I was recently spring cleaning my desk, sifting through papers that were collecting dust, in the spirit of decluttering to welcome Spring and hopefully, the creative surge that often accompanies it. Whilst mowing my fingers through paper work, deciding what needed to stay and what needed to go, I stumbled on a small square piece of paper, scribbled in archaic cursive: ‘Be strong’. This was penned down by one of the oldest people in the organisation I work for, after a colleague of ours and dear friend of mine resigned to pursue an opportunity that would allow him to grow beyond the niche nature of his then position.
I mention his age demographic for a reason, not to be ageist, but to drive the message home that bigotry, malice and insecurities transcend age and our judgment shouldn’t be blinded by those who posture themselves as paragons of wisdom in the workplace and that respectability is not defined by age, but by positive modelling. Let’s give him a name, shall we? Let’s call him Dirk.
In true office (and in this case, harmless) gossip fashion, the news of this resignation made for juicy corridor talk, but Dirk found this an opportune moment to centre himself in this narrative and make it something much deeper than what met the eye to us regular folk. He went on to lobby for my ‘alliance’, under the guise of caring and proceeded to laud our colleague for deciding to leave the business because: ‘After what they did to him, what did they expect?’ Dirk had completely internalised a moment that had nothing to do with him, but wait, it gets better – he went on to persuade me that the departure of my colleague and friend was dangerous for me. That I had to now brace myself for the torture of victimisation that beckoned because clearly my job security was inextricably linked to my proximity to said colleague. In hindsight, this sounds so incoherent but why would you ruin Dirk’s insatiable appetite to incite fear and paranoia with coherence?
A few minutes after this interesting exchange, I returned to my desk to find the strange two-worded love letter. This is when the penny dropped, transporting me back to 2017 when I was ready to start my Safe Space journey by curating an impactful radio campaign to observe Mental Health Awareness Month. I scripted and recorded a heartfelt reflection on how lonely, dark, terrifying, suffocating and disorientating mental sickness feels. It was peppered with all the trimmings of bed music and theatrical sound effects. So triggering. So jarring. So sobering.
Dirk reared his ugly fear-inducing head for the first time and with deep concern, expressed how he worried that this vulnerable offering would be weaponised by the employer and alienate me from any chance of success and acceptance in the business. Needless to say, I aborted this brave plan to give mental illness a face, a relatable language.
Recently, he bumped into the very same former colleague and instead of exchanging decent pleasantries and continuing with his day, he couldn’t resist lamenting to our former colleague how things have never been the same since he left. This is the same Dirk who goes out of his way to single himself out as the only sensible person left in the business, who would protect its interests at all costs. The rest of us are clearly delinquents, wondering around aimlessly.
How do you reconcile this to the very same Dirk who salivates at moments of crisis, ready to emerge as the saviour that picked up the flaw, called out the negligence, put out the fire? These are the moments he lives for. Dirk also struggles with the ‘in my time’ syndrome, constantly sharing stories of his former glory days, so nobody dares to take him for granted in his latter posture and, I guess, to ‘restore’ the power dynamic. Dirk has an eye for talent, don’t get me wrong – but he has an equal contempt to see it bloom, in the absence of his ‘grooming’. He lures those bursting with potential into his circle and creates the impression that every word of advice, caution and affirmation comes from a place of deep care and endorsement of their ambitions. All the while, he seeks to control the measure of your growth and to plant deep fears, insecurities and trust deficits between you, your colleagues and the employer. He will distract you, alienate you from the broader ecosystem and cripple you with fear and self-doubt.
Dirk is repelled by harmony. He’s often seen walking in the peripheries, wearing a conceited ‘us versus them’ frame when people get along, when ideas come together and tasks are executed with precision. Oh, I forgot to add – this is only in the context of projects he has no hand in. Dirk has a contempt for new ideas because he knows it all and it can only be good and worth consuming if he conceptualised the idea and lead its execution.
Dirk is a brilliant performer. He also gets a thrill out of ridiculing and exposing people’s erroneous ways for all to see. His e-mails (to ALL) reek of passive aggression and a cringe-inducing sadism where public humiliation is concerned. He is the master of ‘othering’, constantly pinning people against one another and keeps those who are drunk on his disingenuous displays of camaraderie bent to his will.
This, in psychology speak, is called ‘psychological projection’ which is defined as ‘a defence mechanism in which the human ego defends itself’. Psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud eloquently outlines the deep causes and behavioural effects of psychological projection as follows: ‘It is often the case that a narcissist will blame another when their boundaries or rules are challenged. When this happens, a narcissist will suddenly experience a loss of control that threatens the very façade and world they have created. Their delicate ego has to be protected at all costs and so the blame for the failure has to be directed elsewhere’. (Freud, 1894)
Once you find him out, his wrath is palpable. He violently deprives you of his hello’s and speaks past you, in his pitiful attempt to shrink, silence and erase you.
What Dirk doesn’t know is that I am no little girl who’s never known love, acceptance and affirmation – seeking it in all the wrong places and people. He also doesn’t know that although I’m a big proponent of mutual respect and kindness, I will not cower to abusive and toxic colleagues at the expense of my own self-respect and self-kindness.
His unkind ways will be met with the condemnation they deserve. Being the bigger person in this context is negligent and self-negating. The Dirk kind is the personification of psychological warfare and should never be indulged by taking responsibility for his deep-seated issues of powerlessness.
They are not people to be afforded negotiable affections – they need to be as uncomfortable as they seek to cause discomfort. Ours is not to walk on eggshells to feed narcissistic and dangerous behaviours in the name of being nice. Ours is to starve their toxicity with the exuberance of our youth, team spirit, creative genius and positive outlook – towards our careers, colleagues and the success of the organisations that give us an opportunity to support our families and build our dreams each day.
There’s a Dirk in every office… Stay woke, mate and nip that toxicity in the bud, lest you waste some of your best professional years trying to appease a Dirk who seemingly has given up on himself.
Sibongile Gangxa is a Rhodes University Law & Politics Graduate and a Development & Policy scholar at the Wits School of Governance. Sibongile 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 the 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.