Imposter Phenomenon Research Helps Faculty Challenge Their Inner Critic


Self-doubt. Anxiety. Emotional exhaustion. Burnout. These are all symptoms that can be triggered by life experiences and manifest in a variety of ways. For Holly M. Hutchins, Ph.D., a University of Houston (UH) professor in human resource development, dealing with her own inner critic has led to her decade-long research on helping individuals challenge their thoughts of inadequacy and fraudulence.

Hutchins began her research in 2009 after a challenging first few years as a new tenure-track faculty member in the College of Technology at UH. She really didn’t have words for it or know it was a thing until she explored her ongoing anxiety in therapy.

“As a researcher, I wanted to know more and, as we often say, the “self as instrument” inspires a lot of our own research,” says Hutchins. “I definitely knew that many of my colleagues were challenged with it, yet no one—the university, my department, my professional circles—were talking about it. How could this inner critic be such a common experience, yet no one was addressing it? So, I decided to.” 

Hutchins launched a cross-sectional, mixed-methods study to understand if, and in what ways, faculty experienced imposter phenomenon, the common trigger events, and how they coped with this experience. She also explored how it related to job satisfaction and emotional exhaustion…a major component of job burnout.

The second wave of her work has been in designing and piloting an experiential, cognitive-based workshop aimed at helping individuals identify and reframe their imposter thoughts. “We’ve now piloted the workshop with over seventy faculty and industry professionals and have found that (at 3 months post-workshop), participants have decreased their imposter tendencies and increased their positive self-evaluations,” notes Hutchins. “The focus groups we’ve held confirms that learning how to effectively challenge faulty attributions about their work expertise has been transformative in helping participants challenge their inner critic.” 

In a recent published article in Forge entitled “Feel Like a Fraud Lately? Yeah, It’s Going Around”, journalist Robert Roy Britt highlights the work of Hutchins and her colleagues, talks about his own struggles with “imposterism” and notes that the imposter phenomenon (syndrome) can be heightened by the stress of the pandemic.    

To continue her work of helping colleagues, Hutchins recently delivered talks with faculty and staff in the UH College of Pharmacy and the UH Law Center. The goal was to help attendees understand the imposter cognitive cycle (and why it needs interrupting), how to normalize their imposter experiences, and effective techniques for challenging and reframing their imposter experiences. 

“So many things that Dr. Hutchins talked about really resonated with me, as this is something that I have definitely struggled with,” says Courtney Hunt, research manager in the UH College of Pharmacy. “I really appreciated the guidance on thinking through a recent example, what was underlying the thought process, and how to reframe it. What was equally eye-opening to me in silencing my inner critic, was seeing firsthand how many peers or more senior people, that I look up to in my college, ALSO struggle with this.”

"Through working in a clinical setting and teaching law students, I see first-hand the negative effects of "imposter thinking" in many of my law students,” adds Katya Dow, professor of practice at the UH Law Center.  “Because they are struggling to be competent and knowledgeable in areas that are completely new to them, but still require them to act with confidence and conviction, they are put in the position of feeling like "imposters" every day.  Dr. Hutchins' research and presentation on this subject shed a much-needed light on the prevalence of this phenomenon and how detrimental it can be to individual well-being.  Moreover, the techniques she discusses to recognize this kind of thinking and work through it in a productive and healthy way are invaluable."

Having offered it in-person through the Office of Faculty Engagement and Development, Hutchins is now developing her workshop for a virtual format and can be contacted to discuss opportunities to use it in organizations and university talent development offerings. She can be reached at hmhutchi@central.uh.edu or 713-743-4059.