Updated: Jul 1, 2022
Last weekend I went to Edinburgh for a wedding with a group of friends I have made at my local CrossFit gym. It was planned months ago and as it approached my ambivalence reared its head and I started to worry about how I would manage it. I have always struggled with groups. I see those big groups of friends sitting in the parks having picnics, playing rounders in the sun and it all looks so nice. Yet, generally, I feel slightly awkward, find some safe person I can connect with, and stay on the outside. I spent years wondering what is wrong with me, and why am I so anti-social at such events...
When young children are sent away to boarding school and their attachments are broken abruptly with their parents overnight, it becomes essential for their survival and happiness to attach to their peer group. Unless you are busy and occupied all the time, feelings of loneliness and grief, commonly known as homesickness can creep in. Children have to find a way to adapt their personalities to fit in with the often unspoken rules of their peer groups. If they don't, then they remain on the outside and more prone to bullying, so allegiances are integral. Yet often, as quickly as friendships are made, they may be broken and you are ousted from the group. And you may have no idea why.
Maybe you return after the school holidays to find out that the group of boys you were in with have met up together and you are no longer part of their gang. You may not look the part, act the part, have the right haircut, or the right name. A girl at my school was ridiculed for having a picture of her family on her desk, let alone the My Little Ponies she had snuck into her trunk from home.
A girl in our peer group suggested we hold "Honesty rings" regularly. We would sit in a circle and take turns telling each other what we liked and disliked about each person. You had to sit and wait your turn to hear your fellow peers' verdicts on your character and breathe a sigh of relief if it wasn't your turn to be annihilated that week. Maybe you developed late puberty-wise or were early. You may be picked on for your family having money or not having money. You may show signs of vulnerability and therefore risk ridicule. The list goes on...
So no wonder ex-boarders can feel ambivalent when it comes to joining groups. Desperate to fit in and equally terrified to do so because their experience at school may have led them to distrust their peers. I know that when I first join a group, I am checking out everyone in the group to assess how safe I am. I often find a safe person and stick with them until I slowly allow myself to emerge into the group. I also know that the feelings that I carry are a result of managing these unprocessed feelings on my own as a child. They rise to the surface in present day situations and I have to find a way to soothe myself.
All children at schools have to face this scenario of trying to fit in with their peers, yet for those at boarding school, there is no escape and safe home to return to. They are in these institutions 24 / 7 with very little privacy so they have to keep checking over their shoulders. This can create hypervigilance that many adults still carry when it comes to being around groups of peers.
On one hand, there can be desperation to belong and fit in and on the other a belief that you are better off on your own as there is safety in isolation. However, a consequence of this is loneliness.
I had a wonderful weekend in Edinburgh. It has taken 5 years of consistent relationship building with these friends, using our love of lifting weights....as the connecting force but I felt I belonged. I shared with them how I felt about being in groups, which is how I manage most group scenarios when I join one. Once I have named my anxiety, it lessens as the rational adult part of me knows that it is a held-on trauma response from my childhood and not relevant to the group I am part of now. I also feel much more accepting of the part of me that seeks safety and reassurance and needs time before fully ingratiating herself into a group.
I have recently created a free Facebook Group for those who want to develop their awareness of Boarding School Syndrome, and to take that risk to connect with others. The residing feedback from my courses is how amazing it is to connect with others and share their experiences and not feel alone. The original participants wanted a space to continue connecting and together I hope that we will create a space where ex-boarders can start to feel safe within a group and know that they are welcome and belong.
If you would like to come and join us, click on the link below. See you there. x