A few weeks ago, I attended a childhood friend’s 30th birthday celebration. Joburg was showing off her beauty and had brought the sun out to play. Barefooted on the grass, legs crossed, breaking bread with common and new friends, I found myself in a conversation with a group of ladies about the realities of being a Black womxn in the workplace. One lamented and begged us to make her understand how she, a well-educated and qualified engineer had become someone who had lost her voice – a voice to share views, to confidently suggest ideas and to articulate her brilliance.
The ladies empathised with deep condemnation – condemnation of what the ‘establishment’ has done to Black professionals’ psychological wiring, reducing Black bodies to a state of perpetually questioning their abilities and worth in the professional spaces they occupy.
I refuse to believe that this sense of inadequacy which is mostly found amongst Black professionals and if we are to be more granular, Black professional womxn, is not inextricably linked to structural inequalities that continue to characterise South Africa’s labour force. If we deeply interrogate the imposter syndrome, we will begin to realise that most, if not all of it, can be attributed to the messaging that is fed to us about the questionable adequacy of our efforts, the quality of our inputs and the measured manner in which we should posture ourselves in these spaces.
The 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). I am struggling to understand this in isolation to the makings of the default state of the world of work. 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. These are all makings of structural and implicit gas lighting. The latter is far more difficult to identify, let alone, to call out.
Gas lighting is a popular term in psychological abuse discourse which is 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 gas lighting, and it is a common technique of abusers, dictators, narcissists, and cult leaders. It is done slowly, so the victim doesn’t realize how much they’ve been brainwashed’. (Sarkis, 2017).
Let’s connect the dots. Have you ever been told that you are not ready for a particular leadership position because you lack experience, you still need to learn about the industry and the business, yet your ideas get appropriated by your superiors in meetings and find expression in their ‘strategy’, where your words are regurgitated shamelessly as if they were their own? Ever felt stagnant and you kept beating yourself up, feeling like an underachiever – that you are not making progress, not earning as much as you should yet 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 male counterparts and white counterparts rest on your laurels, claim easy victories off the back of your efforts and enjoy ‘take home’ salaries that are incomprehensively disproportionate to their laziness, entitlement and lack of imagination.
How then do we continue to guilt and shame ourselves about our worth and invaluable contributions to our respective bodies of work when we navigate spaces that are committed to telling us a different narrative about ourselves? How do we assume this defeatist disposition where we have owned this imposter syndrome phenomenon and not critique the contempt with which the workplace sometimes treats us? I think, that if we are going to unlearn certain toxicities about the value we attach to our work and to our brilliance, we are going to have to elevate our emotional intelligence. We are going to have to eloquently 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 the lies the people who control the system tell us about ourselves in order to get away with its punitive and jarring inequalities.
The next time you get the urge to shrink yourself and regulate your expectations, ask yourself: Am I genuinely falling short or has a war been waged on my brilliance? Some of these battles are not going to be won in tangible ways, or overnight, but as we pursue these imagined makings of work culture, we need to win small daily battles in our minds against the emotional and psychological violence the establishment continuously inflicts upon them.
Be kind to yourself – more often than not, you are not being an imposter, you are being gas lighted.
Sibongile is a Rhodes University Law & Politics Graduate and a Development & Policy scholar at the Wits School of Governance. She is a storyteller with a penchant for research that seeks to establish the causal link between contemporary socio-economic inequalities and mental illnesses. She is alsothe founder of Safe Space – a content driven tool that seeks to reimagine healing, through its articulation and how it finds expression in our daily lived experiences.