By Chiara Atik for HowAboutWe
I wasn't unpopular in high school. Not that I was the prom queen, but I had friends, a boyfriend, and a reliable seat in the cafeteria.
In the cafeteria, though. Which is somewhat telling, because, as anyone who went to my high school would know, the cool kids, the ones who were truly high on the totem poll, would eat lunch in the quad.
Not that I had a complex about this. I was reasonably happy in high school, and well-adjusted. But a few months ago, when a former quad-dining footballer contacted me on Facebook after reading an article I had written, my pulse quickened, and my tone reverted to the goofy self-deprecation of an insecure teenager. ("Lol, no, that article sucked, what?? I mean, thanks…") Because, though I am now an adult, with a job and a lease and a 401k, the fact remains: he is a GUY who once ate his chicken crispitos in the quad.
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It's frustrating that so trivial an exchange could have the power to derail my entire adult identity. I don't consciously go through life thinking of my lunch habits 10 years ago, but it's telling how so small a trigger can immediately revert me to my high school self. And I'm not alone: An article last week in New York Magazine states that this reversion to our adolescent selves is part of human nature - biology, even. According to writer Jennifer Senior, when it comes to identity, high school is not only formative, it's lasting. "One also has to wonder whether high school is to blame; whether the worst of adult America looks like high school because it's populated by people who went to high school in America," Senior writes. "We're recapitulating the ugly folkways of this institution, and reacting with the same reflexes, because that's where we were trapped, and shaped, and misshaped, during some of our most vulnerable years."
So if the identities we're saddled with in high school affect our adult lives- in terms of happiness, career, confidence, etc., then surely it must affect our dating lives, too?
Yes, in more ways than we can count. "I think that the way you first come into contact with the opposite sex and relate to the opposite sex as an adolescent is very important," says Dr. George Sachs, a clinical psychologist specializing in Child and Adolescent Psychology at the Sachs Center. "The first years of meeting and interacting with the opposite sex is critical to healthy adult relationships."
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When you stop to think about it, of course high school affects your adult dating life. Those four years mark the final transformation from non-sexualized, happy-go-lucky child to hormone-laden pre-adult who desperately wants both sex and the validation that comes with sexual interest in you from someone else. High school is crucial when it comes to your self-worth and sexuality - anyone who's gossiped at a homecoming dance, passed notes about a crush, or spent hours instant messaging people of the opposite sex can tell you that.
And who can't remember, in slimey detail, their first kiss? Who can't recall, with a cringe, feeling or being felt up for the first time, the mental calculation of how many bases that was, and where that put you in comparison with your friends? Who doesn't still feel a pang when thinking about their first heartbreak - if not over the specific person, then at least over the memory of how it felt?
In many ways, your dating life is defined by this memory: whoever you dated in high school, whoever you were, the unspoken aim of your adult life is to do better. If you asked a popular guy to the prom and got rejected, maybe approaching guys is still difficult. If you were the funny girl, maybe you over do it on the humor in an attempt to sustain male attraction. If you didn't get a lot of attention at all in high school, maybe you still struggle with issues of self-worth and self-confidence.
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So does this mean we're doomed to carry these past experiences with us the rest of our lives? Is our high school self with us on every first date (and throughout every relationship)?
Senior's article seems to suggest that our adolescent selves are inescapable, and, yes, realistically, you're never going to forget everything about high school and wipe the slate clean. But in reality, many people are able to create a new, more enlightened identity for themselves - simply by learning to isolate the teenage cricket-on-your-shoulder, and learning to ignore her.
The best way to do this is to build a buffer of experiences and skills in the less infamous but equally stressful developmental era, otherwise known as your twenties. Older generations have long complained about the so-called prolonged adolescence of Gen Xers and millennials, but at least there's a way we can put this sustained juvenility to good use.
These days, your twenties are as equally fraught with angst and new experiences as the high school years. After enjoying the relative tranquility and confidence that comes with college, people are once more forced to recalibrate their personas based on the real world. The only difference? This time, you're older, more mature, and less hormonal. And also, this time it's for keeps. Millennials, the generation often criticized for latent adolescence, are in fact shedding their high school identities and building new ones.
Sure, people can reinvent themselves over and over again in their lifetimes. But when it comes to core dating habits and values, the early adult years seem to be particularly formative - the time to right the wrongs of high school, or at the very least bury those early experiences with new experiences. Your high school self is still there. But now she's an older, cooler big sister in your twenties self to contend with. And your current self knows a lot more about dating than your goofy, loveable, but hopelessly green high school persona.
So the next time you hesitate to approach a guy who's "way too hot/cool" for you, (or turn someone down because you worry he's not superficially cool enough?), take a moment to remind yourself, you're an adult now, and free from the tyrannical shackles of your youth. And while you're at it, you can tell your high school self to sit on it.