Boarding School Survivor Syndrome: How Therapy Can Help

Sometimes the reasons people come to therapy are unclear at the beginning

Sometimes the reasons people come to therapy are unclear at the beginning. We may have a sense that things aren’t right and that we need to change but it can be hard to put our finger on why that is.

This can be especially complicated when we feel that we have had all sorts of advantages in life and can’t understand why they have not left us feeling okay about ourselves.

This problem can be more pronounced for people who have attended boarding school who may feel that they have been at the receiving end of all sorts of privileges for which they should be grateful. Often people who have been to boarding school go on to achieve great success and powerful positions in the workplace.

If you did go to boarding school, you may feel keenly aware of the advantages it has brought you and therefore confused by a nagging sense that, underneath the surface, things don’t really feel ok.

What has traditionally not been acknowledged is the emotional impact of being sent away to school, sometimes as young as 7 years old, and the ways in which this traumatic loss of home and family can reverberate throughout a person’s life. Some psychotherapists have noticed that people who have boarded from an early age suffer symptoms similar to PTSD.

In spite of the academic advantages, many people suffer cruelty and bullying that leaves a lasting impression on their view of the world. It may be the case that, in order to survive, you felt that you had to behave like a bully yourself and deny all the vulnerable, painful feelings that you experienced when you were thrust out of your family home and left in a strange environment to survive.

As a result of this, many psychotherapists and other mental health professionals are now more and more aware of the ways in which boarding school can affect a person’s mental health and ability to sustain intimate relationships later on in life.

It is increasingly acknowledged that leaving home at this young age can cause unbearable pain and anxiety and that the experience of being abandoned in a strange place in this way is an overwhelming trauma for a small child. What you may have heard described as homesickness is, according to recent psychological research, much more akin to a bereavement as a young person loses all that is familiar to them and finds that their key attachment figures are no longer there to help them.

When a child finds themselves alone in an alien environment without the support of their family, a profound sense of helplessness can take over and the only way to cope with this traumatic loss is to find ways of adapting and surviving. Whilst these may help in the short term, these survival strategies can have a profound impact on a person’s ability to relate to others.

It can be difficult to acknowledge your feelings of depression, emptiness, despair or rage because life has been so apparently full of privilege. People with this experience often find it difficult to come to therapy, not understanding why they might feel so hopeless, numb or unable to sustain intimate relationships.

In this situation, you may feel highly confused about the discrepancy between the successful, perhaps even ruthlessly unemotional self, that has got you where you are in the world and the more buried feelings of the lost child within you who cannot cope and has been bereaved. The suffering experienced at boarding school may often have been described as ‘character building’ and ‘good for you’.

Because of this, these feelings of grief may have been repressed and replaced by a kind of numbness, lack of empathy or rage which may have helped to anaesthetise the original pain but can make it very hard to connect with a healthy range of your own feelings and those of other people. This can lead to depression, sexual problems, substance abuse and relationship breakdown.

Starting therapy can be a painful and frightening process because it can put you in touch with the suffering of the little child which had to be ignored and pushed away many years ago.

It is not easy to let go of the survival strategies developed in order to prematurely cope with a world that has suddenly become strange and frightening. Boarding school survivors have often developed a precocious sense of independence as they found themselves forced as children to behave like adults. It can, therefore, take enormous courage to experience feelings of attachment or dependence. Some people may want to run away from these emotions as they emerge during the course of therapy and this is understandable.

However, it can be a very important experience to find a place where some of those buried feelings can be put into words and the pain and trauma of these early years may finally be worked through.

There are many psychotherapists who can help you to think about your experiences but it takes courage to make that first step.

In the meantime, if you feel you need to speak to someone urgently, you can call The Samaritans on 116 123. They are available to talk to you 24 hours of the day, seven days a week.

If you would like to read more about this subject, here are some suggestions:

  • The Making of Them: the British Attitude to Children and the Boarding School System by Nick Duffell.
  • Boarding School Syndrome: The psychological trauma of the ‘privileged child’ by Joy Schaverien.
  • Wounded Leaders: British Elitism and the Entitlement Illusion by Nick Duffell.

Article written by a psychotherapist in Brighton and London.

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