How Gen Z’s Social Anxiety triggers Imposter Syndrome
Plus 7 actionable tips to make social situations less daunting
Content and trigger warning: this article discusses anxiety and other mental health concerns.
For Gen Zs, Social Anxiety is on the rise and it can feel like an incredibly lonely journey.
Add in a bout of Imposter Syndrome and your career could be derailed before it even gets started.
Imposter Syndrome is heavily linked to mental illness /conditions such Anxiety disorders. But it’s only in recent years we have seen the rise of literature on Social Anxiety and it needs to be talked about.
If you’re reading this, you’re most likely 18-25 (or managing someone who is). You’re new in your role, an intern, or a graduate, and you’re still finding your way in the workplace.
After the challenging 3 years you’ve just had, with a lot of time isolating or not engaging as much with other people, these new work situations can feel extra daunting.
And if you’ve recently experienced a bout of Social Anxiety and/or Imposter Syndrome, you know that these feelings can send you into a panic or put you on the fast track to burnout.
To help you manage and reduce your Social Anxiety and Imposter Syndrome, I’m sharing actionable tips – that actually work.
I want you to be prepared before it happens again, so you can stop these feelings before they derail you.
What is Social Anxiety?
It’s normal to feel a bit anxious in a new situation or meeting new people. But Social Anxiety is the name for the feelings when those everyday interactions cause a person significant anxiety, self-consciousness, embarrassment or fear of being judged negatively by others. (Source: Mayo Clinic).
Social Anxiety can cause someone to fear and avoid interactions, to the extent that the anxiety interferes with their relationships, work, education or other activities.
Symptoms of Social Anxiety may include:
- Fear of situations in which they may be judged negatively
- Intense fear or anxiety during social situations or talking with strangers
- Fear of physical symptoms that may cause embarrassment, such as blushing, sweating, trembling or having a shaky voice
- Avoidance of doing things or speaking to people out of fear of embarrassment
- Avoidance of situations where they might be the center of attention
- Anxiety in anticipation of a feared activity or event
- Replaying social situations repeatedly in their mind after the event
- Expectation of the worst possible consequences from a negative experience during a social situation
(Sources: Mayo Clinic and Health Direct Australia)
Why does Gen Z suffer from Social Anxiety?
People known as Gen Z were born between 1997 and 2012, so the generation spans ages 10 to 25 in 2022.
And it’s been a difficult few years for Gen Zs, especially for young adults who are in, or about to enter, the workforce.
(It’s been a tough time for their Millennial colleagues too, as many Millennials are juggling work and parenting small kids and/or looking after ageing parents)
In fact, Gen Z is already being described as “the most anxious generation to date”, with anxieties being fuelled by the pandemic, unemployment, financial insecurity, climate change, technology, and fear of school shootings for Gen Zs living in the US.
In a recent Deloitte report, 46% of Gen Zs said they are stressed or anxious all or most of the time. (Millennials say they’re stressed 38% of the time, which is still a lot).
Gen Z women reported feeling more severely affected by stress and anxiety than Gen Z men (53% of women vs 39% of men). (Source: Deloitte, May 2022 report)
During the pandemic, people between 20–24 years old showed the biggest leaps in anxiety.
And it’s easy to see why.
Gen Zs have missed key social milestones in the last 3 years. They’ve experienced the disappointment of missed birthday parties, isolation from friends, or settled for a graduation celebration via Zoom instead of in person.
Not to mention the lack of ‘practice’ in social situations during the last few years.
For Gen Zs who spent a lot of time in lockdowns (as most people did), they’ve missed the opportunity to socialise and get comfortable with meeting people and making new friends.
Social media use is high for Gen Zs, and rose during the socially-isolated periods, because it was the only way to stay connected. And studies are finding that increased use of social media can lead to feelings of depression, anxiety, poor body image and loneliness.
It was a challenging and isolating time that’s put a lot of pressure on young people to “jump back into things” in 2022, as though Gen Zs could just pick up where they left off in 2019.
But in those intervening years, they’ve changed, their friends have changed, and the structure of their educational life or workplace may have changed.
That’s led to Social Anxiety for a lot of people.
Now let’s take a look at Imposter Syndrome and how it’s connected to Social Anxiety…
What is Imposter Syndrome and how do people experience it?
Imposter Syndrome or (Impostor Phenomenon as it was originally named) is when you believe you’re not as intelligent, capable, talented or qualified as other people perceive you to be despite clear evidence of your abilities & accomplishments. Those with Imposter Syndrome struggle to internalise their success because they don’t feel worthy or deserving of it. They believe they’re fooling everyone and will soon be exposed as a FRAUD.
‘Despite their glowing achievements and praise from others, the individual who suffers from Imposter Syndrome doesn’t believe their success is a direct result of their hard work’.
If not addressed, Imposter Syndrome can dramatically impact the level of success a person achieves. And/or rob them from the acknowledgement and joy of what they have deservedly achieved at all stages of their career.
Leaving them in an endless cycle of anxiety, chronic stress, overworking, chasing perfection and negative self-talk that can have long-lasting implications on mental, physical and emotional health.
When Social Anxiety mixes with Imposter Syndrome
First, let’s take a look at Social Anxiety in the workplace.
Covid changed the work landscape when it forced people to work from home during lockdowns and encouraged people to stay working from home as we “eased” back into public life. This was the right thing to do to limit the spread, but the work from home model has had some negative outcomes for Gen Z.
A recent Deloitte report found that 75% of Gen Zs (and 76% of Millennials) would prefer to split their time between remote and on-site work, or to work entirely from home.
Flexible work arrangements have certainly made it easier for us to reduce or eliminate our commute times, and balance our work with our personal lives.
But there have been downsides too.
Working from home has made Gen Zs, who are new to the workforce, more anxious and nervous to turn up in person or even speak on a webinar.
These anxious feelings can be compounded by a bout of Imposter Syndrome.
One reason may be that Gen Zs haven’t yet had enough of the practice that comes with working in a big company, of seeing new people each day, and making small talk with the CEO while waiting for their coffee.
For a Gen Z who may already be feeling out of their depth in a new role or situation that’s pushed their comfort zone (albeit an exciting opportunity) the pressure of having to perform now in front of people (literally) can be the trigger for their Imposter Syndrome.
Imposter Syndrome rears it’s head as automatic negative thoughts (referred to as ANTS) which play on repeat in our minds:
“I am not qualified for this job” (even though you are)
“I just got lucky. I don’t deserve to be here”
“If I try to do this [project / presentation / sales pitch], I’ll fail and people will know I am a fraud”
“Everyone is more experienced than me, what possible value could I add?”
Do any of these sound familiar?
When Imposter Syndrome takes over your thoughts, it skews your perception of reality. You begin to discount or talk down your talent, your hard work, your accomplishments, your education, your training. You convince yourself and really believe you’re not good enough or that you don’t belong even though there is evidence of the contrary.
These thoughts quickly send your brain and body into a fear-based response which is like adding fuel to an already simmering experience of Social Anxiety.
On top of that, 1 in 5 Gen Zs said that working flexibly made it more difficult to form connections with colleagues. Which means Gen Zs are less likely to have a solid support network at work.
In other words, if you’re a Gen Z (or Millennial) who feels disconnected while WFH, you may be missing out on some of the benefits of working in an office – the camaraderie with your team, finding a “work bestie”, and building a network of connections for the future. On the flip side, if you’ve had to return to the office and you’re experiencing Social Anxiety, it can be incredibly confronting and increase Imposter feelings because there is ‘nowhere to hide’ you can’t just ‘turn the camera off’.
Look out for possible triggers for Imposter Syndrome for Gen Zs
Everyone’s Imposter Syndrome triggers are different, because they’re based on one’s own personal history and experiences.
Some common Imposter Syndrome triggers for Gen Zs include:
- Harmful effects of social media and the negative cycle of comparing yourself to others
- The pressure to live up to your parents’ expectations as you enter the workforce so you push yourself
- After years of being the top student at school or university you feel like a small fish in a big pond in your first job or new job
- Suddenly being at the table with executive stakeholders who want to hear what you have to say – there’s pressure to perform on the spot
- Teams giving public critiques of your work can make you “not feel safe”
- Not getting enough positive feedback can leave you questioning yourself and ruminating
- At 20, 25, 28 or older you feel like you’re meant to know it all (but the truth is no one has it all figured out, not even your grandparents!)
- WFH or isolating conditions where you don’t get the cues from body language, can lead you to misinterpret written messages as negative
Depending on your personal history, one or several of these situations could trigger a bout of Imposter Syndrome.
When you can identify and look out for your own triggers, you can help intercept your automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) before they cause you to self sabotage.
Here are practical tips that will help make social situations less daunting, more manageable when your Imposter Syndrome is firing.
1. Educate yourself about Social Anxiety and what it means for you
It will help you understand what you’re experiencing and know that you’re not alone.
- Read books or articles about Social Anxiety (this article is packed with links) The more you can bring your symptoms and experience into the light, you give yourself power to manage your anxiety. Education is key.
- Speak to a therapist/counsellor or psychologist. They can help you understand Social Anxiety, and your own personal triggers. Your therapist can provide you with practical coping tools to reduce the symptoms associated with social fears. Although Imposter Syndrome is not listed officially on any mental illness register, Social Anxiety Disorder and anxiety as a whole are both recognised mental illnesses.
If you believe you need help then please seek it from accredited professionals. You can start by speaking to your GP and asking about mental health plan options or a referral to a therapist or psychologist. (See Tip #7 below for more information).
One thing that Gen Zs have been great at (in fact, better than all other generations) is acknowledging when they need help, and speaking up about their mental health needs.
2. Identify your personal triggers and avoid them as much as possible
Triggers are situations that make your symptoms worse. When you identify your triggers, you can try to avoid them in the future.
Some common triggers include:
- Meeting new people. Meeting new people is something you can’t avoid. Try to ease into meeting people by starting with one person at a time.
- Being in large groups. If being in large groups triggers your social anxiety, try attending smaller gatherings or events. This way, you can ease into more extensive group settings.
- Public speaking. To reduce anxiety, practice your speech ahead of time, visualize yourself giving the speech with no anxiety, and use breathing exercises (see tip #4 below) to help relax your body and mind.
You might not be able to avoid triggers, but you can prepare in advance for them if you are aware of them.
3. Prepare for social situations by rehearsing what you’ll say ahead of time
If you have an idea of what you’re going to say, this will help ease your anxiety and make the situation less stressful.
You can even practice by doing a voice recording and listening to your ‘flow’.
Or have notes in your phone to remind you of conversation starters, points you’d like to make or any other information which will help you feel more prepared and confident.
4. Take deep breaths and relax your muscles when you feel anxious
Controlling your breath will help ease some of the physical symptoms associated with social anxiety.
Here are some helpful breathing exercises:
- Belly breathing. Place one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest. Breathe in through your nose, letting your stomach expand. Breathe out through your mouth, allowing your stomach to fall.
- Pursed lip breathing. Breathe slowly through your nose, counting to four. Breathe out slowly through pursed lips, counting to eight.
- Equal breathing. Breathe in for a count of four, then breathe out for a count of four. Doing these exercises will help you focus on breathing and relax your body.
5. Avoid alcohol and caffeine before social events, as they can worsen symptoms
Some people drink alcohol at social functions because they think it ‘helps to take the edge off’. But alcohol (and caffeine) are stimulants that can increase anxiety.
Alcohol can cause people to lose control of their emotions and inhibitions, which isn’t great at a work-related social event.
Instead, we want to feel calm, confident and in control as best as possible. So pick and choose the right moments to consume these beverages.
6. Make time for yourself after social gatherings to reflect on how they went (and praise yourself)
Downtime and reflection will help you process your thoughts and feelings about the event.
Some ideas for self-care after a social event include:
- Engage your other senses. Try using the 5-4-3-2-1 method. Look around, and focus on 5 things you see, 4 things you touch, 3 things you hear, 2 things you smell, and 1 thing you taste. Grounding yourself in the present moment helps you focus on what’s happening now, instead of what’s making you feel anxious.
- Write in a journal about your experience. This will help you process your thoughts and feelings. In addition, writing helps to release emotions you may be feeling. Remember to acknowledge yourself for doing your best, and celebrate the moments that felt good (however small, it’s all progress). This is also a great exercise for building confidence and combatting Imposter thoughts.
7. See a therapist or clinically trained mental health professional alongside your Imposter Syndrome Coach.
Therapy is a valuable support for you, in partnership with working with a specialist Imposter Syndrome expert and coach like me, Alison Shamir.
This way, your therapist can help you to manage your anxiety, and a specialist coach can help you to manage your feelings of Imposter Syndrome.
Together it’s a winning combination and support crew for you. Sometimes, simply working with me helps my clients’ Social Anxiety naturally subside. However, if chronic anxiety persists, it is highly recommended you also seek treatment from a clinical professional.
There is so much help available to you. And I continually empathise with this because Social Anxiety and Imposter Syndrome make us ‘feel alone’ and that we must battle ‘everything’ on our own.
Release that pressure. Lean on those who can help you and you will manage or move through these experiences much faster.
You’re not mean’t to have all of the answers.
After years of studying the brain through my neuroscience, brain health and coaching certifications, I know (and science tells us) that your mind, body and experiences are interconnected. We can (and should) manage all three simultaneously.
Social Anxiety is real and can be challenging to cope with, but there are ways to make it easier.
First, educating yourself about your condition and preparing for social situations can help you feel more confident and in control.
Reading this article is a wonderful first step. Go you!
Or you can share this article with someone you know might need some help / support.
The key for tackling both Social Anxiety and Imposter Syndrome is to identify your personal triggers, and intercept those negative thoughts and emotions early, before they take over your behaviours and keep you in a recurring cycle of self sabotage.
Just know, you’re not alone.
Help is out there.
And for more information, expert insights and coaching tips on all things Imposter Syndrome & Confidence click here