Monday, February 04, 2013

Why High School Shapes the Rest of Your Life

This is a fascinating article about how for many (most?) people, their high school years shape them for the rest of their lives…

Most American high schools are almost sadistically unhealthy places to send adolescents.

…In fact, one of the reasons that high schools may produce such peculiar value systems is precisely because the people there have little in common, except their ages. “These are people in a large box without any clear, predetermined way of sorting out status,” says Robert Faris, a sociologist at UC Davis who’s spent a lot of time studying high-school aggression. “There’s no natural connection between them.” Such a situation, in his view, is likely to reward aggression. Absent established hierarchies and power structures (apart from the privileges that naturally accrue from being an upperclassman), kids create them on their own, and what determines those hierarchies is often the crudest common-­denominator stuff—looks, nice clothes, prowess in sports—­rather than the subtleties of personality.

…The result, unfortunately, is a paradox: Though adolescents may want nothing more than to be able to define themselves, they discover that high school is one of the hardest places to do it.

…Out of all the researchers who think about high-school-related topics, Brené Brown may be the one whose work interests me most. Since 2000, she has studied shame in pointillist detail. She’s written both academic papers and general-interest books on the subject; her ted lecture on shame was one of the most popular of all time. Because that’s what high school—both at the time and as the stuff of living memory—is about, in its way: shame. And indeed, when Brown and I met for breakfast this fall, she told me that high school comes up all the time in her work. “When I asked one of the very first men I ever interviewed, ‘What does shame mean to you?’ ” she recalled, “he answered, ‘Being shoved up against the lockers.’ High school is the metaphor for shame.”

The academic interest in shame and other emotions of self-consciousness (guilt, embarrassment) is relatively recent. It’s part of a broader effort on the part of psychologists to think systematically about resilience—which emotions serve us well in the long run, which ones hobble and shrink us. Those who’ve spent a lot of time thinking about guilt, for example, have come to the surprising conclusion that it’s pretty useful and adaptive, because it tends to center on a specific event (I cannot believe I did that) and is therefore narrowly focused enough to be constructive (I will apologize, and I will not do that again).

Shame, on the other hand, is a much more global, crippling sensation. Those who feel it aren’t energized by it but isolated. They feel unworthy of acceptance and fellowship; they labor under the impression that their awfulness is something to hide. “And this incredibly painful feeling that you’re not lovable or worthy of belonging?” asks Brown. “You’re navigating that feeling every day in high school.”

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