Nostalgia for high school: rosy memories or thorns?

Millie from Miami, asks:

We all know that high school is extremely challenging on so many different levels and no adult would voluntarily choose to go back. So, why is it that we are so nostalgic for that time of our lives when we reach mid-life?

Nostalgic for high school? You are talking to the wrong man. I haven’t been able to get myself back to a high school reunion because I am so scared of all the embarrassing, painful memories that might suddenly rush up inside me and make me feel fourteen, fifteen or even seventeen again. My experience of life is that it has steadily gotten better since I was a teenager. I found my fifties the happiest decade of my life and that’s what research in human development finds for most people. Personally, if I could go back in time, I would be fifty-one again in a flash, perhaps forty-five, but I’d never go back to eighteen. But that’s me and you asked me to explain why people in general are nostalgic about their high school years.

I think people selectively remember high school. Either consciously or unconsciously, when they look back they focus on what was new, exciting, beautiful and idealistic. And there was a lot of that: going to the prom, being editor of the paper, driving a car alone for the first time, the excitement of breaking rules and getting away with it, first sexual experiences, etc. Teenagers feel things more keenly than adults do; their emotional highs are higher and their lows are lower than adults’. Those strong feelings from peak experiences literally create strong connections in the brain that stay with you for life. If you only revisit those memories, you can have a lot of fun talking about high school with friends.

However, there are other feelings-negative feelings-that were every bit as strong as the positive ones and they laid down tracks in your brain, too. Most of us experienced painful self-consciousness, acute embarrassment over a faux pas, feelings of failure in school, actual experiences of shame and failure, or unhappy or exploitative sexual experiences, feelings of inadequacy and incompetence. Just the other day I was driving the car and suddenly remembered inviting a girl to a formal dance in tenth grade and not knowing how to talk with her, not knowing whether she liked me or I liked her, not kissing her when I think she wanted me to (I couldn’t tell for sure!) and ending up feeling like a total dork. As these thoughts came into my mind I was suddenly suffused with confusion and shame, just as if I were a tenth grader again. Ugh! I turned on the car radio and tried to think about something else. The moment passed.

One of the things people are able to do in conversations about the past, however, is to bring them up and detoxify them by sharing the embarrassment, suddenly realizing that other people, indeed, everyone felt just as embarrassed as we did. Who knew? Who told? And once you’ve had that realization you can see yourself as part of the same struggling human community. Such conversations are therapeutic and healing. Think of how much squealing or shouting there is when people start to dredge up painful collective memories. "That was awful!" "Oh, I was so embarrassed!" "I didn’t know what to do!" After you have revisited these memories and laughed together, you all feel better (drinking helps, too).

If you can’t have those conversations with friends in public-and I couldn’t for many years-you can always go tell every embarrassing, humiliating, painful thing that ever happened to you to a therapist. If it works you’re cured. What does that mean? You can look back at your past and forgive yourself for having been young and inexperienced and human.

Finally, if you’ve been able to forgive yourself, looking back at the past can look quite rosy in comparison to all the humiliating and painful things that afflict you in the present: problems in your marriage, difficulties in your children’s lives, feeling stuck in your job, not enough money in your bank account, sagging breasts, cellulite, an enlarged prostate and trouble sustaining an erection. Hey, after thinking about all that, high school does look pretty good.