Lessons from Eleanor Oliphant

It’s summer and I have (mostly) swapped professional reading for novels. Eleanor Oliphant irritated me at first.  How could someone have reached the age of 30 and been quite so devoid of social skills, especially if bought up by a mother who was  focused on ensuring her offspring were seen as polite and well-mannered?  How could someone with apparently low self-esteem imagine that anyone who had achieved a modicum of fame would be the one for her? …. And yet, in the moment of realisation, everything changed: for Eleanor Oliphant and for me.

Why had I not seen until that moment, that the social ineptitude was merely an extreme version of what most of us carry with us – a survival strategy?  Survival strategies come in many forms – some of them more obvious than others.  When we see engagement in self-destructive activity (over-eating or drinking, reliance on drugs) they are fairly easy to spot.   The truth is, any of us can engage in unconscious survival strategies. Exercise, work, diet, adherence to ritual, tidiness, being well organised – any of these,  can be used to keep us save from whatever we fear.

The survival strategies I am talking about are those which we unconsciously adopt to allow us to function in the world.  In Eleanor’s case, we see her tendency to judge others in order to verify that it is they who are out of step rather than herself; her fierce protection of her own way of life as ‘a self-contained entity’; her drinking to dull the pain of reality, her own self-judgement: the voice of her inner critic.

We know that Eleanor Oliphant was a model student.  While I might, if I met her, think that she has autism, I would not guess at her dark past, hinted at long before it is ever revealed.  Her well-honed survival strategies have allowed her to function in the world while keeping the memory of her own traumatic past well hidden.

Professor Franz Ruppert points to the impact of our earliest experiences on our behaviour as adults.  When I say ‘early’ I mean from conception onwards.  He identifies trauma as ‘a discrepancy between threatening situational factors and the individual’s coping capacities, that is associated with feelings of helplessness and the lack of any protection, thus creating a permanent instability of the self concept and the perception of the world.’  To flourish, a baby needs food, warmth, love, connection.  He cannot serve his own needs so experiences the lack of nurture as life-threatening trauma. If he is to survive he has to find a way to live with the trauma without constantly feeling it.  What the infant does is what many of us do when experiencing something uncomfortable, we dissociate from the experience.  The baby’s brain is not sufficiently formed for him consciously to dissociate, however.  The only way to survive the traumatic experience is to split off from the traumatised part and keep it hidden.

Spoiler alert: this reveals the ending of the book

Eleanor has suffered significant trauma, probably even before the fire.  From what we know of her mother, it appears that she was not attentive or encouraging.  Eleanor’s survival strategies, outlined above, have not only kept her traumatised self hidden, but also diminished her healthy self – the self which is ready to engage with the world from a position of strength and knowing herself as an autonomous being able to respond to her own needs. When she reaches rock bottom and subsequently engages in therapy, she is gradually able to allow some of her traumatised self to emerge so that memories become integrated and there is no more need for some of the survival strategies.  She is able to operate more autonomously, not limited by the ‘rules’ she has unconsciously given herself.

Her journey is one which many of us might make – to a greater or lesser extent.  From the very beginning of life, we may unconsciously develop survival strategies which allow us to function in our environment – even in the womb, where the mother’s anxiety – signalled by increased cortisol which is passed via the placenta to the baby – becomes the baby’s anxiety.  The baby cannot escape from the heightened anxiety, so he dissociates from it, keeping it hidden, allowing less access to his healthy self.  His brain develops on hyper-alert for he has learned that his environment is threatening.  (For more on this concept, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rtt-62U9XYs. The film is available for hire)

This is no doubt what Belinda Harris[1] refers to when she calls for school leaders to have ‘deep inner awareness’  (p5).  She points to the importance of self-awareness, but goes beyond the ‘recognising our own feelings’ to describe a deep self-knowledge which involves embracing not just those aspects of our personality that are culturally acceptable, but also

‘The more neglected aspects of self, such as the vulnerable self that is hidden behind learned defences and the shadow self (Jung and von Franz, 1964) that is often denied until it erupts in protest at times of stress to damage self and others’ (Harris, 2007: 51)

Keeping  our trauma hidden so that we can function saps energy: energy that could more helpfully be used in supporting our resilience and wellbeing.  When we recognise our survival strategies for what they are, we see we have a choice concerning whether we continue to live in their shadow, or come out into the sunshine and be the free and autonomous person we were intended to be.  It is a lifetime’s work, but surely one worth engaging in if we are to be able to give of our best as leaders.


[1] Harris, B. (2007) Supporting the Emotional Work of School Leaders. London, UK: Paul Chapman