Here’s where the “gaslighting” conversation started: A few weeks ago, I attended a childhood friend’s 30th birthday celebration. Joburg had brought the sun out to play. Barefoot on the grass, legs crossed, breaking bread with common and new friends, I found myself in a conversation with a group of women about the realities of being a black woman in the workplace.
How had such a well-educated woman lost her voice?
One woman lamented how she, a well-educated and qualified engineer, had lost her voice – a voice to share views and confidently suggest ideas. The women empathised, expressing condemnation of what the ‘establishment’ has done to black professionals’ psychological wiring, reducing them to a state of perpetually questioning their abilities and worth in the professional spaces they occupied.
I refuse to believe that this sense of inadequacy, found mostly amongst black professionals and, if we’re more granular, female black professionals, is not inextricably linked to structural inequalities that continue to characterise SA’s labour force. If we interrogate Imposter Syndrome, we begin to realise that most of it can be attributed to the messaging that’s fed to us about the questionable adequacy of our efforts and quality of our input in these workspaces.
So, what exactly is Imposter Syndrome?
Imposter Syndrome is defined as “a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. ‘Imposters’ suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence.” (Corkingdale, 2008.)
It’s difficult to understand this in isolation from the default state of the work world – a system that thrives on creating benchmarks, reinforcing hierarchy, creating the illusion that effort is rewarded with recognition in the form of promotions, ascension to power and monetary
remuneration. A system that does this based on colour and gender, where intersectional identities inform the measure of how much influence and success one enjoys in their professional trajectory…
Actually, these could all be examples of gaslighting…
Gaslighting is far more difficult to identify, let alone, to call out. A popular term in psychological abuse discourse, it’s defined as: “A tactic in which a person or entity, in order to gain more power, makes a victim question their reality. It works much better than you may think. Anyone is susceptible to gaslighting, and it’s a common technique of abusers, dictators, narcissists and cult leaders. It’s done slowly, so the victim doesn’t realise how much they’ve been brainwashed.” (Sarkis, 2017.)
Has this ever happened to you?
Have you ever been told you’re not ready for a leadership position because you lack experience, you still need to learn about the business, yet your ideas get appropriated by your superiors in meetings and find expression in their ‘strategy’; where your words are regurgitated as if they were their own?
Ever felt like an underachiever – like you’re not making progress, not earning as much as you should? Do you keep convincing yourself that you should work harder, go beyond the call of duty, stretch yourself and apply yourself creatively in ways that set you apart? Yet your counterparts rest on their laurels, claim easy victories off the back of your efforts and enjoy salaries that are disproportionate to their jobs.
We need to “unlearn” certain toxic ideas
How do we navigate spaces that are committed to telling us a different narrative about ourselves? How do we assume this defeatist disposition – where we’ve owned this Imposter Syndrome phenomenon – and not critique the way the workplace treats us?
If we are going to unlearn these toxic ideas about our value, we’re going to have to separate issues – to clearly determine when we are legitimately underperforming, where we are lacking in skill, knowledge and impact, and address those developmental gaps in isolation to untrue workplace perceptions.
Think… before you shrink
The next time you get the urge to shrink yourself and regulate your expectations, ask yourself: Am I genuinely falling short? Be kind to yourself – because more often than not, you are not being an imposter, you are being gaslighted.