Ways to avoid “othering”

After my last post on “othering” I thought I should write something about what we know reduces the distancing that othering produces. To refresh your memory, othering is what happens when we identify positive characteristics about ourselves and simultaneously identify the absence of these positives in another person. Othering is a common part of any interaction but it seems to become less helpful as views become more polarised.

Lehti, Fjellman-Wiklund, Stalnacke and colleagues (2016) describe “walking down ‘Via Dolorosa'” as the “way of pain and suffering… from primary healthcare to [a] specialty rehabilitation clinic.” This depiction also captured the way gender and sociocultural context influenced that journey: chronic pain is a ‘low status’ illness (especially compared with high status diseases like cancer, heart disease, orthopaedic problems), while those patients with higher education and similarities to treating clinicians were viewed as “easier to interact with”. This study provides an insight into the norms expected as part of “being a proper patient – ready for change”.

Norms are a part of culture, assumptions about what “is done” in a particular context. Just as health professionals learn to “be professionals”, people seeking help for their health are also expected to behave in certain ways. Othering is, as I’ve indicated above, a normal or common part of interactions – some authors suggest we need an “other” in order to for our self to “know itself and define its boundaries” (Krumer-Nevo, 2012). At the same time, once the “other” is identified in less positive terms than “self”, it’s far easier to distance oneself from the other person.

One step towards reducing the distancing between “us” as health professionals and “them” seeking help is to create moments of “belongingness”. What this means is using overt means to help people feel welcome. In New Zealand, this may mean ensuring signs are written in both Maori and English. For people with pain, it may mean explicitly indicating to people with pain that it’s OK to stand up and move around during an initial assessment.

Another way is to raise the idea of the person living with pain as an expert. “Expert?” I hear you say…Yes, expert in “what it is like to be this person living with this pain in this context”. For us to demonstrate our understanding that the person living with pain is the expert on his or her experience, we need to provide safe and welcoming opportunities for the person to tell us what it is like. Narrative medicine, if you like.

Tonini and Chesi (2018) used Charon and Remen’s definition of narrative medicine “a way of dealing with the disease through narration, aimed at understanding the complexity of the patient that will no longer be seen as a set of objective data but as a unique individual with needs” in a study of the stories given by people living with migraine. The stories were of people with a chaotic narrative where migraine was a mystery, full of disorientation and few solutions, moving through to restitution where knowledge and efffective treatment allowed the person to progress. Other narratives were “stable” leading to improvement in understanding and management, and regression, where people gave up and remained disoriented.

How might this help us reduce our sense of “othering”? In one way, learning to hear what people have to say should be fairly simple for health professionals. We’re trained to listen carefully. But what we’re often focusing on is some sort of diagnosis: “what is going on here, what’s going wrong, what’s the pathology?” Hearing another’s narrative is a different process: this involves empathising with, understanding the journey from feeling unwell to seeking help, beginning to acknowledge the similarities between this person and ourselves. How might we respond to illness if we were faced with the same circumstances? the same prior history? the same choices?

Lajos Brons, philosopher (Brons, 2015), argues that charity, or the “reasonableness argument” could help us to deal with othering. Reasonableness is an assumption that the other person has rational, coherent, and true reasons for doing and saying what they do – even if, at first, we may not discern the underlying reasons. By invoking a charitable interpretation on another’s actions, we are in turn asked to question our own preconceptions, our assumptions about the reasons the person did what they did.

Imagine that kind of humanity being brought into our judgements of people who are apparently “lacking motivation”, or “seeking secondary gain”, or “noncompliant”?

Brons, Lajos. (2015). Othering: An analysis. Transcience, 6(1), p. 69 – 90

Krumer-Nevo, M. (2012). Researching against othering. Qualitative inquiry and the politics of advocacy, 7.

Lehti, A., Fjellman-Wiklund, A., Stalnacke, B.-M., Hammarstrom, A., & Wiklund, M. (2017). Walking down ‘Via Dolorosa’ from primary health care to the specialty pain clinic-Patient and professional perceptions of inequity in rehabilitation of chronic pain. Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences, 31(1), 45-53.

Tonini, M. C., & Chesi, P. (2018). Narrative medicine, an innovative approach to migraine management. Neurological Sciences, 39(Suppl 1), S137-S138.



When we look at someone else, we first start by identifying the differences between that person and ourselves. It’s only later that we spend some time identifying the similarities between ourselves and that “other”.

There’s a problem in pain management today. It’s this: too few of “us” are “them” – by which I mean, there are too few people who identify as living with persistent pain working with people who are seeking help for their pain.

“Why is this a problem?” you ask… Well, it’s because it’s far too easy for “us” healthcare providers to forget that persistent pain affects people just like us. Yes, I know the stats: lots of people with persistent pain are multiply disadvantaged by socio-economic status, gender, ethnicity, age, multiple morbidities. But – and this is important – persistent pain doesn’t discriminate, but disability and distress might.

Othering was first brought to attention by Simone de Bouvier. de Bouvier was interested in the way women’s voices were hidden and often compared with men’s voices. “Why”, said men. “Are women not like us?” The answer was evident: women are not men. And in establishing that women are “other”, or “not men”, those dominant voices were able to not only elevate their own voices to prominence, but also minimise and trivialise the words of women.

There are, according to Lajos Brons, two main forms of “othering” – crude, where the assumed differences are stated; and sophisticated, where the assumed differences are stated – and seem reasonable. Let me give an example. It seems reasonable that people seeking help for their pain are needing something they don’t have. And the people they seek help from (healthcare professionals) have that something. Sensible, yes?

“What’s the problem?” you ask. Well, it’s because alongside noticing the difference between the person seeking help and “us” who might have some answers, we also begin to distance ourselves from “them”. And in doing so, we begin to dehumanise or consider that person to be different and somewhat less than us.

I don’t want to accuse readers of stigmatising people who live with pain, so let’s take a moment to unpack what I’m trying to say.

When we talk about someone who is experiencing pain and having trouble with it, we begin by trying to work out what’s going on. In the very best circumstances, we create a “third space” where we can meet one another on an equal footing – both focusing on “what’s going on here”, and neither one assuming a superior position, because while “we” the healthcare professional, might have lots of knowledge about the various factors that could be contributing to this person’s situation, “we” actually know absolutely nothing of this person’s reality, their experience. Meanwhile, the person seeking our help is the expert on what life is like with their pain, their worries, their strengths, their supports, their vulnerabilities. So we meet in the middle, and collaborate, to try to work out how we can develop something new.

Sadly, that space can be muddied by a whole lot of things. We might bring our assumptions about the “other” – that they’re afraid, they need information, they want whatever solution we provide. The person might bring their fear of being misunderstood, their memories of the last time someone “tried” to help, perhaps their idea of what we want to know. We may end up talking past one another.

Let’s see what we can assume about the person in front of us. We might think they just need to know their pain is “an output of the brain” and that “hurt doesn’t equal harm”. We might spend some time educating that person about neurobiology. We might think they need exercise. They need to lose weight. They need do more mindfulness. They need to go back to work. And so our plans for “them” are set in motion. None of these things are bad or wrong – except when we think of the person needing these things before we’ve taken the time to hear what they really want.

What does the person want? Probably like many people, they’d like someone to listen to their perspective. Then they’d like to have some daily practical problems solved: perhaps knowing that they’re not harming themselves. Then maybe some sleep management. And perhaps some time out from people telling them what to do. And maybe some explanations – but only once we’ve taken the time to listen.

“Othering” is one way health professionals maintain a professional distance. By knowing that “we” already do these things, we can feel good about what we offer “them”. But I’d like to ask: how many of us have daily, weekly, monthly goals? How many of us have set them with the SMART acronym? And how many of us have our days timetabled to make sure we do all the things expected of us? What if we have an off day? Is it OK or do we have to explain ourselves? And how many of us also live with persistent pain? I think more of us live with pain than we’re honest about…

I’ve heard “us” talk about “them” and it’s not pretty. “They” need to be more goal-focused, more persistent, more relaxed, more revved up. “They” are ‘non-copers’ anyway. “They” have always needed help for everyday life. “They” have disorganised, chaotic lives.

I wonder what would happen if “we” spent some time checking in on our assumptions about “them”? Would we find ourselves mirrored in the people we try to help? I think we would – and it might help us to remember that we’re guides, coaches, and cheering squads, but we’re no better, no worse, and just as human as “them”. Oh, and some of “us” might even be one of “them” living with pain every day….

Brons, Lajos. (2015). Othering: An analysis. Transcience, 6(1), p. 69 – 90.

de Beauvoir, S. (1949): Le deuxi`eme sexe, Paris: Gallimard, 1976.