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Is it “Imposter Syndrome” or Gaslighting?

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Over the past several years, the term “Imposter Syndrome” has inundated social networking platforms like LinkedIn. Imposter Phenomenon was first introduced in 1978 in an article entitled, “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention” by Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes. The idea behind imposter syndrome or imposter phenomenon is that despite overwhelming evidence that you are competent, you doubt your skills and abilities and have a constant fear of being exposed as a fraud. You attribute your success to luck or the ability to deceive people into believing that you are smarter than you actually are. Wikipedia provides a detailed description here. Imposter syndrome is usually used to refer to women in the workplace but also occurs in men and in interactions outside of work.

I wasn’t aware of the term in my early twenties but clearly recall the first time I doubted myself. I was working in a Payroll department with no manager so decided to apply myself and take on manager duties. The CFO of the company was happy with my performance, so much so that they decided not to hire a manager for over a year. As the company grew, the need to expand the department became obvious, so the role of Payroll Manager was opened. I had performed all of the duties and done them well, but to my surprise, an external candidate was selected and I was completely overlooked. To add insult to injury, I was enlisted to train the new manager to take on the duties I was already performing. When I got up the nerve to confront the CFO, I was told that although I could perform the job, they were still (after two years) trying to determine whether or not I was a cultural fit for leadership at the organization. As the only black woman working in a company full of white men and sprinkled with a few white women, I read between the lines and understood that I was too black to be promoted.

Despite understanding what had gone unsaid in that situation, I began to overthink every single action I took during my tenure. Maybe I should have gone to lunch with co-workers more. Could I have smiled more? Is it possible I could have handled even more work? Was I “angry” or “aggressive”? Perhaps I was not as smart or talented as I thought I was. Despite being fully aware that my skills and abilities in payroll were exemplary and receiving confirmation from numerous outside sources, that self-doubt stuck with me for several years. I would refrain from applying to positions I was qualified for and stay in roles I was overqualified for, constantly working above my title and pay grade. I was afraid of rejection; scared of finding out that I was stupid and didn’t know it. Even after realizing my worth, I continued to battle with “superiors” who wanted to keep me in my place throughout my career.

I believe the term “gaslighting” originated from George Orwell in his book entitled 1984. If you haven’t read it… Whew! You really need to. But a great explanation of gaslighting can be found in this NBC news article by Sarah DiGiulio. The article defines gaslighting as someone manipulating another person into questioning their own perceptions, recollections, and reality. The manipulator is essentially telling the victim, “Don’t believe your lying eyes.” It’s a form of emotional abuse and usually occurs in relationships, whether professional or personal, where there is a power dynamic. Sometimes imposter syndrome starts internally. Other times it is imposed on you by outside sources. External gaslighting from those in positions of power can cause you to believe that your success was a fluke or that you are pretending to be something that you are not.

Imposter syndrome is not an equal opportunity condition. As a matter of fact, according to this Equality Matters write-up by Sheryl Nance-Nash on BBC, women of color (specifically Black and Latinx) are impacted by this far more frequently than their white counterparts. With less than five percent of corporate board seats held by women of color and virtually no black women heading up Fortune 500 companies, it’s no surprise that there is an overwhelming sense that we don’t belong when considering roles in leadership or submitting our candidacy. Even more often, we are allowed to do the work but denied the recognition and compensation associated with it.

It is vitally important to differentiate between authentic imposter syndrome and being gaslighted into believing you are an imposter. A feeling of self-doubt prompted by being the only one, the first person that looks like you to be in the position, coming from a non-traditional background, or being unable to relate to the people around you is normal and can be overcome with self-work and personal counseling. But the latter, being told that you are unqualified, not ready, or not a “cultural fit” despite exhibiting competence and living up to expectations is downright abusive. Determining which is afflicting you is important and whatever the cause, taking action is necessary. If your self-doubt is self-imposed, seek help. If you believe that you are being used and abused, speak up and remove yourself from the situation. Your feelings are valid nothing is more important than your mental health. Know your worth and protect your peace.

If you or someone you know is suffering from a mental health crisis, the CDC offers connections to various resources here.

If you believe you are being/have been discriminated against in the workplace or subjected to disparate treatment, contact the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission).

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