While it may seem obvious that during the high school years one’s social identity is being shaped and modified, if not all together altered, psychotherapists tend to undervalue the salience of this stage of development when attempting to trace back the origins of their clients feelings, often focusing on the early parent-child relationship as the main agent of their client’s identity formation. While the early family dynamics are indisputably salient during the first few years of one’s life, one cannot deny the lasting effects of one’s adolescence on one’s personality, defenses and coping strategies.
Besides the physical and cognitive developmental changes that occur in adolescence that certainly make this time a highly difficult and formative period in one’s life, the nature of authority, namely the concept of who is in charge, begins to take on a different form. While during one’s childhood one’s parents or guardians almost always hold the indisputable role of the authority figures, during late childhood/early adolescence, the focus begins to shift to a more plural authority configuration—namely, one’s coaches, teachers, and especially peers. The tried and true monarchical (and often benevolent) leadership of one’s parents is suddenly and violently replaced by the unpredictable and often-vicious oligarchy by the powerful few! The old tools for getting by at home have now become outdated and a new, “cooler” manner of being must be adopted in order to survive in this new social world, leaving one to naturally revere and fear the new rulers, while possibly missing the simpler times of the undisputed rule of one’s parents.
The place that one attains in this new social hierarchy will indisputably have an effect on one’s subsequent ways of being in the world, often leaving one to cope with the aftermath of high school in predictable ways. For example, it is not uncommon for folks to walk around with feelings of inferiority well into their adulthood as a result of ever being ostracized during adolescence. It is also not uncommon for people to overcompensate for what was unattainable in high school by being overly demonstrative with their success in later years, perhaps unconsciously hoping to prove to their former classmates just how “worthy,” “successful” and “cool” they really are. Likewise, those "lucky" few who may have been popular in adolescence, may also live under the shadow of their high school identity, perhaps forever searching to reclaim their former adolescent glory.
In the words of the now late great Kurt Vonnegut, “true terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country,” yet haven’t they been the very people who have been running the show the whole time, even if only inside our minds?