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Review of Evening Talk January 2020, Away from Home, the Boarding School Experience, Boarding school survivors: how can we guide ex-boarders home in all areas of their life? with John Harley
March 16, 2020 @ 8:00 am - 5:00 pm
John shared his experience of going to Boarding School as a young child and explained it often created disrupted attachments; loss and feelings of abandonment; a need for hyper vigilance (against bullying and abuse, actual or feared); dissociation and denial resulting in the creation of strategic survival personalities, such as, compliers and conformists; rebels and casualties or the crushed. In Joy Schaverien’s writings she mentions her father’s poignant comment (he boarded from age 6) ‘if my mother loved me, why did she part with me?’ Such a wound can be so deep that future relationships and/or long-term personal therapy may find difficulty in helping it to heal.
Other Boarders thrive and retain fond memories. This may be more true of young people who choose in their teens to Board. They may transition from home more easily through having more resilient attachments and being emotionally and psychological strong enough to nurture friendships, keep connected to their home base and to stay safe.
John explored issues raised by our clients who are struggling to understand what has happened to them. He quoted the work of writer, George Monbiot whose article for The Guardian (Nov., 2019) stated that ‘early boarding is based on a massive misconception: that physical hardship makes you emotionally tough – it does not!’ John Bowlby, who went to Boarding School aged 7 commented it was’ terrible’ and the actor Rupert Everett termed it the ‘calcification of the heart’. Sadly, it is not always ‘Harry Potter’. Or the exciting experience offered in Boarding Schools’ advertisements.
Apparently, a high proportion of Boarding School leavers are at the highest levels of Society, be it political, business, military, educational or clinical. Many have experienced early trauma resulting from forced separation and then the cumulative trauma as they struggle to survive the Boarding way of life. They can experience challenges in creating healthy narratives within relationships around intimacy, sex, money and other such issues. They are cut off from home – cut off from emotions. The belief is that love cannot be trusted, never to admit vulnerability or ask for help and never show weakness. Such disconnections often play out in their careers being underpinned by a:
Fear of being abandoned (also maybe by the therapist)
A sense of shame and fear.
Struggles with additions including working too much. Always being busy.
The inability to relax – angry and irritable. Difficulty with self-reflection.
Struggle with intimacy be it with relatives, colleagues, lovers or friends.
Working with those who are damaged brings challenges for therapists. The question is ‘how are we to try and guide them home in all senses of the word’? Helpful interventions suggested may include offering the client a choice of:
Writing a letter home and to oneself. Telling their story and being heard.
Using creative ways of mapping their past and present. Perhaps involving
their partners in the process of recovery. Visualisation or group work.
John said that group work had proved to be successful, especially through the sharing of experiences. He said the key element of any therapy was a containing, trusting, empathic therapeutic relationship in which the client is held in a way that allows time and space for healing – all at the client’s pace and choosing. This is long term tentative, one step at a time, work. The therapist holds the hope that change is possible.
John went on to discuss the ‘Process of Change’ via RAC, which, he said, is built on the safe foundation of the therapeutic alliance and is broken down into three stages.
1 Recognition of the wound which has three sub-stages:
- Acknowledging being wounded.
- Experiencing feelings about being sent away.
- Recognising survival strategies.
- Acceptance: Accepting the wound and realising that in developing a strategic survival personality, boarding school survivors did the very best they could to protect themselves at a time when they were unprotected.
- Change: beginning to substitute healthier behaviour patterns because the cost of continuing merely to survive is too high.
We shared experiences from our client work together with case studies which John provided for our small group work. He asked: how we would approach each client; what might we be left with after sitting with them in the session; what was important and how might we work with them; and were there thoughts arising in ourselves that we might not wish to share with the client?. This was challenging, emotive and thought-provoking.
John’s colleague, Jane Silver-Corren, who expanded the information regarding the Groups, gave us more insight into the importance of them. It is imperative that men, in particular, have a safe space in which to talk. She said the workshops tend to be creatively based, with ‘lots of safe space and time for people to use’. This Talk illustrated the importance of insightful therapy for those who suffer from Boarding School Syndrome. Thank you John and Jane for a popular, informative and interesting evening.