Tuesday, 22 July 2014

a new reflection...'emotional shutdown and boarding school'

When aged 8, I was sent away from a close and loving family home to boarding school.  The boarding school was not a million miles away from the family home – my mother, father, siblings, pets, toys, friends – only a half-hour drive, but the institution and social environment I was thrust into most certainly felt like it.

Now 30, I can still recall the early weeks at boarding school, cold, old, odd, stuffy and austere, and not with any joy.  I spent most of the time in tears, begging any members of staff who would listen, and my parents, to be allowed to leave. 

It can be an important lesson in life to persevere against one’s will, learn to overcome adversity on one’s own, to stick with an experience that can, at first, be uncomfortable, but I would question whether it is a lesson that an 8 year old child should necessarily be ‘taught’, or have to ‘go through’. 

My parents did not think like this, and I don’t blame them: there was and remains a prevailing attitude that boarding schools are the best way to give children a ‘good start in life’ (although what this really means should be given serious consideration, especially in the 21st century).

But while I grew used to life away from home as a child, then a teenager, when moved on to boarding school at secondary level, today, I sense this was more to do with developing what psychotherapists are increasingly coming to recognise as a ‘strategic survival personality’, rather than a feeling of being more ‘at one’ or 'content' with surrounds.

I remember the first few nights at boarding school, aged 8, standing naked (nakedness was normal in the family home), bawling my eyes out in the corner of my dormitory while other incumbents of the mixed ‘block’ (boys and girls in pyjamas) filed past tittering, to have their hands and teeth checked for cleanliness by the housemaster before ‘lights out’.  I wonder if those first few days and weeks had the effect of a subconscious emotional petrifaction that has been a factor in my life ever since?  Early trauma lived on, writ deep into the psyche ...

It perhaps sounds preposterous, disingenuous (given the financial sacrifices of my parents), self-absorbed and/or self-pitying to claim the relatively distant school past as a reason for one’s latter day malaise (there have been plenty of daft mistakes on my part along the way), but in spite of professional success as a young adult, and having acquired a large circle of friends (all good people), as well as having a still-together family, I have never felt anything other than an outsider during my time at boarding school and, most definitely, since.  I do not want to ‘go home’, by which I mean begin a journey toward the heart of my myriad and often confused, strait-jacketed emotions; I do not feel I can say anything meaningful to my parents, though often absent in a physical sense from my life for 22 years, about my true experience of life, or for that matter any of my friends - besides nearly all my friends are from the years after boarding school, they know only the (outwardly) confident me, who seems philosophical about most goings on, why change that perception?!

Indeed, the emotional cost of life growing up at boarding school is perhaps only now beginning to become evident to me.  And my experience was not hall-marked by an incident of sexual abuse, although there was bullying typical of any school, boarding or otherwise. 

As a child then, and as an adult now, I am certain I am not in any way unique in my experience and outlook. 

Indeed, when at boarding school, opportunities to go and spend time at home made me, and it seemed fellow incumbents, deliriously happy – my parents created an idyllic world for my siblings and I to grow up in, play and develop our imaginations – but before very long trunks and tuck boxes would be packed again, and institutionalised life would resume.  This constant upheaval is perhaps why I find no sense of permanence in life today, no place I can properly relax, no face where it is safe to gaze. 

While the boarding schools I attended had and still have (to my knowledge) a good record of pupil welfare with (to my knowledge) few, if any, instances of aforementioned sexual abuse, to re-iterate there was bullying, both physical and psychological that teachers were simply unable to, or not sufficiently interested in, preventing.  The survival mentality in me strengthened, my independence further increased, and yet at the same time I realise I was putting up wall after wall and hemming my Self in, shutting the Self away. 

Inter-dependence, reciprocity and sharing are essential parts of relationships in adult life.

At 30, I cannot bring myself to express, talk, or share my real emotions, they are locked away inside me, and it may be I am not sure where on earth I have put the keys to my heart.  The very few times I have been 'opened up' somewhat it has been like someone driving a wrench through my rib cage, followed by the acute pain of tight, tight screw-heads exhaustively being loosened.  Most of the time, ask me a question that might shed even the slightest light on my state of heart or mind, and I have noticed I will invariably reverse the question back on whoever is doing the asking in some form.

An entirely defensive, fear-ridden, and counter-productive response.

There seems to have been a separation between the boarding school Self and the real Self somewhere along my path through life thus far.  Indeed, for much of my life as a young adult, I have felt a profound sense of failure in my attempts to form lasting, intimate relationships – unsurprising, I suppose, when one considers I simply cannot and will not open up, settle comfortably, or allow my guard down to reveal anything.  I do not really know how, or I am afraid. And it may be that I am paralysed or petrified in this sense.  

With a ‘strategic survival personality’ it does not compute, pay any mind to give pieces of yourself away.  You learn to hide in plain sight.  Hiding in plain sight, bearing up, and getting on with it is the boarding school way.  There was (and is) always work to be done, and no time to for engaging with or reflecting on the way one felt (feels), or how anyone else felt (feels) about people and things past, present, or indeed of the future.


  1. Great article - similar to one I wrote yesterday (a mutual friend alerted me as to the similarity). www.simpletom.co.uk/2014/11/19/burned-man/

    It seems a lot of people feel this way. I once read that you can only blame your parents (so I would assume your school too) until you're 30! But I feel your pain. Interested to know how you get on remedying this problem. Eric Fromm's 'The Art of Loving' is fab, for example. I think there are ways out - meditating, therapy etc. Good luck!

  2. Hi Tom: Yes, another Tom sent me your article today. Lovely writing! :-). Funny, I was contemplating Burning Man this year. Didn't go! Meditation is something I am interested in, and can work to achieve stillness. I am publisher and involved in many books on well-being, philosophy and spirituality, but am contemplating doing an update on 'The Making of Them' by Nick Duffel (worth a read if you haven't). This is the film (haven't watched mind you) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2uRr77vju8U&feature=youtu.be. Keep well :-).

    1. Will, just watched the film and read the book - only took me 1.5 years. The book has great kernels, but is very poorly edited/written. I so wanted to love it and for it's 'direction' 5/5 but the format, the over-zealous writing and the editing all served to undermine its power. DO update, but do it well if so! As for the film, again I think it failed to capture the poignancy of those early moment. It tried... maybe it's impossible. But it's good to watch again because it triggers buried emotions. Anyhow, I've just found myself writing a bit of a boarding school rant, soon to be posted on my blog. Reminded me of you and this article, which is excellent. My sense is that these realisations are the beginnings of the opening up. Onwards.

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  4. Hello Will and Tom, I have just read both of your blogs; they stopped me in my tracks! I am in my fifties, had the 10 years of boarding school, 25 years in the Army, marriagendivorcethingy (without children) and now I spend much of my working life travelling hither and thither for work (I am typing this from the far side of the globe with one week left before I return to Somerset). I am gregarious, have plenty of friends but the great criticism leveled at me by my partner as well as previous partners (ex-wife included) is not being emotionally open....Will's "I have felt a profound sense of failure in my attempts to form lasting, intimate relationships – unsurprising, I suppose, when one considers I simply cannot and will not open up, settle comfortably, or allow my guard down to reveal anything". I had never really tried to analyse where this aspect of my psyche came from and perhaps you chaps have hit it on the head for me...............the challenge is how to heal without apportioning blame to whatever aspects of life may have contributed to my emotional state. Thank you for giving me the kick to get me really thinking about this issue such that I will not be dwelling on the past ie the causes but more on how I might go about mending. Thank you for seriously surprising someone who has always considered himself mentally, physically and emotional tough but who had not really understood what was beneath the surface and why despite many loving people attempting to point me in the right direction (I just never really got it).