If Life Seems like High School, That's Because it Is, Research Shows

Why does real life feel like high school? (Photo: Thinkstock)If you've ever encountered a mean girl at work or spent time worrying about making the wrong impression, you may have felt a sense of deja vu along with all of the stress. Didn't you deal with this stuff in high school -- and weren't those years behind you already?

Related: What will you be like 10 years from now? You're probably guessing wrong

Yes -- and no. The reason life sometimes seems a lot like high school, research shows, is because life really is a lot like high school.

In American high schools, "People are in a large box without any clear, predetermined way of sorting out status," Robert Faris, a sociologist at the University of California at Davis who studies high-school aggression, told Jennifer Senior at New York Magazine. "There's no natural connection between them." Kids are grouped by age, rather than by any other identifying characteristic or interest, and left to figure out their own hierarchy.

It ends up being a bit like "Lord of the Flies": social norms, values, and behaviors develop that may have little to do with the world outside of the building, and the people who are best able to navigate them -- by forming alliances, by exploiting weakness, by rigid adherence to arbitrary rules -- have the best chance of coming out on top.

Now fast-forward 10 years: Instead of sitting in a classroom, you're in an office, another large box filled with strangers. And while status may be easier to figure out -- there are corner offices and handy business cards with titles printed on them -- you still have to navigate a microcosm with its own social norms, values, and arbitrary rules. It's high school writ large -- and to cope, we tend to fall back on the familiar.

"High school is the metaphor for shame," Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston tells New York Magazine. Brown has spent a decade studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness and shame, and points out that "This incredibly painful feeling that you're not liable or worthy of belonging? You're navigating that feeling every day in high school."

We deal with it in three ways: By hiding from it and keeping secrets, by embracing it and trying too hard to please people, or by turning it into a weapon and "using shame and aggression to fight shame and aggression" -- typical "mean girl" (or guy) bullying behavior.

What makes the problem worse is that we tend to hold on to our high school personae -- and the way we view ourselves doesn't always jibe with the way other people perceive us.

A 2007 survey of hundreds of adolescents found that kids could sort their fellow students into categories (jocks, brains, normals, populars, druggies/toughs, outcasts, or none of the above) quite easily, but when it came to defining themselves, most were inclined to consider themselves "normal" or "none of the above," even if their peers thought they were super-popular. Part of the reason may have had to do with self-preservation: Unless you're already at the top of the totem pole, people who are caught trying to climb the social ladder are more likely to be targeted for attack.

We also hold on to our high school lives in a very literal sense: According to 2011 data from Pew Research, nearly a quarter of our Facebook friends are people we knew in high school. That means our high school friendships and foibles continue to influence us long after we've left.

So does high school prepare us for real life, or does real life mirror high school so closely because most of us have gone through high school? It's hard to say, but we're leaning toward the latter: We still find ourselves in high-school situations, but with a twist. Instead of the popular girls being the arbiters of style, we submit to criticism from fashion magazines telling us that we're not trendy or pretty enough. Instead of quaking in front of the school during assembly, we're second-guessing our presentations at meetings. And in order to preserve our social standing, we cut down people we perceive as different or threatening, whether we're talking politics or pop culture.

"Today, we also live in an age when our reputation is at the mercy of people we barely know, just as it was back in high school, for the simple reason that we lead much more public, interconnected lives," Senior writes in her New York magazine article. "The prospect of sudden humiliation once again trails us, now in the form of unflattering photographs of ourselves or unwanted gossip, virally reproduced. The whole world has become a box of interacting strangers."

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