellness with mindfulness, movement, nutrition and style. She attended Scripps College in Claremont, CA where she majored in neuroscience and dance and went on to complete an MSc. in Neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh. She attended the Institute of Integrated Nutrition and holds a certification in Holistic Health and Nutritional Counseling. When not involved in NDN projects, you can find Nkechi teaching Mindful Movement or Mindful Style classes + workshops, taking a yoga or modern dance class or choreographing independent work. She creates, curates, coaches and collaborates in San Francisco, California.

Read Nkechi's article on growth through meditation in Issue 001: Growth, on transformation and death in Issue 002: Death and Transition, and on faith and Bhakti reality in Issue 003: Spirituality. Follow Nkechi on Instagram @Ndnlifestylist and Twitter @NkechiNjaka