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‘Dreaming Spires’ and the myth of “the mistake”

Having been invited back to Oxford University recently to attend a dinner for former students, I returned to catch up with some old friends and to revisit some old haunts.


The speaker at the dinner, another former student, spoke very frankly about her experiences both of Oxbridge and of the House of Lords, given that she has now become a peer at the relatively tender age of 50.

Her observation that the majority of Oxford students and members of the House of Lords have one thing in common – a massive inferiority complex, was pretty remarkable.

At first blush, it seems a ridiculous proposition, given the bluster and apparent pomposity that many would associate with both these institutions and the people who inhabit them. But, even if that caricature of the typical Oxbridge student or peer were entirely true, there are of course many people who use such this sort of mask to disguise underlying feelings of insecurity.

Moving on, our speaker reminded me and my fellow former students, of that belief that so many Oxbridge students grip onto; that it was a ‘mistake’ that they had been accepted into this grandest and most intimidating of institutions. Naturally, there are some (supremely confident) exceptions to this rule but I remember many fellow students who could come up with a multitude of reasons for this apparent ‘mistake’; there had been a blip in the admissions process, the interviewers had been having an ‘off day’ or that he/she was the ‘token’ state school kid, taken on in order to make the college look more inclusive.

There are many explanations as to why this inferiority complex afflicts very ‘successful’ people. In the case of Oxbridge, the difficulty many students have in adjusting from being a big fish in a small pond at school to a small fish in a big pond of highly intelligent fish (and some highly competitive piranhas) at Oxbridge is at the top of the list. Heavy workloads and a pressure cooker environment also contribute to feelings of insecurity and inadequacy.

But I think that it’s about more than that.

It’s about the difficulty, psychologically, of adjusting to a life in which the institution is bigger than the person.

I’m talking about being part of an institution (usually old and grand) be it a public or boarding school, a ‘posh’ university or even a professional body, where the prestige of belonging to the institution is felt to be so important that the individual can’t help but feel inadequate in its shadow.

The person then commonly comes to believe that ‘fitting in’ with the culture of the institution, being considered to be successful there and seeing the experience through to the end must take precedence over their own wellbeing. This is a recipe for unhappiness.

Therapists talk about ‘conditions of worth’ i.e. these conditions that we feel we must meet in order to be good enough for others to approve of us. We usually get these from our parents at an early age but when we go to a grand old institution like Oxbridge, any pre-existing condition (often ‘I must be the most intelligent’) becomes even more entrenched. It’s one of those self-defeating patterns we fall into in life, particularly given that anyone who aims to be the ‘most intelligent’ student at Oxbridge is on a hiding to nothing.

We also talk in therapy about ‘life positions’, the ideal position being ‘I’m OK, You’re OK’. This position describes a feeling that we are good enough and that, broadly speaking, we think those around us are OK. Unfortunately, for those who attend a revered institution like Oxford and struggle with the experience, the fame and respect with which the institution is treated inevitably creates an unhealthy dynamic where the person’s position becomes ‘I’m not OK, you’re (i.e. Oxbridge) OK’. This is a very painful place to be.

All of the above, and the ups and downs I myself went through during those years in Oxford mean that I have a complicated relationship with my former university. I met wonderful and talented people there and I don’t regret my time there at all. What I do regret is what I couldn’t see at the time; that Oxford is, at its heart, not really about those ‘dreaming spires’, grand old buildings, funny gowns and Latin speeches. It’s about the talented, intelligent, funny, flawed, confused, insecure and often terrified people who go there.

I hope that the current crop of students who wander the cloisters that I used to inhabit can get somewhere close to feeling that they’re ‘good enough’ to be there. If they can believe that they’re just as important, and actually more so, than the institution then that, in my eyes, will be their biggest achievement.