My 21st birthday was underwhelming.
It’s one of the milestones many of us look forward to, usually because it involves a night of debauchery, free drinks, and funny stories to relive for years to come. And that is how it went for the majority of my friends.
I spent my 21st with just one of my friends, my little sister, and my mom. We went to TGI Friday’s – not a bar – because my sister was in high school. I had two mudslides then pretended to feel tipsy because I didn’t want to let on to my mom that I had already illegally built up a solid tolerance over the past three years of college. The wait staff tied balloons in my hair and sang happy birthday to me just like they did to the 7-year-old a few tables over. My mom did pick up the tab, so I at least had the free drinks thing going for me.
I tried not to be bitter or disappointed about it. My birthday just happened to be at an inconvenient time: mid-August, right before I was scheduled to go back to college. People were preoccupied with other things. Many of my college friends didn’t live in the same hometown as me, so they couldn’t be there. My boyfriend was on a family vacation. And even though it wasn’t the 21st I had imagined, I didn’t want to discount those three people who WERE there for me and tried to make it special. I was grateful for them.
Besides, there were promises that once we all got back to school, my friends would take me out for a belated 21st to celebrate properly. Only, it never happened. *
*The accompanying picture is not of my 21st birthday. So clearly I found other opportunities to be irresponsible with alcohol.
I’d like to say I was a big enough person to not be bothered by that. To figure it wasn’t intentional but simply an honest oversight. We have all made promises we failed to keep for reasons not unkind or deliberate, after all. But I was hurt. I had been there to help all of my other friends ring in their big days, and I took the lack of reciprocation to mean more than it probably did.
When things like this happen in our lives, we often let them create a narrative that we aren’t as important to others as they are to us. Then a subtle shift happens where the relationship becomes more of a give-and-take tally, where we measure its worth based on the equality of energy expended by both parties.
It’s hard when you don’t always feel like you are getting back what you put into a relationship. From you to the other person seems like a four lane highway with a steady flow of traffic, yet what is coming back to you is a scant service road with occasional vehicles heading your way. That imbalance can become toxic depending on how it is dealt with.
Sometimes the imbalance is simply a perception. Sometimes it is the reality. But either way, we have a choice in what we do about it. We can shut down some of our lanes so that what we give better matches what we get, then be content with a more balanced dynamic. We can shut down all of our lanes and direct our highway towards a destination more appreciative of our traffic, and sacrifice the imbalanced relationship. Or we can keep our lanes wide open and choose not to let the imbalance matter to us.
Back when I was 21, I let the birthday imbalance matter to me. I let all those little imbalances matter. I let them bolster my insecurities and poke holes in the confidence I had in my friendships. As a result, many of those friends are now people I still care about, but also people I am not exceptionally close with. Over twenty years later, I am now able to see my role and how one-sided and possibly inaccurate my narrative was.
And I’m trying to let that knowledge color the way I deal with my current relationships …and also how I view the give and take.
I like doing nice things for people I love. But if I’m doing it with the expectation I will at some point receive the same thing in return, I’m doing it wrong. Because then my nice thing isn’t simply a nice thing; it becomes a barometer for how I measure my own worth. And measuring my worth based on what others do for me out of the kindness of their hearts is a dangerous metric. Because then you end up like 21-year-old Kelly, thinking people don’t really love her because they didn’t get her wasted on Slippery Nipples and tequila shots. See how ridiculous that sounds?
Instead, I am working to treat others the way my heart leads me, based on what they are worth to me. Period. There will always be people who mean more to me than I do to them, and vice versa. That’s okay. Sometimes whatever it is we glean from a relationship is enough, and there is nothing wrong with giving of yourself to that person out of gratitude. It’s like sending a fan letter to a public figure you admire: you individually will never be significant to them, but being able to thank them for how they have influenced your life is still meaningful. And you don’t stop admiring them or their work simply because they don’t support you in the same way. We all have relationships in our lives which carry varying periods and frequencies of equilibrium.
It doesn’t always have to be even to be valuable.
Give with sincerity and without expectation. Measure your worth by how you use your gifts, not by how many gifts are given to you. Be grateful for the people who are important to you…and even more for the people to whom you are important. Because those are the people who will get you fake tipsy on your 21st birthday…and the people who will throw you a surprise 30th birthday party to make up for not being at your 21st…and the people who will take you out on the 21st anniversary of your 21st birthday to get you good and properly hammered.
The funny thing about giving without expectation is that you often receive more than you could ever expect.