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Why You Truly Never Leave High School

Riff Raff, 1976 & 2011  

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. Crosnoe mentions the 1963 classic Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, in which the sociologist Erving Goffman very devastatingly defines the term in his title as “a trait that can obtrude itself upon attention … breaking the claim that other attributes have on us.” For many people, that’s the high-school experience in a nutshell. At the time they experience the most social fear, they have the least control; at the time they’re most sensitive to the impressions of others, they’re plunked into an environment where it’s treacherously easy to be labeled and stuck on a shelf. “Shame,” says Brené Brown, a researcher at the University of Houston, “is all about unwanted identities and labels. And I would say that for 90 percent of the men and women I’ve interviewed, their unwanted identities and labels started during their tweens and teens.”

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.”

Most of us, says Brown, opt for one of three strategies to cope with this pain. We move away from it, “by secret-keeping, by hiding”; we move toward it, “by people-pleasing”; or we move against it “by using shame and aggression to fight shame and aggression.” Whichever strategy we choose, she says, the odds are good we’ll use that strategy for life, and those feelings of shame will heave to the surface, unbidden and unannounced, in all sorts of unfortunate settings down the road.

Like among our future families, for instance. Brown says it’s remarkable how many parents of teenagers talk to her about reexperiencing the shame of high school once their own kids start to experience the same familiar scenarios of rejection. “The first time our kids don’t get a seat at the cool table, or they don’t get asked out, or they get stood up—that is such a shame trigger,” she says. “It’s like a secondary trauma.” So paralyzing, in fact, that she finds parents often can’t even react with compassion. “Most of us don’t say, ‘Hey, it’s okay. I’ve been there.’ We say, ‘I told you to pull your hair back and wear some of those cute clothes I bought you.’ ”

And it’s not just the bullied who carry the shame of those years. Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes (subsequently transformed into the movie Mean Girls), points to the now-legendary Washington Post story that ran last spring, which documented Mitt Romney’s escapades as a prep-school ogre: pinning down an outcast and cutting his hair; shouting “Atta girl” to a closeted boy when he tried to speak; leading a teacher with poor eyesight into a set of closed doors. Years later, one of the victims carried that pain with him still (“It’s something I have thought about a lot since then,” he said). But even more telling, she notes, was that Romney’s co-conspirators in thuggery felt so awful about their misdeeds as boys in 1965 that they talked about them openly, on the record, as grown men in 2012. “To this day, it troubles me,” Thomas Buford, a retired prosecutor, told the Post. He carried around that shame for almost half a century.