Othering Under The Guise of “Helping”

Posted by on April 16, 2012 in Acceptance, authority, feminism | 18 comments

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.

Personal Experience

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.

What, what?!

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?

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18 Comments

  1. Might be also worth noting that “therapist, or parent, or boss”, who are allowed because of their positions of authority does -not- include Home/Visiting teacher, Ecclesiastical leader, or Priesthood holder. The only time Ecclesiastical leader comes into play is in dealing with issues that directly effect standing in that ecclesiastical setting, most of which should be refered over to the therapist or parent.

    • Indeed. Not the same thing at all. If the church could get this one distinction right, I would worry a lot less about victims, children, and women getting help from the proper places while Mormon.

  2. Thanks for this post.

    I see myself in all of these areas. People often ask questions about me and then later on will throw back information in my face in an effort to “help me,” I didn’t divulge the information in an attempt to gain pity, or to seek help we were disclosing information in the natural confines of getting to know someone. I find this to be very abusive especially when church leaders take the information to a whole new level to justify things that they want to say(rather cruelly)

    • Yes. I don’t divulge information for pity either, yet I am sometimes treated like I do. And I also sometimes find that people try to use shame or social norms to get me to conform or stop talking openly about who I am. It’s usually called “help”, but now I know better.

  3. I first came across this idea of othering and deniable exercise of power when I was doing a research project on child welfare in the 1920s at the state archives. I read a really interesting case file that included an episode when the case worker went in and cleaned the woman’s house for her. There are moments when helping a friend clean is a real Godsend, but in a lot of cases what you’re really saying is that the other person doesn’t know how to keep a clean house, or that their standard of cleanliness is insufficient.

    I don’t have the abuse experience as the original poster did. But there are a few people who do this bizarre pedestal thing with me, where they say I’m so beautiful and so smart and they couldn’t possibly sit by me because I’m too fashionable and that I should share my opinions instead because I’m so smart etc. etc. You would think I would find this flattering, but it makes me deeply uncomfortable. Do they think that is how I see myself? Better than, smarter than, prettier than, worth more than? And of course it becomes this excuse to put me in that position — I’m now sitting alone not because nobody sat by me, but because I’m so beautiful and special I shine most utterly alone. It is super weird when it happens because I don’t feel more valued or beloved (as would seemingly be the intent), I feel marginalized and I question whether I’m really putting off a superior vibe. It happens in lessons too, when people single me out as being well educated when my education rarely qualifies me to have unusual insight in the topic at hand. This was a good post though, I’ll have to rethink how I might be doing this to other people.

    • Excellent, I’m glad you shared this. I knew it, but not this clearly: that the criteria for being put on a pedestal doesn’t necessarily line up with privilege. In your case they are all privilege-kinds-of-things: being considered smart and attractive, etc. But it’s really more about what people consider “good things” to be.

      Anyways, the more important thing that I got from reading your comment was that pedestals don’t help those on them any more than those setting them up. They only distract us from more useful things, like recognizing how we are connected to each other.

      It would seem that in your case, those telling you you must be alone in your brilliance are giving themselves an excuse or a reason to not be near you, but they call it a compliment to make it sound better, like something you should appreciate when it is really their excuse not to be close to you and accept you.

      We all tell ourselves these kinds of lies, to obscure our view of what we are really doing when we are being less than charitable. But we know deep down that we are lying to ourselves, that we could be better. I’ve caught myself doing that innumerable times.

      And you have already said that you feel alone, not valued like they think they make you feel. Fascinating, isn’t it? You know deep down that they aren’t really compliments, but excuses. And I would wager that they know that what they are doing isn’t as nice as it seems.

      Well, that’s enough rambling from me! Thanks for being the catalyst for more thought. Plus, I love to hear that you are aware of what’s happening. I believe that is how we change the pedestal tendencies in our families, churches, workplaces, and other groups. Makes me happy to read :)

  4. Psychological dynamics are fascinating. I don’t know where you were in this or exactly what went on with your acquaintance but speaking theoretically, if one is psychologically aware it is difficult to “same” someone who favors and reverts to the victim role, persecutor role and/or the rescuer role because psychological games are by definition subconscious drama. So like the optical illusion of the young woman and the old woman, some people can easily see these games and some can’t and the aware do not want to be drug into the drama. In addition psychological games provide psychological playoffs for the commited players. This leaves the aware person with three choices; play, don’t play or expose the dynamics and/or game. The last choice is considered the healthiest but the players don’t like it a bit!

  5. I have certainly felt this as a person with disability. Like the example Mhana gave (and your reply), people try to praise me for my patience in suffering. I never thought of it as being put on a pedistol or “othering” but it is like that. And it only makes me feel more different, more isolated from the group. I find it very hurtful. So, how does a person who is being “othered” help the people doing it to stop? Is there a way to approach them without anger? Is there a positive way to react (when all I want to do is walk away)?
    You’ve made me see things in a different light. I’m going to have to think on this.

  6. Thank you for this. I feel like I learned a lot. But what sticks out most predominately to me is how this applies to me as one who is prone to dependency and how I can use this to not let myself fall back into the familiar habit of accepting being “othered”. Having gone through many controlling relationships I am just subconsciously conditioned and inclined to submit. But now I have a little more help in recognizing the red flags, hopefully I will be able to stand against them.

  7. seems to me that help from someone who others us tends to begin with the premise that we are broken in some way. They put us on pedestals and applaud us because Wow! Isn’t it so remarkable that we manage to have any truly excellent, admirable qualities or achievements when we’re just so darn broken!

    The goal of their help is to “fix” us so that we are more acceptable to them. We can get down off our pedestals and be treated as equals when that really horrible impediment to normalcy has been corrected. (Except of course that we’re SO broken that we’ll never correct it. But it will be less obvious and discomfiting to others if we really, really work on it, or at least have the decency never to mention it in polite society.)

    It feels very different from help from someone who sees us as whole and acceptable despite our flaws, who sees us as able to choose intelligently our own goals and endowed with many of the resources and capacities necessary to pursue them–and able to ask for the resources we lack, and entitled to help acquiring them. (Scholarship money, for instance.)

    Patriarchy, of course, assumes that women are not able to choose their own goals. They must be forced to choose the goal of marriage and motherhood. Although marriage and motherhood are women’s natural roles, women are such unnatural creatures that they sometimes fail to see that, and sometimes choose goals such as being a biochemist and a mother–even after a divorce! Of course someone must intervene and help them see what God and nature intend for them: pedestals and brokenness for all eternity.

    • Yes! To me it hinges on a judgement of whether or not I am whole or broken. If someone is coming from a place of genuine love, even if we don’t know each other well, I can tell. Because then there is no assumption that I am broken and need fixing, that I am not capable and intelligent, and so on.

      This rings true to me not just from personal experience being pedestaled, but from working with youth as a volunteer and noticing how I treat them. When I see that they are capable and have all the tools necessary, all possibilities are present. When I worry and fret over their limitations, it’s all I can see and we end up working from the assumption of brokenness and putting out fires and never having enough.

  8. This is an interesting concept to me. I have never heard of the term before, but I can definitely see this happening all around me. But there seems to be a danger here.

    For example, this past weekend our back fence blew down in bad weather. I had already over-committed for the weekend by inviting 50 people to our house to celebrate a convert baptism on Sunday.

    Despite our best efforts, Sunday a 12:00pm I was no where close to finishing the new fence, and the house and yard was destroyed with the mess of building the fence.

    A knock on the door was the 1st and 2nd counselor in our bishopric. They had come over directly after stake conference with tools. By some miracle we finished the fence at 3:30pm and guests started arriving 45 minutes later to a clean house and enclosed back yard so that the 20 or so young children didn’t run into the street.

    I didn’t ask for their help, they definitely pitied me, and put me on a pedestal for my willingness to do missionary work, but I never for a moment felt “othered”. They both made fun of me about my carpentry skills (the fence post are about as straight as snake). I didn’t care one bit, I was just grateful to both of them.

    So, why does the same behavior get classified differently? How do we distinguish between othering and actual sincere acts of charity? It seems that the beneficiary has to make some sort of judgment about the person offering help in order for othering to exist. What am I missing?

    • I think you’re right, that the judgement needs to be present. But you need to flip it around. It’s not the beneficiary that makes the judgement, it’s the person doing the othering/pedestaling. The beneficiary simply gets good at reading the warning signs.

      You say you didn’t feel othered, but that they did put you on a pedestal. Are you sure about the pedestal part? I want to understand what it was.

    • How do we distinguish between othering and actual sincere acts of charity? It seems that the beneficiary has to make some sort of judgment about the person offering help in order for othering to exist. What am I missing?

      there are several things you’re missing.

      First, the type of the unsolicited help Kendahl mentions typically takes the form of advice–often very facile–rather than the offer of actual assistance.

      In the example she mentions above, this woman advised Kendahl to get more therapy. She did not say, “Let me come take your kids for a few hours so you can go get a massage or have tea with a friend.” No–she said, “You have a problem; go fix it.”

      Your friends from church did not call you and say, “Hey, noticed your fence is down. You better fix it. You’ll need lumber and nails and a spirit level.”

      Your friends were willing to invest in helping you. They did not “help” by instructing you to fix yourself so that your downed fence would cease being a nuisance to them.

      Nor did your friends assume that your downed fence said something about your character. The fence fell down because the wind blew really hard, not because YOU are flawed in some way that means your fences can’t stay up.

      Whereas this associate of Kendahl’s passed judgment on K’s character by telling her that she “was still playing out the victim’s role”–a judgment she had neither the professional expertise nor the personal knowledge of K to make.

      Finally, while the praise these men offered you sounds effusive and sincere, it doesn’t strike me as qualifying as putting you on a pedestal. You call them “typical.” It sounds, as you say, as a way to help some feel comfortable accepting help. In the exchange Kendahl describes, the woman called her a “hero.” It does not sound as if they considered you exceptionally and extraordinary heroic for hosting a baptism celebration–rather, it seems that they recognized that you did your community duty well. Putting someone on a pedestal should not be “typical.”

      • Very well put, Holly.

      • Indeed, thanks :)

  9. Every time I thanked them, they would tell me what a great guy I am, and how much I had done for other people. Typical responses that I have given and received depending on which side of the charity transaction I am standing on.

    The kind of exchange that you give and receive because of the uncomfortable nature of acknowledging that I needed help, and them accepting that they were willing to help.

  10. One of the things that I love about the Gospel is that the two core commandments ought to immediately help us dis-other those we encounter.
    “Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself.” Of course, we so often fail to realize some of the underlying messages in our actions might actually be different than we intend, as your friend did.

    I think the distinction Nate and Holly raised above is really good, too. There’s a difference between real charitable aid and “help”. It seems a lot like “help” is a synonym for “unsolicited bad advice” and while the intentions for giving unsolicited bad advice might be good on the surface, the root cause is really not being charitable enough to see what kind of real charitable aid a person really needs.

    Which of course is the whole point of the good samaritan story :) It’s easy to pass by somebody who’s really in need and not be charitable enough to see how to really help them. “Oh that guy on the side of the road needs to change the people he’s hanging out with. If he would just change who he’s hanging out with he wouldn’t end up in those kinds of bad situations. ‘Hey, you oughta change who you’re hanging out with and then you won’t end up in those kinds of situations, buddy. Welp, see you later!’” vs. “Wow that guy needs some medical help and a place to stay so that his body can heal.” The problem, of course, lies in the underlying intentions in the heart of the person, and, as you mention, Kendahl, that’s something we always need to be aware of.

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