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On Reuniting: The Emotional Storm of High School Reunions

High school reunions can trigger the vulnerabilities of our adolescence.

A patient was experiencing agitation over what she believed was a trivial issue that had become quite important to her. With embarrassment she told me that she could not decide which outfit to wear to her high school reunion. She just knew that all of the so-called popular girls were going to look good--even after 20 years.

It's common for high school reunions to trigger anxiety about appearance and status. Most of us want to forget our teenage self-conscious emotions that resulted from hormonal changes and social pressures. But years later, at a class reunion, those old insecurities get triggered. They rear their ugly head in the imagined judgment of peers: What will they think? Will I be successful enough? Will I look good to them?

We may have the urge to right all the wrongs of our vulnerable adolescence at a high school reunion. We may still attempt to gain popularity and attention. And if we have trouble accepting ourselves, we may be shocked that "everyone else" looks old.

Of course, people are curious, and what fun it is to inquire about the activities, and note the appearance, of former schoolmates. Old friends may want to find out if you are still attractive, nerdy, flirtatious, sweet, competitive, or whatever you were stereotyped as a kid. Yet if you believe that everyone else is going to be judgmental, your armor may be up in the form of your own critique of others. Perhaps it takes many years, and many reunions, to get over the social cooties acquired in high school. An acquaintance remarked that it was not until her 50th reunion that her former schoolmates exposed their vulnerabilities and discussed how they had really felt.

Reunions present a marker of time. The inclination to re-live the self-consciousness and vulnerability of youth, and the anxieties it created about being good enough, can lead you to examine your present view of yourself. At some level you know the judge is in your own head; not in the minds of your former classmates. Perhaps instead of wondering what your former classmates will think of you, and what you will think about them, you might ask yourself, "How can I improve, enjoy my life, or feel accomplished? Maybe the question for some is simply, "Why am I still so self-critical" or "Why am I so focused on the insecurities of others?"

Along with the inevitable resurfacing of emotional memories, it's important to recognize that reunions are not at all about comparisons and judgments. Reunions are about reconnecting--and connection is what people really want and need. You might not have known what was going on in the minds, hearts, and homes of your young classmates when you were a kid. A connection to school was a safe haven for many. Some could submerge themselves in academic life; others could forget about their cares in the reverie of an infatuation. Adolescent friendship may have been the guardian of your self-esteem, or the absence of connection, even if you were in a crowd, may have resulted in loneliness.

Reunions evoke the emotional vulnerabilities you've buried from your adolescence. Now, as it was then, the desire and longing to connect can be obscured by the feared judgment of others.

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This blog is in no way intended as a substitute for medical or psychological counseling. If expert assistance or counseling is needed, the services of a competent professional should be sought.