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Privileged Abandonment: Working with Ex-Boarders

We are just waking up to the long-term impact a boarding school education can have on individuals. Ex-boarders often struggle with intimate relationships, workaholism, and a deep internalised shame. Yet they may be expert at disowning feelings and displaying confidence. Author and psychotherapist Nick Duffell has studied the phenomenon for over 30 years. Ahead of a training in Sussex, he shares his insights into how this fast-growing client group can present therapists with unanticipated clinical challenges.


We British have an odd and rather unique belief: if you have got the money, the best thing you can do for your children is to send them away from the family to an elite boarding school at a very young age.

Boarding education carries privileged social status and is rife with parental expectation, but its long-term effects on individuals and the whole of our society have – until very recently – remained unnoticed by the medical and psychological professions. We won’t speak here about the effect it has on our politics!

Boarding children trust their parents and don’t want to disappoint them, so they learn to disown their feelings and put on a happy mask, unaware of the problems this will cause in later life. Taking their experience as normal, adult ex-boarders normalise their underlying anxiety and broken attachments and frequently struggle with intimate relationships and family life. They may retreat into workaholism, unaware of the causes of their suffering, projecting out their distress or sealing themselves off behind a fortified psychic carapace.

The need for Specialist Training

Most therapists are used to early deprivation and family-of-origin work, so the client with attachment problems will be familiar. But what is rarely understood is the sophistication of the ex-boarder’s survival self, or Strategic Survival Personality, as I call it, following a 32-year study of this phenomenon. The ex-boarder was trained to function and look confident, but the widespread devastation it brings to individuals, couples and families over generations is only now being acknowledged in professional circles.

Ex-boarders may well be the fastest growing client group in the country but they are certainly amongst the most difficult to treat. This is due to the social dimension of the syndrome and the strength of the secret internalised shame. The self in distress is frequently masked by a competent, if brittle, socially-rewarded exterior, skilled in duplicity and primed to survive at all costs. For these reasons, even very experienced therapists may struggle to skilfully address the needs and tactics of this client group ­– hence the need for some specialist training.

To this end, we are pleased to offer introductory CPD days in various locations for counsellors and therapists, as well as a full four-weekend post-graduate programme, staffed by a very experienced team led by myself (see below for more information).

The abandoned inner child

Socially privileged boarding children are forced into a deal they have not chosen: a normal family-based childhood gets swapped for the institutionalised hothousing of entitlement. Because they have to speedily reinvent themselves as self-reliant pseudo-adults, they paradoxically struggle to mature. The child who has not been able to grow up organically, whom ex-boarders are unwilling to identify with, gets – as it were – stranded inside.

This is a nightmare scenario for intimate partnership, especially when combined with their darkly honed skills of dissociation and projection. Empathy was never on the curriculum in their hyper-rational training, and those who were forced to disown their vulnerability struggle to understand anyone else’s.

Initially attracted to the boyish charms of her public-school lover and imagining she can bring him ‘in from the cold’, a female partner (or a caring counsellor) finds herself eventually feeling – inside her – all the feelings of vulnerability, incompetence and loneliness he had to disown to survive his boarding. The job is too big for her; the marriage may not survive, even if the ex-boarder does.

Consequently, an abandoned inner child inside ends up running the show – a disastrous recipe for relationship. Similarly, the political implications of this are huge, for it means that it’s the children inside the elite school-educated men running our country who are effectively in charge (you can watch an interview with me on the subject here). In other words, as I argue in Wounded Leaders, we are being run by, ‘the boys in the men who run things’.

Working with Privileged Abandonment, with Nick Duffell and Boarding School Survivors team members, is in Lewes, Sussex, on Saturday February 22 2020, and in Newbury, Berkshire, on Saturday April 4 2020. The next ‘Un-Making of Them’ Specialist Training, over four weekends in London, starts 25-26 April 202, with specialist supervision by Professor Joy Schaverien and team. Graduates are eligible to join the referral system. Visit for further details.


Nick Duffell

Nick Duffell is the co-author of Trauma, Abandonment and Privilege: A Guide to Therapeutic Work with Boarding School Survivors. Boarding School Survivors was founded in 1990 to research and broadcast about the psychological effects of sending children away to school. It runs a programme of therapeutic workshops for adult ex-boarders who have recognised that they may have paid a price for their education and are looking for ways to heal their wounds, with a nationwide group of informed specialists to refer to. It also offers seminars, training and CPD events to inform therapists in this little-known syndrome and to support them in working with this difficult client group.

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