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Posts Tagged ‘psychotherapy’

Is boarding school bad for you? Stefanie Marsh, in a trenchant and fairly one-sided article, looks at the work of psychotherapist Joy Schaverien. In her paper ‘Boarding School: The Trauma of the Privileged Child’, Schaverien claims to identify something called Boarding School Syndrome, an emotional dysfunction stemming primarily from the trauma of early separation from one’s parents, that manifests itself in intimacy problems in later life.

Eton College

In Schaverien’s words:

Parents bankrupt themselves to send their children to school when they are just babies really. This is a terrible burden for the child. But it is like sending a child into care. Nowadays there are duvets on the beds and they are allowed teddy bears but it doesn’t make up for the fact that children leave their mothers, their primary attachment figures, when they are essentially still babies.

Stefanie Marsh fills in some of the psychological details:

‘Attachment theory’, a core tenet of contemporary psychology, was formulated by the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby, who, in the Second World War, observed the effects on children who had lost parents or been evacuated. During the 1980s, his theories were extrapolated and applied to adults – separation anxiety and grief in childhood, it is now commonly held, can create different ‘attachment styles’ in adult romantic relationship: secure-avoidant, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant and fearful-avoidant.

Boarding school ‘survivors’, as they have been collectively termed by the psychotherapist Nick Duffell, are said to most frequently exhibit avoidant styles, viewing themselves as self-sufficient, invulnerable to attachment feelings and not needing close relationships. Often they suppress their feelings, cope with rejection by distancing themselves from partners or feel uncomfortable with emotional or physical closeness.

So this isn’t about identifying particular problems that can develop in the culture of a boarding school, it’s about the very fact of being separated from one’s parents at an ‘early’ age. I think the focus is more on those who board at ‘prep’ school, i.e. those who leave home not at 13, but sometime between the ages of 7 and 13. (David Cameron went to board at prep school at age 7; Stephen Fry at 7; Boris Johnson at 9; Price William at 8; Sienna Miller at 8…)

What do you think? What’s your own experience? Is there another side to this story?

[Times, Modern section, 23 June, pp. 4-5; subscription only]

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Upmarket agony-aunt Sally Brampton gives advice in yesterday’s Sunday Times to a woman who is having an affair with her therapist [the article is subscription only]. First of all she takes issue with the behaviour of the therapist himself.

If he really wanted to help, he would have maintained his position as an objective counsel, building your confidence, guiding you to emotional independence and establishing firm boundaries to keep you safe from bullies such as your husband and, indeed, controlling and manipulative men like him. Instead, he has increased your dependency by making you so reliant on him that you believe that you can’t cope on your own.

Then she gives a bit of psychological background to what’s going on.

It is not unusual for people to project their emotional needs and desires (known as transference) onto a therapist and develop something of a crush. That’s why it’s essential that therapists establish clear boundaries and encourage clients to do the same.

And this is the soundbite that really struck me, a quotation from Phillip Hodson of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy:

The boundaries are the therapy.

What a powerful thought, put very simply. In other words, in psychotherapy, and I presume in many other relationships that have an element of counselling or pastoral support, it’s the establishing of a healthy and non-dysfunctional relationship that is itself part of the healing. It’s not just what takes place within the relationship (the conversations, the advice, the support, the honesty). Nor is it just what takes place within the mind or heart of the client (the breakthroughs, the insights, the epiphanies, the decisions, the moments of self-realisation – invaluable though these may be).

It’s above all the fact that someone is simply in a relationship of some normality (albeit a professional one), being who they are, without some of the games and deceptions that might have damaged their relationships up to this point. Or perhaps it would be better to say: still, inevitably, with many of the same games and deceptions, but now in a way that they do not define or derail the relationship and the people involved. So the professional boundaries, which seem to be a means to an end, are part of the end itself – which is the healing of oneself through the healing of relationships.

I don’t know much about psychotherapy, so please do add any comments or corrections – but the phrase struck me: The boundaries are the therapy.

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