Is Tall Poppy Syndrome Killing Your Relationships?

Call it narcissism, call it selfish, call it TPS – we see it in our society, but can we see it in our connections? Tall poppy syndrome is killing your relationships.

Off with their heads! Is tall poppy syndrome killing your relationships?
Source: Disney

We’ve recently been rewatching Seinfeld of all shows. One that came on today was where Jerry, doing quite well financially, decides to buy his father a new car. Unfortunately for Jerry’s dad, it attracts the ire of some very jealous and sour people who see it as a status symbol and they vote him out of an important position as a result. This is a pretty good picture of exactly this reality that I’ve had in mind for a few weeks recently – that tall poppy syndrome is killing relationships all over the worlds today.

If you’re not from Australian or the UK, you may not have heard the expression worded this way, but tall poppy syndrome is a reference to how we can be unwilling to allow any flower to grow taller than any others. That is to say, that no person is allowed to exceed a certain level of success or status before becoming a target of scrutiny and criticism, and if they do, we’re going to try to chop them back down to size. It’s very common to see it used to describe how public figures are held back when they exceed the greatness of other public figures. But the more I’ve seen, the more I realise that tall poppy syndrome is alive and well in the relationships of all of us.

In other countries and in other avenues of research, you may see this described as an outworking of narcissism. Narcissus was a character in Greek mythology who fell in love with his own reflection. It’s used to describe someone so self focused that their outward behaviour can become harsh and can sometimes be critical.

Whatever terms you put around it, in articles, research papers, books, TV shows and especially in conversations in recent weeks, this has been a definite undercurrent, and I have watched multiple relationships experience destruction or difficulty as one or more of the people involved attempt to improve their lives.

It’s essentially trying to hold others back so the people around them don’t have to change or be exposed for what they are or aren’t. Or to use the analogy from the Disney classic Alice in Wonderland, TPS in a sentence is, “I feel threatened and they seem to be growing ahead of me – off with their heads!”.

I’d like to show you some tell-tale signs of how tall poppy syndrome may be alive and well in your relationships, and hopefully a path to health and freedom. So here’s how it may be tall poppy syndrome killing your relationships.

Anger at success

What’s your immediate emotional reaction when someone succeeds in life? You know what I mean. When your friend gets proposed to and you’re so single that the echo of your own voice in a cliff replies “I just want to be friends”. When your workmate gets promoted when you thought it should have been you. When everyone else is getting a car, a date, a party or a payrise instead of you.

The ultimate test of tall poppy syndrome would have to be social media. When you see someone getting ahead in your friendship circles online or just enjoying their lives in general, what’s your first response? If it’s anger, then you may be a greater contributor to the problem than you would like to admit.

As the Gottman Institute and many other therapy bodies would point out, anger of course is a secondary emotion. It is actually a response to pain. I think the only way to move passed TPS in your relationships is to establish a healthy sense of self and identity.

Wishing against what people have

Whereas anger may manifest itself in a more passive or internalised fashion, it can go one step further and spill out into actively hoping against the success or the prominence of others. This is usually motivated entirely by self, whereby our internal selves become threatened by the increase of others, whether in their health, wealth, or otherwise.

As one of my friends used to put it, and as one blogger similarly echoes, “Jealousy is taking the success of others as your own failure”. Because they’re doing well, they’re getting ahead, they’re moving on, it reminds me of how much that I’m not.

I think an older story whereby we see this acted out is in the brothers Cain and Abel. Abel was very successful and brought forward acceptable and generous offerings when compared against what was brought by Cain. Instead of taking Abel as a source of inspiration or trying to improve himself, Cain’s focus turned from improving himself to trying to control or destroy Abel. It started as an internal wish and eventually was outworked in murder. This is the level of contempt we are dealing with when we allow this attitude to reign in our hearts.

Dr David Schnarch points out that people who can’t control themselves seek to control and dominate others. When we allow ourselves to become sour at the success of someone else, are we really just frustrated that we can’t get ourselves to achieve the same results?

Speaking words that are dominated by jealousy

Your words locate you. Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. And so all I need to do to find out where you really are is to listen to what you’ve been saying in the last week.

Spend an hour on the internet in any comments section on any commercial, model shot, Youtube video, piece of music, or social media post by any public figure, and you’ll see exactly how cruel the words of people can be. But these aren’t the scary ones – the scary ones are the words that get said within the confines of a closer relationship. It’s easy to insult someone public-facing without consequences, but watch the devastation of being callous towards someone you say that you love or care about.

By the definitions of most organisations, such behaviour is unacceptable and unhealthy. And yet we do all we can to justify it all because of how we feel.

How do you speak with your spouse? With that friend? With your boss? Do your words reveal someone who truly cares about the success of others? Or do they reveal a darker truth about yourself?

Think about some of your own struggles with getting ahead in your own life. I bet the greatest opposition has been the words and voices of people you thought cared about you. That would have hurt you terribly. But in the lives of the people around you, would they say that you were their supporter? Or that you were the one trying to cut them down?

Life and death are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit.

Creating environments and cultures of chaos

I recently finished a book recommended by a number of counsellors and therapists called Intimacy and Desire. In it, the author highlights that everyone wishes that the usual way they treat their spouse came from the best part of them, but that in reality, people operate the most frequently out of the worst part of themselves. The needy part. The part that can’t stand it when someone is doing better than them. The part that hates it when they know their spouse is right but they don’t want to admit they’re wrong. The part that is insecure. He calls this phenomenon normal marital sadism. It would have to be said that this is true of how we act in all our relationships.

I have heard other people describe relationships as a place where people attempt to return to their “default behaviour”, and if they can’t do so, they will attempt to alter the environment for their default behaviour to return or to continue.

Sadly, the success or improvement of a member of the group or the relationship is the greatest threat to default behaviour. When someone gets a new job, achieves the success they’ve been striving for, receives the miracle they’ve been believing for, or refuses to allow themselves to be spoken to a certain way, just watch the chaos that occurs. I’ve been especially saddened to see the absolutely hostile reaction friends have given other friends when they have started dating someone, met some new friends, or moved to another location – it’s seen as betrayal rather than success or part of a healthy and growing life. You are seen to be violating the comfortable status quo, and as a result, the desire becomes apparent to cut off the head off any tall poppy, because they’re “ruining everything”. The psychological term often used to describe this reaction is narcissistic rage – the truth about the person has been exposed by the change in the relationship dynamic, and the response is irrational and unending anger.

What sort of environment do you create in your relationships? Are you doing all you can to keep people from getting ahead because you’re afraid of being left behind? Is resentment the best description of the state of your heart towards the people in your life? Or do you have a heart posture and an ensuing life culture of allowing others to succeed?

Inability to celebrate others

I think this one is really at the heart of it all, and the determining indicator of tall poppy syndrome killing your relationships or not.

When was the last time you celebrated someone else? And I mean really celebrated. Not out of spite or falsehood, not out of obligation or tradition, but truly, in your heart of hearts, desired their good and rejoiced with those who rejoiced?

Ecclesiasties and James both echo the same message which sounds rather extreme, but there is great truth in it. Both texts say that all evil, fighting with others, and destructive behaviour in relationships is rooted in man’s jealousy for his neighbour.

Could it be that everyone who ever got into a fight with you was doing so because of jealousy? Could it be that every criticism you’ve ever laid at someone else in a cruel manner, or that you have been on the receiving end of, has come out of envy? These texts would suggest so.

It’s up to all of us then to crush envy inside our hearts as soon as we recognise it. If we don’t, it has the potential to poison the well of every potentially life-giving relationship we have.

If you’re tired of watching friends fall away, if you want the revolving door of potential suitors to stop and settle down, if you’re wanting the marriage and the friendships that are truly life-giving, it’s up to us to make sure jealousy doesn’t ever get a place at the table.

Or you can keep sending people out of your life. Up to you.

It’s always a hard thing to confront the depths of your heart and soul and see the part you play in your relationships. And yet you and I are the common denominator in every single relationship we’ve ever had. Wherever you go, there you are. So make sure you’re bringing a whole and a healthy person with you, one who is a champion of the people around them, rather than their greatest competitor.

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