Psychotherapy and Counselling In Brighton and Hove Steffi Bednarek   MA   BA   MBACP

Boarding School Syndrome

At the start of my therapeutic work in England, some clients informed me in a side comment that they were at boarding school. It was so alien to me that I often didn't enquire much about it. Only with time did I start to ask more questions. Only with time did I notice parallels in some of their stories. I became curious about the psychological aspects of having to leave home at a very young age in order to spend long periods of time in the care of adults that have no attachment to you. I wondered what it must be like to know that your parents agree for an institution to care for you, what it must be like for food to be served at set times, not when you are hungry, for lights to go off at a designated time, irrespective of how you are feeling and for children to be mostly left to find their place in peer hierarchies. I began to wonder who was there to provide comfort when school life felt too much, when homesickness was unbearable and when anxiety took its hold.

Once I saw beyond the notion of privilege and power that is so frequently attached to the idea of boarding school and started to enquire with a truly open mind, I often found myself deeply moved. What was striking was that these stories were mostly told in a matter of fact way, with great detachment from the actual experience. This dissociation from one’s lived experience is often associated to a trauma response and indeed research has shown that for some individuals their boarding experience has been traumatic.

Joy Schaverien’s research shows that, in fierce allegiance with the parents, many children learn to view the situation, not as they experience it, but as they are told it is. They abandon their own truth in favour of the story they are told.

From a psychological perspective this dilemma often results in the creation of a false self, a self that is adapted to the social norms and requirements that are needed to survive in a context in which the real self is not acceptable or causes too much pain. Schaverien named this process ‘Boarding school syndrome’. 

The cost is the loss of the ability to recognise one’s own reality and to express oneself with full vitality. This distancing from oneself can be experienced by some as looking at oneself from a distance, as though there is a glass wall between the world and oneself. Anaesthesia is common and with the loss of true vitality individuals often feel empty. This emptiness is then frequently replaced by secondary stimulants in order to feel something.

Of course not all individuals that went to boarding school end up being negatively affected in the same way as many people who experienced a traumatic event don’t end up with the effects of trauma. The depth of the impact depends on the existence of protective factors in one’s life and also the level of personal resilience. The difficulty with boarding school syndrome is however that the adapted self seems incredibly resilient. This makes it hard at first to get to the more vulnerable part that had to be sacrificed.

In my psychotherapeutic practice I often feel profoundly moved by clients who dare to explore their experiences of boarding school with me. Together we establish what is needed. The main focus lies on regaining a sense of one’s true self, re-establishing trust in relationships and the ability to tolerate intimacy. This is not achieved over night, but experience shows that the therapeutic relationship can have profound effects in undoing patterns that have been established for a long time.

For more information also have a look at my blog on the subject

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"Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."
Viktor E. Frankl
Psychotherapy Brighton and Hove