Survivor Personalities

The Strategic Survival Personality of Boarding School Survivors has three main types:

Compliers or Conformists

These survivors are usually in denial of any problem and have identified with the values of the school. Typically they say: “It never did me any harm” and even if they hated it, may send their own children away. They identify with the aggressor – better to be on the winning side – until something drastic happens, such as loss of their job, an ultimatum from their wife/partner, or some self-sabotaging behaviour having come to light, when they may collapse.

In breakdown, they may become completely paralysed. They are in disarray when the negative self-concept is unmasked and are desperate to return to normal functioning, when they will most likely jettison any therapeutic help they requested while in crisis. They have been brought up to think they should be independent and self-reliant and struggle to recognise that a breakdown in their strategic survival personality might herald a breakthrough.


Rebels have recognised the destructive side of boarding but may frequently blame boarding school and their parents who sent them away for all the problems in their entire life. They are angry – either overtly or covertly with passive aggression – and take a thorough anti-authority stance. They are often involved in political, spiritual or alternative movements, or left-wing groups, which may be beset with internal conflicts.

They are not wrong to condemn boarding as being against the natural rights of children, but they frequently tend to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’: they find fulfilling their potential problematic since it then feels like they are behaving like authorities. This has to be disowned since they see all authorities as bad.

Rebel types can be over-friendly and seductive, with a charming little boy inside, but also superior and aggressive, though appearing innocent. They are complex characters, having a big split between the inside and the outside and can totally frustrate their partners. Often they are masochistic – i.e. they cut off their nose to spite their face, prone to bouts of depression and self-sabotage.

Casualties or the Crushed

These survivors may have been neglected, abused or subject to parental double binds before they went to school. Being so damaged, they were unable to create a competent strategic survival personality, and suffered bullying and scapegoating at school. Or they were abused – often sexually – and were unable to make a cry for help.

The latter type often is masked by other issues, such as drug and alcohol problems, poverty and social isolation. Although children from families of the highest social class often fall into this category.

All three of these personality types briefly described above present in therapy as

  • functioning well (although the casualties/crushed may not be functioning at all)
  • independent/ self-sufficient but with extreme neediness behind
  • cut off from feelings – to a degree hard to imagine
  • private and withdrawn – to a degree hard to imagine
  • unused to close intimate relationships
  • frequently abused and bullied
  • with partners who are beside themselves with despair since the issue has not been diagnosed
  • wounded, suspicious, secretive, contemptuous
  • competitive, extremely critical/mistrustful of therapeutic arrangements

A curious therapeutic eye here is excellent as these clients will often normalise their behaviour.

For more on these types, see: Nick Duffell & Thurstine Basset (2016): Trauma, Abandonment and Privilege; A guide to therapeutic work with boarding school survivorsRoutledge

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