What is othering?
Othering describes a phenomenon whereby groups of people with a certain identity are marginalised and seen as outside the mainstream or norm. Those likely to be othered are often done so on the basis of race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, class, caste, culture, disability, religion and age.
Othering as a concept, alludes to the constructed nature of identity and how these constructs are created to maintain power dynamics as well as an illusion of stability through naturalising difference. So, thinking about othering takes us into the realm of power and how power and identity are interconnected and constructed.
Othering is also bound to issues of inclusion and belonging. Those othered are positioned to ‘hold’ experiences of exclusion and outsider-ness by those who are positioned on the inside and the ‘norm’.
Othering operates in all societies. It has its roots in colonialism, racism, patriarchy, misogyny and homophobia. Othering can have extremely destructive and damaging consequences and at it’s most extreme can be seen in the genocide of one group by another.
On a more interpersonal level othering is hard to see as it is often an unconscious process, invisible, often to those doing the othering although generally less so to those who are othered.
Who has experienced Othering?
Most people I work with as a therapist have at some point or another in their lives experienced themselves as othered. While strictly speaking othering is a social-phenomena based on social identities as described above, many can have experiences particularly in childhood that place them into a position and experience of being othered.
As children and adolescents, many people have found themselves in what feels an outsider and inferior position. This can be for all kinds of reasons beyond larger social dynamics. Bullying is an obvious experience which some people have as children whereby they may find themselves inexplicably seen as different in an othered way. Some children can feel and be othered in their families.
Those who come from socially othered groups may well find these childhood traumas around othering compounded by and enmeshed with their social identity.
Why do I think othering is an important concept in my role as a therapist?
In my mind, therapy fundamentally works from a basic assumption that we have more in common than we have differences. All talking therapies at their heart strive for human understanding and empathy of the ‘other’. Therapy is about searching for connection and inclusion.
Othering is an illusion that exaggerates our differences, creates power dynamics and tells us these are natural. While othering naturalises power constructs between people it also disguises these very constructs. In therapy we strive, I believe, to expose illusions. In my work as a therapist, I try and help people authentically engage with their inner and external worlds.
Othering is also an experience that is likely to become internalised especially when it is bound up with childhood trauma. The othered part of the individual can be split off, denigrated and despised. This, usually unconscious, internal othering process may only start to emerge in therapy. I have seen these kinds of internalised power dynamics in many of my psychotherapy patients. In my experience, they become particularly complicated in those who have internalised a broader social message that who they are or what social group they belong to is outside and inferior to what is deemed the majority and the norm.
Further reading by Claire Barnes