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Still Thinking About High School? You’re Not Alone

Why so many of us have selective memory.

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Kelsey Wroten
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Once or twice a year I spend the afternoon with my two best friends from high school. The lunch date lasts several hours, and our conversations cover multiple decades. With ease the three of us bounce from the present to the past and back again.

I’m amazed at how much we all remember from our teenage years. Many of the stories are classics — ones we repeat over and over. We joke about how now we can’t remember on most days why we went into the pantry — and yet we recall perfectly these moments from way back when, down to the clothes we were wearing and the song that was playing.

And yet there is a lot we don’t remember very well. Each of us has selective memory. We all remember certain people or moments that the others don’t, or if we do have a hazy recollection, the details are different.

Rosalind Wiseman, founder of Cultures of Dignity and author of many books, including the best seller Queen Bees and the Wannabes, says, “Memories from our teenage years are the most complicated and most feared.” Strong memories can be vivid, every detail sharp as if they just occurred. Or, it can be a memory where we don’t recall the specifics, but it invokes a visceral feeling inside us. Wiseman says, “We may be transported back in time, remembering the music, the emotions we felt; or just thinking, That was so fun — even if we can’t remember exactly why or what we were doing.”

While we may try to remember just the good stuff, the bad stuff has a way of sneaking in our memory, too. The teen years can be hard, and many of us can remember those feelings of angst, uncertainty and getting our feelings hurt by others. Wiseman says, “I’ve met women in their 30s, 50s, even 70s who were hurt in such a profound way, it still haunts them and their relationships.”

A few years ago, I received a friend request from a woman I hadn’t spoken to since middle school. She said she remembered me and all the fun we had as kids. I remember that, too, but I also remembered how she dumped me in the seventh grade to join the “cool” crowd. When I saw her name pop up on my screen, all the mean things she said to me at our last sleepover immediately flew into my head even though I hadn’t thought about that time in ages.

Based on my reaction, her words back then had an impact on me, even if I didn’t realize it. But the woman probably didn’t even remember the incident.

Wiseman explains, “Our feelings are true, our memories are true. We tend to focus through our own lens and not that of our peers. Ultimately, it benefits us to not let a past hurt control our present self.

“I don’t want to diminish those real feelings, but if we stay stuck in those feelings of hurt, we become trapped and powerless. It’s better to make peace with the emotions.”

If you can’t process the feelings on your own, seek out a close friend or therapist to help you work through it. “Remind yourself that ‘teenage you’ deserved better and so does adult you,” counsels Wiseman. In some situations, it can help to reach out to the person that hurt you. “Ask yourself what you expect to get out of this conversation,” she says. “Understand that you might not get an apology or an explanation, but it might help you to get closure.”

What if the bad memory that gnaws at you has to do with your own behavior in a situation? Wiseman says, “If you think you may have been mean to someone, even if you can’t recall all the details and it is just a bad feeling in your stomach, you probably weren’t nice.”

She doesn’t believe it is ever too late to convey an authentic apology. “You will be surprised how profound this can be for both you and the person on the receiving end,” she says.

If you feel you owe someone an apology, reach out in writing (privately, not on social media). “Don’t give excuses for your behavior,” Wiseman says. “Take accountability for your actions. Tell them you are genuinely sorry and that you wish them well. It is up to them to choose to forgive you or not. All you can do is treat them and yourself with dignity.”

While reconnecting to make amends can be a good thing, in general, Wiseman advises caution before traveling back in time. She says, “Ask yourself, what am I expecting? Is your goal to just reminisce about the past or try to rekindle an old friendship? How will you feel if this person doesn’t remember you or if they remember your relationship differently than you do? You have to be prepared for their version of your time together.”

Remember that when you reconnect with someone from your past, you also reconnect with your past self. How many of us return to our parents’ home and feel ourselves regressing? Or get frustrated when our parents or siblings treat us like our teenage selves when we are now mature and may have worked hard to separate from our childhood persona.

The best-case scenario is that you take a tour down memory lane with people who remember the good times you shared while also seeing you for who are today. Wiseman’s advice is: “View yourself and others, even those that may have wronged you, with compassion.”

Looking back at my high school years, “Ah yes, I remember it well” … but also not quite, and that’s probably for the best. I am grateful for the memories I have and the two friendships that endured. The fact that these two women loved me back then and have continued to for over three decades — that is really all I have to remember.