To put someone on a pedestal means to “to believe or behave as if someone or something is perfect, wonderful, or better than others, to the extent that one is unable to see the potential flaws or faults of that person or thing” (Free Dictionary).
Simply put, to put someone on a pedestal is to put them above you. To willingly alter the balance of power in their favor. There are many social implications to this dynamic but from a self defense perspective, what I'm most concerned about is that it leads you to give that person special privileges, ignore warning signs, and ultimately try to win their approval. Putting someone on a pedestal could also be called “hero worship”.
"Hero worship: noun: foolish or excessive adulation for an individual."
At the crux of hero worship is the conflation between accomplishment or status with character. I could be wrong, but it appears to me that if accomplishment had anything to do with character there would be no such thing as a political scandal. But it’s not politicians or celebrities, or this group or that group who abuse power— it’s humans. As Victor Frankl said in Man's Search for Meaning, “the line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every man”.
Humans abuse power. The topic of hero worship is central, yet rarely brought up, to the discussion of self defense because of the fact that the huge majority of violence comes from someone the victim already knows.
According to 10 year crime data from the FBI:
75% of kidnapping offenders are non-strangers,11% are strangers (14% unknown)
77% of rape offenders are non-strangers, 8% are strangers (15% unknown)
79% of assault offenders are non-strangers, 10% are strangers (11% unknown)
The more you learn about predation the more you understand that predators make decisions about who they prey on. It's not often random. They look for easy targets and easy opportunities. Child molesters for example most often abuse children they already have access to in their daily lives, taking advantage of any power imbalance, any weakness, any opening they can. This is where the danger of hero worship comes to its pinnacle: it’s easier to manipulate someone who sees you as superior.
[Watch: Child molester explains how he selected his victims]
I believe that one of the best solutions for protecting kids, and yourself, from the people most likely to target and manipulate you (those that you already know) is to teach your kids not to put anyone, regardless of status or accomplishment on a pedestal.
How to protect your kids from hero worship
In a world where everyone wants to be an influencer or at least— a follower, how do you protect your kids from hero worship and pedestal-placing? Simply talk to them about it. Teach them to:
1. Respect everyone but put no one above them.
You can respect someone’s accomplishments and value their role in your life without believing or acting like they are above you. Remind your kids that accomplishment doesn’t mean that someone is a good person. Medals, trophies, money, and instagram followers have nothing to do with character. What matters is how a person treats you and that they are both respectful and professional towards you.
2. Recognize Grooming: know the difference between appropriate and inappropriate adult contact
Teach your children what inappropriate behavior looks like, especially when it comes from an adult they know. Here are some red flag behaviours they should know about:
An adult who comments on and likes your social media photos. Normal adults do not try to flatter kids through social media. Adults are not usually interested in following minors on social media or commenting on their photos.
An adult who tells a child to keep secrets.
An adult who seeks alone time with a minor.
An adult who starts a chat with a minor in private messages. Safe adults have almost no appropriate reason to message minors privately.
Sexual topics brought up by an adult to a minor.
Asking minors for favors, or offering too many favors. This may seem harmless, but being overly nice and paying too much attention to a person is a warning sign. Putting the victim in the predators debt is a very common strategy among predators and human traffickers. Gavin De Becker calls this loan sharking.
Imagine a scenario if you will, one that is far too relatable to far too many people:
Your 13 year old daughter joins a new sports team. The coaches are the best in the world, decorated in trophies, and loved and respected by everyone including you. They're charismatic and charming and they have millions of social media followers. It's a once in a life time opportunity to be a part of an important team, and your daughter couldn't be more excited to be there. What happens if the famous 30 year old instructor texts your daughter at 11pm asking "hey what's up :)?"
[Read: A Brazilian jiu jitsu coach from a famous gym was arrested for the sexual abuse of his 16 year old female student. "This year alone, scandals involving sexual abuse have emerged in basketball, water polo, synchronized swimming, fencing, soccer and even dragon boat racing. The jiu-jitsu allegations follow a pattern in which top officials and coaches, operating with little oversight, are accused of seeking to protect the interests of the sport instead of victims." -NY Times]
Kids need to recognize inappropriate behaviour when they see it— no matter who it comes from. Hero worship blinds both kids and adults to seeing inappropriate behaviour for what it is.
Another issue is that many minors do not see flattery or contact like this as inappropriate because they do not see themselves as children. When I was 14 and joined my first kickboxing class, I saw myself as a grown up, not a child, and that's how most teenagers feel. So to teens, an adult messaging them or showing interest in them may not seem predatory at all. Of course the adult knows that it's inappropriate and that's why so much abuse is initiated through private messaging, gradually leading to in person abuse.
Because of the strongly established trust between the minor and the predator in these situations the behaviour goes unreported for way too long. This may happen because the victim doesn't see the behaviour as inappropriate, they feel guilty about 'snitching' or ruining the adults life, or they're afraid to tell their parents because the predator is a family member or friend (or hero-worshiped by the parents themselves). These social dynamics all aid the predator in the grooming process.
"Groomers place themselves in roles that allowed them access to children, such as club leaders, carers and teachers. Offenders take a lot of time to develop relationships, gain and maintain control and trust, and then slowly introduce sexual content and physical contact. Many grooming victims report feelings of shame or guilt about complying, which stopped them from disclosing." -Joel Abrams, The Conversation.
Discuss what constitutes inappropriate conduct between adults and minors and make sure they know that it applies equally to everyone. Teach them to stand up for themselves against anyone that makes them feel uncomfortable. And very importantly, make sure they know no matter who is involved, they can tell you and you won't be mad.
3. Lead by example
If your kids see you putting someone on a pedestal, chances are they will too. Unfortunately hero worship is something adults do even better than children, whether it’s hero worship of a particular influencer, politician, instructor, religious leader, etc. No matter who you look up to, that person should be treated with just as much respect, caution, and critical thought as you would treat anyone else. Your kids will notice this behavior and be more likely to do the same.
How does an adult stop hero worshiping?
I've trained in various martial arts gyms for 16 years, starting kickboxing when I was 14 years old. I can tell you that there is no shortage of hero worship in martial arts, and that I have never attended one school where hero worship did not take place. What I learned this year is that even when the instructor does not act in a way that encourages hero worship or cult behaviour— they don’t lean into the influencer role, they don’t lecture you on morality, and they don’t impose on their students or expect a round of applause every time they make an appearance— when they truly don’t take the role of a “cult leader”, students form a cult anyways.
Hero worship isn’t simply the result of the actions of others. There seems to be something inherent about human nature that inclines us to willingly construct the pedestals, hoist people upon them, and work to gain their approval.
By no means is this a phenomenon of martial arts. It’s everywhere there is a dominance hierarchy, which is anywhere that groups are formed. I think it’s closely tied to our own internal measures of status, that we are all acutely aware of our status in comparison to others and have the desire to ascend the status hierarchy. I'm no psychologist, but I’ve observed society long enough to notice the human desire to form cults and hero worship.
If you can’t tell who the 'hero' is, ask yourself who everyone in the group is seeking approval from. It doesn’t always mean the 'hero' is driving it, but it will open your eyes and allow you to see how easy it would be for the worshipers to be manipulated in some way— especially the young teenagers.
1. Change Your Internal Narrative
My advice for adults is to recognize when you say something that puts another person above you and reframe the sentence. Change the story you tell yourself. Instead of saying " I'm honoured to merely be in the presence of "X" today", say "It was great to spend the afternoon with "X".
2. Start Saying No
If you find that someone in a power position in your life is taking advantage of you, even if it's as small as asking you for favours that you don't really want to do, that's a great opportunity to practice boundary setting and saying no. The more you practice boundary setting the easier it becomes, and the more others will respect your time and presence in return.
3. Remember Everyone is Human
Everyone is flawed, everyone struggles, and no one is quite the image of perfection they portray to be online or even in person. Don't allow yourself to be too impressed, too awe-struck, too sold, that you throw yourself onto the hype train, loose your individuality and critical thinking, and make another human into a God. No matter how impressive they are, they still get spinach stuck in their teeth like the rest of us.
"The moment you put someone on a pedestal they will look down upon you. The trick is respecting each other equally" -Teresa Mummert
It's also worth mentioning that it's not really fair to put someone else on a pedestal either. The pedestal isn't real, and no one ever lives up to it, indeed, they're not meant to.
"A pedestal is as much a prison as any confined space" -Gloria Steinem
Anti Hero Worship: A Shield Against Manipulation
Most on the pedestal aren't particularly ill-willed and many don't want to be there anyways. The problem is when the person you or your kids hold in the highest regard happens to be an abuser. Adopting an anti-hero worship mindset is a powerful yet underrated tool of self protection, a shield that can stop you from people-pleasing, ignoring red flags, seeking approval, and getting taken advantage of in the process.
Further reading: "Don't be surprised when your heroes disappoint you". Anna Geary
Written by Gemma Sheehan, founder of
Girls Who Fight.
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