This weekend I attended my 40th high school reunion. It was wonderful reconnecting with old classmates. I loved updating others about my family, my interests and my career.
But for some alums the reunion was as pleasurable as waterboarding.
I heard one woman huff, “I can’t possibly speak to him. He dumped me my sophomore year just before the winter formal.” Another confided to me that she’d never felt comfortable in high school and that she didn’t want to talk to anyone at the reunion. Other grads are so wracked with conflict about their high school experiences that they’d never consider reuniting with their class.
You’d think we’d have outgrown such teenage silliness. Those negative ideas should be as outdated as our go-go boots and fishnet stockings.
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Yet sometimes painful childhood memories remain in our emotional attics alongside the box full of annuals, letterman jackets and dried corsages. Instead of moving on in our psychic development, we stay arrested in an irrational time warp. We continue to perceive ourselves as geeky 15-year-olds or fear that nobody will sit with us during lunch. We’re resentful about how we were treated. We’re angry that we didn’t fit in.
Such destructive mental mementos usually lay dormant until an event fires them point-blank into our lives. We think we’re doing fine and then an invitation to a high school reunion comes in the mail. Suddenly, we’re flung back into the teen years, zits and all. We’re insecure about who we are and how we look. We behave as if we’re back in algebra, hostile and moody.
The matter is further complicated if we’re experiencing personal uncertainty. A recent divorce or business downturn combined with unresolved adolescent angst might be enough to light the fuse and ignite a spiral of self-doubt and anxiety.
The good news is that you are grown now. You can finally graduate from those painful teen memories and start living like the adult you actually are.
Start by recognizing your homecoming float full of negative self-images. We all have them. Each one of us felt socially awkward and afraid. Even the most popular students grappled with esteem. That’s because we were at a clumsy and embarrassing stage in our lives. We couldn’t have been more mature than we were; it’s not possible at such a young age.
Next, assess your present surroundings. Most likely you’re in charge now. You don’t have parents and teachers telling you what to do. You call your own shots and do anything that feels right for you.
Know that the past doesn’t control what happens today. Yes, you may have felt inept or nerdy when you were in high school. You may have been a flop with girls. You may have longed to be a jock but never made it past JV. Now you are able to participate in any number of activities that are better suited to your interest level and skills.
Finally, tune your mental airwaves to constructive channels and block thoughts that make you sad or feel inadequate. Instead, download apps on your emotional iPod that make you feel like a million bucks. Then hum a few bars quietly to yourself, “Feeling groovy, feeling groovy.”
Graduating from painful memories
Thinking about going to your high school reunion? Follow these suggestions to make it a fun and memorable experience:
Release all expectations.
You never know who you’ll see at a reunion or what will happen while you’re there. Relax and be ready for anything.
Don’t try to prove anything. Never arrive with an agenda or a need to show others how well you’ve turned out. That thinking only reinforces the “I-wasn’t-good-enough” mode. Keep it light. Reunions aren’t the time to discuss deep issues or your personal convictions. Focus all conversations around pleasant, upbeat topics.
Stay in the present, and don’t rehash old issues — especially if they might be painful or embarrassing to someone. Talk about what fellow alumni are doing today.
Carry your end of the conversation. When someone asks what you’ve been doing, respond with an appropriate amount of information. You don’t want to dominate the dialogue. But if others are forced to do all the talking they quickly lose interest and start looking for the next, more talkative classmate.
Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her visit lindalewisgriffith.com