Othering Under The Guise of “Helping”
A pedestal itself is a separation. A tool for “othering“. Othering is:
A term, advocated by Edward Said, which refers to the act of emphasizing the perceived weaknesses of marginalized groups as a way of stressing the alleged strength of those in positions of power.” Othering can be done with any racial, ethnic, religious, or geographically-defined category of people.
More simply put, othering is separating yourself from someone so that you understand them less. It’s becoming unconnected. It’s forgetting the humanity of another person or group of people. It’s pushing them away so that you don’t need to feel for them as much as if they were you. Othering is losing the ability to see yourself in someone else.
Because of that, othering can be used as a weapon of control, big or small. And it is.
Mormon women are put on pedestals. They do the most noble work of all being wives and mothers. They are more righteous, beautiful, faithful, and hard-working than all others. They champion modesty and raising perfect children and following the gospel.
Abuse survivors can also be placed on pedestals: we are heroes, stronger than those who have not been abused, amazing for talking about our progress and perspectives.
As you can see, pedestal criteria are not necessarily negative or untrue. I love my children and I do find great meaning and passion in my job as I stay home with them and teach them and feed them. I also think the work I have done in therapy is amazing, and I am strong because of my experiences. I do not, however, think I am better or more of a person because of it.
Recently an acquaintance put me on an abuse survivors pedestal. I had asked her for help with a triggering situation, requesting that my boundaries were honored so I would be emotionally safe. She broke the boundary because she thought she knew better. I told her she broke the promise she made to me. I explained why it was so upsetting: my boundaries were violated,
Instead of apologizing, she told me why she did it, defended her decision, and then told me why I wasn’t thinking clearly about the situation. She said I should go back to therapy, that I was still playing out the victim’s role. Then, in the same breath, she told me thank you for being so brave and that I was a hero to be talking so openly about surviving abuse.
Now I don’t share this example to say that this is a terrible person. She meant well. And perhaps it was just a bad day where she made a crummy decision that I happened to be hurt by. But the point is how much pain othering can cause.
I have had other friends and family try and “help” me not stay in the victim role, but there are two camps: those interested in listening to me and then helping me on my own terms vs. those who wanted me to listen to them because they knew exactly what I needed to do. There is a big difference there. And othering is the crux of it.
“Helping” When It Isn’t Really Helping
I can tell if someone is really with me. They care about me as if we were the same person. They see my humanity. They are committed to being a stand for me. They are loving.
But when someone comes to “help me” out of the blue, and especially without my consent or as a result of my request, it is pretty offensive. It assumes I’m not already doing that work, that they know me better than myself, that I cannot figure it out on my own, that I don’t deserve space, that I am not able to take of myself, and a whole other litany of problematic assumptions.
I am very committed to finding truth and being honest with myself. I do the hard work of self-awareness, of recommitting myself to seeing those around me when I catch myself othering them, of doing what is right but not necessarily easy. If someone cannot see this integral part of my life, then I surely do not want their “help” with my deepest personal
When people around me see that I “need help” when I haven’t asked them for help is a big red flag. It’s a red flag because it speaks to their wish to control me, not to help me.
What are we doing when we want to help people without their consent? To borrow a very grown-up term, we want to “be the boss of them”. That’s a form of control, not help. And it doesn’t matter how nice you are about it. You are still trying to control that person.
So What Should I Do?
Now before someone freaks out and says “B-b-b-but, what if someone doesn’t know that they need help?! Should I let them suffer?!” Well, ask them! See if they need help. Ask for permission to hear what they are going through. And even if they say no, there’s no reason you can’t love them anyway. Be respectful. They are no different than you. We are all interconnected.
Now if you are a therapist, or parent, or boss, then you can safely give insight, direction, rules, even punishment, because you are literally in a position of authority. But even then, you need not resort to othering. You have the choice to respect and see clearly the needs and humanity of those you have under you.
So it goes without saying that the next logical step is this: if you are not in a position of authority, then don’t be a jerk and act like you are. Think of a time when you just really, really wanted to tell someone what to do. And maybe you did. Or maybe you held your tongue, but it was hard. The struggle lies in the fact that you may have excellent insight, solutions to their problems, or even the answer to all their problems.
If you are a friend, or family member, or acquaintance with someone, let go of the desire to control. Instead, remind yourself of their validity. Represence yourself to loving them, seeing them, and hearing their experience. Instead of talking at them, listen to them.
Have you had any light bulbs go off while reading this? Do you see in your life where someone has helped you, but you have felt worse? Can you see the difference between true help, and help as a mask for control? Does othering affect you in your life? How?