I'm trying to express the idea of someone who consistently underestimates his own contributions or his ability to impact a situation, despite having high self esteem. This is due to seeing themselves as currently fitting into a category of people that are not expected to be impactful in a situation, and thus they don't believe they should be impactful despite their actually being qualified to have an impact.

In essences it's like someone saying they are just an intern so they can't/didn't have a significant impact on a project because everyone knows interns are just there to learn not create something, or someone saying they couldn't/didn't help lead the direction of a project because they weren't a manager and only the manager is allowed to do that etc.

I struggle to best explain this concept, while stressing that the underestimation is not due to bad self esteem or negativity, simply the fact that he does not believe he should be impactful and thus underestimates any impact he could have.

In this situation would it be right to say that the individual is denying their agency? Or perhaps does not acknowledge their agency, in the situation? I'm not certain if it is right to say someone can be 'given' agency, or if agency is the intrinsic quality that the person has rather or not he acknowledges its existence?

If the phrase isn't right, is there a better phrase to use?

  • 1
    This is typically termed Impostor syndrome.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Jan 6, 2016 at 19:27
  • @DanBron is it? Imposter syndrome would be thinking you don't deserve to be in the role you are in, whereas I'm suggesting a situation in which the individual believes he deserves the role he is in, but denies the degree of impact said role should possess (or perhaps fails to properly identify all the roles he fulfills). I think these would be different concepts would they not?
    – dsollen
    Commented Jan 6, 2016 at 19:55
  • I think you're approaching this too literally, or, phrased differently, it depends on what you consider a "role". He may imagine he deserves his title, sure, he doesn't think he should be leading the direction of a project, creating something, making a visible impact, etc, which are also roles (they're just not titles).
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Jan 6, 2016 at 20:03
  • Please understand that this use of agency is going to confuse most people.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 23, 2016 at 18:37

2 Answers 2


you may refer to:

self-doubt (Noun)

A lack of faith or confidence in oneself.

Self-doubting (Adjective)

self-distrust (Noun)

Lack of faith or confidence in one's own abilities.

Self-distrustful (Adjective)

Insecure (Adjective)

Not feeling at all confident about yourself, your abilities, or your relationships with people.

She's very insecure about her appearance. (Longman dictionary)


I want to say something along the lines of "Warrantless Deference"

1) that they are deferring to someone else without authorization to do so. and 2) though having the ability, the person assumes someone else will take on responsibility of the tasks.

This also sounds like a less serious example of "The Bystander Effect" with a touch of "Diffusion of Responsibility"

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