204. The Pitfalls of Saviorism

I’ve watched two episodes of Oprah Winfrey and Prince Harry’s Apple TV production of “The Me You Can’t See,” which is a series of interviews on mental health. I am very triggered by a couple of Ms Winfrey’s anecdotes. Maybe it’ll get better, but right now, I see how problematic throwing money at social issues can be, if not accompanied by a commitment to consulting experienced people in those spheres alongside your philanthropy.

The critique of Oprah also came up in the podcast “Maintenance Phase,” when they discussed Dr Oz. When Oprah gives a platform to someone, and they turn out to be shady, people don’t go back and read the debunking of the person she previously celebrated. They did another episode on John of God, and how Oprah added to his fame. He turned out to be a charlatan and a sexual predator.

In “The Me You Can’t See,” at least what I have watched so far, the parts about Oprah’s involvement that are bugging me are basically where she tries to play god in people’s journey. It’s one thing to give people cars and groceries, but she talked about two specific instances:

One: A young woman who came on her show and received a car, but Oprah also paid for her to attend college. There was a lot of trauma in this young woman’s past, and college didn’t go well. Oprah paid for her to receive mental health treatment in a residential facility. At one point, the woman is filmed video chatting with Oprah, who is putting a lot of pressure on her to give firm answers as to where she will live and what job she will find after her discharge. The ruthlessness of the questioning pushes the young woman to tears. Presumably Oprah is sending the message that the money isn’t limitless.

There are invariably strings attached to financial help. The biggest ones are judgment, presumption, and bootstrap thinking.

Two: Oprah opened a school in South Africa for girls who show promise but lack opportunities. She paid for a cohort of them to attend college in the US, and was shocked to find that several of them made suicide attempts after coming here.

I won’t get into why people might attempt suicide, but I do want to say that saviorism contains a myriad ways to cause damage, and not everyone thrives after being removed from their homelands.

Also, mental health support can indeed be familial, communal, and professional. But amateur therapist maneuvers can cause a lot of pain. Please don’t try to play therapist if that’s not your field. It can be dangerous. People are not chess pieces. Any shift can upset an already fragile balance.

The reason I mention these incidents is to say that we often add to people’s trauma even when we mean well. And we have to think about how and why that happens, if we claim to care about being a force for good. Some common pitfalls might be:

Telling your own story in an effort to make them feel less alone. I know there are many Facebook posts that try to make a virtue out of this endeavor, but if someone is truly suffering, it is a form of erasure.

Asking the person for signs of meaningful progress. What if all they did was make it through another day? If that’s not good enough for you, why should they take on your contempt or disappointment?

Over analyzing their circumstances, creating some kind of “research database” of articles that pertain to their journey. Why are you even doing this?

Over dramatizing their circumstances, catastrophizing what might happen if they don’t pursue a path towards healing that looks like what you envision for them, over identifying with their situation. This is very unhealthy, and your co-dependent behavior is an added burden for them that they now have to add to their to do list if they want to maintain ties with you.

Punishing them with radio silence or conditional interaction. They do, perhaps, owe you several apologies for prior toxic arguments. But you’re either in or out. Don’t be weird.

Telling their story to garner sympathy for yourself. You already know you shouldn’t do this.

Bringing up their behavior in front of others, exposing them to mockery or uncomfortable reactions because you have unresolved anger towards them.

Okay. Now because I’m me, I want you to reread all the above pitfalls, and imagine I said it was about how you speak to parents of autistic people, or to autistic people themselves.

Done? Okay, cool. So here are some particular things that have eaten away at my mental health because people are so worried that they could have fixed my kid, and they need to feel they overcame their dread of offending me, so they barged on into my headspace:

They have tried to evangelize at me.

They have asked me what concrete progress A has made.

They have talked at him about our perceived parenting failures.

They have given us educational/therapeutic materials we are supposed to retrain his brain with.

They have recommended non evidence based diets, chiropractors, vitamin regimens, and so much more.

In essence, they have made dealing with them into a job for us. And they have made it so that if we decline, we have no support at all.

If, instead, they asked me what we wanted, and acted on those asks, imagine how much joy we would experience.

Hashtag Not Everyone.

If you truly mean to add value to someone’s life, and not become a source of grief and anger for them, you do have to contend with how you show up. Sometimes that might mean confronting your own trauma. And that’s okay too.


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