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How having Covid switched back on my Survival Personality...

Updated: Nov 2, 2021

When my lateral flow test was positive and my children's tests were negative, we made the decision for my children to spend the ten days with their dad and I would isolate alone. I had a fleeting concern of how I would manage these ten days being unwell completely on my own, but very quickly found all the positives. Many lovely friends offered me food and support should I need it, but in hindsight it was as if I flicked a switch.

I became incredibly self-sufficient and shut off any needs I had for care from another. A friend commented on how I appeared to get through Covid with a "stiff upper lip" mentality. On reflection, I can see how I turned on my adapted survival personality which I had forged at Boarding School when I was 11.

In order for a child to cope with the abrupt loss of their parents and to find a way to cope with their grief, Nick Duffell in his book "The making of them," describes a survival personality that a child develops in order to manage their emotions and to get through their boarding school years. This personality is one that may be fiercely independent and capable, does not express their feelings, and has little need or desire for intimacy and care. Those needs which may seem more "childish" get locked in an internal box and hidden far away deep inside the child. With this new personality intact, the child can continue at school with the harsh rigid timetables and the environment lacking in love.

There are many advantages to this adapted way of being. As an adult, it can mean that you have a high level of resilience and endurance. You may be able to work incredibly hard and long hours, so you may be successful in your chosen career. Your ability to withstand uncomfortable conditions and having a lack of privacy may make you a perfect candidate for careers in the military. It also means that you are able to cope in isolation on your own with Covid....

When my children returned, I was aware of some anger rising in me and couldn't understand why I was feeling angry towards them. At one point my eldest said, "We can go back to Dads if it would make it easier." It was at that point, the defence wall that I had created to protect me and help me manage being left on my own, came crumbling down. The small abandoned child in me found herself whispering inside, "please don't leave me."

As I heard her voice, I suddenly became aware of what had been going on. I was wanting to push away my own children because my own small inner child had been feeling abandoned and was re-experiencing those feelings that she had when she was 11 and just had to get on with it on her own. The anger that I had felt towards my own mother for leaving me was being projected onto my teenagers.

I am sharing this recent present-day experience to illustrate how being abandoned as a child at Boarding School can impact us as adults and our present-day attachments and relationships.

There are advantages to being resilient and being able to endure hardship. However, the way this can play out and be acted out in intimate relationships as adults can also cause pain for all involved. When a partner goes away on a business trip, or a child leaves home to go to university, many ex-boarder have shared how difficult this can feel. Those feelings of abandonment can be triggered again and it can feel unbearable which can result in pushing away those whom they love the most.

One ex-boarder has shared that when her husband goes away with work they have a deal that he doesn't call at all whilst he is away as she finds it too painful. It is easier to emotionally cut him off the day he leaves and then reattach when he returns. It is too hard to be with the longing which gets reignited with any contact in between. She uses the same strategy to cope with her husband's departure - her present-day attachment, as she did with her parents departure and arrival at school.

How can you heal this abandonment wound?

The first step to healing is recognising your way of being in relationships and if you have this wound. Noticing the feelings that emerge when you are left on your own. Noticing how you may want to reject your partner for leaving you for the weekend. Noticing if you prevent getting close to others so you don't risk feelings of loss. Noticing whether you have your own survival personality that kicks in at times. Noticing when it serves you and when it doesn't.

Once you start to become aware of these patterns of behaviour, you may be able to explore and accept that they may have originated from your boarding school experience and then you may be able to change. You may then be able to integrate all parts of you and accept that you can be incredibly strong and independent and capable and also someone who desires love and care and attention at times. And that it is perfectly ok.

If any of this resonates with you and you would like some support in understanding how your own school experience may have impacted you, please get in touch.

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