Boarding School Survivors
Updated: Sep 1
Are you emotionally Bulletproof?
I attended a boarding school in South Africa from the age of fourteen until I graduated high school three months shy of my 18th birthday. Boarding school, for me, was a choice. At the time the thought of it was exciting; being with my friends 24/7; biking around the countryside on the weekends; having a laugh every night after lights out. My first night shattered any illusion of that being the case and it didn't get any better. In fact, it just got worse. There was a sudden realisation that the homely atmosphere, the access to amazing grounds, teachers and facilities were all glossy advertising and that the truth was much darker. Looking back at it now, I lived in a dormitory of 25 young, terrified young teenage boys, lorded over by 25 already traumatised boys barely a year older than I was. These tortured 'senior' souls were so relieved to be above someone else for a change that they wielded their perceived superiority with a perverse, sadistic pleasure. Night raids, beatings and ritual humiliations were all part of the infrastructure from the top down; the foundation of our time at the school and undoubtedly the source of prolonged trauma for many of us. It was seen as a test of resilience and of strength while, in reality, it was a test of who could mask their fear most effectively.
"The British boarding and private school system had two roles: churn out men who would be sent around the world to run the greatest empire the world had ever seen; and be a home for the children of these very same men who were far away from England. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. For centuries."
The British boarding school system has been replicated all over the world from South Africa to America, Canada and the Far East. The result of generations of British or colonial men going through the system is what Nick Duffell refers to as the Rational Man Project. A systematic dissociation from the emotional self. In my video on Authenticity, I speak about the relationship between authenticity and attachment. We are social creatures, we have an innate sense that we can't survive on our own, so when a child is faced with the choice between - being himself, but alone, or putting on a brave face and being accepted by others - that survival instinct to belong almost always wins. Boarding school is a uniquely alien environment for any child. In the case of many British children, the sense of being abandoned by parents as early as seven years old has a long-lasting effect on their lives and subsequent relationships. Children are encouraged to 'be brave', which loosely translates to 'don't cry, be strong because this experience will make you a man'. With an immense pressure to succeed, to appreciate the rare privilege bestowed upon them and faced with the demand of stoicism from parents, peers and teachers, these children are left with little choice but to comply and deny their emotions. It is, as Eddie Izzard puts it, the only way to survive. How we go about masking our feelings looks different for everyone. For some, putting on a brave face is a relatively smooth transition. For others, it is uncomfortably fake and doesn't quite fit. Either way, it comes at a cost; that of denying our own feelings and emotions. No one wants to be seen to be weak, especially in an environment that celebrates strength and resilience, and so these feelings, which may signal our weakness to others, are hidden away behind the mask and buried deep in our unconscious. Over time, the mask starts to feel natural to the point where we don't even notice we're wearing one. The memories of feeling under constant threat fade and we start to live our adult lives believing that our school experiences made us stronger, more capable, more resilient, harder working and emotionally bulletproof. However, we would be mistaken if we believe that those emotions we buried within ourselves have been purged or are passive passengers in our lives. They show up in patterns of behaviour such as avoidance of large groups, perfectionism, stoicism, people-pleasing and workaholism. They are the survival mechanisms initiated at a traumatic time during which we did not feel safe, and they have been popping up to rescue us at inappropriate times ever since.
After years of adaptive living where repressing emotions or denying feelings is a matter of survival, we grow into adults who have a very limited emotional vocabulary and even less lived emotional experience. Living 24/7 for years in an environment that promises to foster connection with the world, ironically fuels disconnection of the worst kind. Disconnection from what it is to be human. This disconnect makes empathy feel unnatural and vulnerability, the birthplace of joy and creativity among other things, downright terrifying. In trying to forcibly create resilience rather than fostering individuality these schools successfully create men that are suited to serving the world. Hard-working, resilient pillars of society. Successful, courageous, stoic and strong. Until they aren't. There is compelling, decades-old evidence that repressed emotions manifest themselves over time as illness and disease. From arthritis, all the way through to cancer, bottling up emotions can in some cases be life-threatening. At the very least, long term repression of childhood emotion can lead to acute anxiety and panic attacks, anger, fear of intimacy, low self-esteem and self-confidence and addiction to name just a few.
The good news is that this isn't the end of the story. Patterns of behaviour once identified and understood can be changed. Empathy can be learned, and vulnerability, when nurtured and received safely, can be life-changing. You can reconnect with yourself; gather the lost parts of you that were abandoned out of necessity and welcome them back into your life.
If you have been affected by this post then please reach out to talk to someone about it.
About the author Greg James is a counsellor with a desire to see people set free from the patterns of the past. Trained integratively, Greg is able to tailor his approach to the individual needs of clients and strongly believes that our lived experience has a profound effect on our present-day living. He works out of offices in Devizes & Chippenham as well as online.