When Sara and Nikos announced they planned to separate after 24 years of marriage, the mood among their friends improved dramatically and they started throwing barbecues and spending days at the beach together.
‘It was as though our entire neighbourhood had had an infusion of happiness,’ remembers Mariam, their friend who lived near them in Jumeirah.
‘Sara and Nikos had been the Golden Couple ever since they moved here and we’d all been in awe of them. They looked the part – they were always perfectly turned-out, with glitzy jewellery and even flashier cars.
‘Their children were beautiful and smart. They went on long summer holidays as a family but also made time as a couple for a romantic weekend break away. Their lives seemed effortless. They were the perfect family, and we all aspired to be like them.’
So when news of their split emerged, Mariam was shocked at the reaction. ‘We’re not nasty people, but their news had a startling effect on us,’ she says. ‘I think their demise made us all feel better about ourselves. I’m ashamed to say we were happy to hear things weren’t so perfect for them after all.’
Tall Poppy Syndrome
What Mariam has described is Tall Poppy Syndrome – a tendency to resent, disparage or feel negatively towards those who excel or stand out, even if we count them as friends.
Coined as a Roman military term, a tall poppy is someone who rises above the crowd because of his or her achievements. It could be a famous footballer who scores the all-important goal in the World Cup Finals, a pop star whose hits go straight to the top or even a politician who doesn’t seem to put a foot wrong and is revered by the electorate.
The Backlash to Success
But equally, tall poppies can be ordinary people, like Sara and Nikos, who seem to have it all. They can be work colleagues who effortlessly rise through the ranks, or super-fit athletic types who represent their region or country – anyone, who, in our minds, stands taller than the rest of us, for whatever reason.
The backlash is known as Tall Poppy Syndrome – the tendency to want to ‘cut down’ these successful people and bring them back down to the level we think we’re at. It’s common in countries like Australia, the UK and New Zealand, but Dr Saliha Afridi, a clinical psychologist, who is based in Dubai, believes most countries experience Tall Poppy Syndrome.
‘Every culture has their own version of people wishing ill or lack of success for people are successful,’ says Dr Afridi, who is the founder of the Lighthouse Arabia in Dubai.
‘In Germany there’s schadenfreude, which means taking pleasure in the misfortune of others, and in Middle Eastern and south Asian cultures it would be evil eye, which is about coveting something someone else has.
‘Some research shows that humans are hard-wired or programmed for envy. It gives us a competitive edge and gets us to act towards advancement.’
UK coach and business mentor Louise Presley-Turner agrees that envy is a normal emotion. In fact, she even thinks it can be helpful.
‘When we’re envious of someone, our envy is telling us something about ourselves,’ explains Louise, author of Mindset Mastery: The 40 Day Miracle Masterplan to Relaunch Your Life.
‘If you’re envious of someone else’s breakthrough, it’s a good time to reflect. If you’ve always wanted to do charity work in the Philippines and you’re stuck in an office in Dubai, you’re bound to feel envious when a colleague leaves her job to go work in an orphanage. Your feelings of envy are your message to yourself that that’s what you want to do.’
But while we’ve all suffered from some degree of envy in the past, experts agree it’s now compounded by social media.
Dr Afridi explains: “Research has shown that high use of Facebook and social media is linked to depression and anxiety. Whereas some people use social media for connection, others use it for comparison.
‘And because people only post about the most pleasant parts of their lives, viewers piece together happy events and picture perfect moments, and they create an inaccurate and incomplete image of the person and their life.
‘We experience this in all sorts of ways. When a friend announces her pregnancy, we think: “I’ve done all this IVF and she can get pregnant a month after she starts trying for a baby.”
‘People with inattentive partners like to see couples fighting at a party. We might enjoy watching the perfect mum trying to control her toddler and when our colleagues are going on a trip of a lifetime, an extreme version of Tall Poppy Syndrome might be to hope they get robbed while they’re away.’
The Talent Crime
But why would we want to resent, attack, cut down or criticise someone because of their talents and achievements? How could we hope people suffer a misfortune when their only ‘crime’, in our mind, is to be successful?
Sadly, Tall Poppy Syndrome is all about our own self-doubt. ‘We like to see people cut down to size because it brings them back down to where we are,’ explains Louise Presley-Turner. ‘We may feel we’re losing them if they get too successful, but by seeing them stopped in their tracks, we feel they’re not moving away from us and it makes us feel better about ourselves.’
So what can we do if we have Tall Poppy Syndrome?
Dr Afridi suggests we accept our feelings, then refocus our energy. Rather than longing for the things we don’t have, we could start being grateful for what we do, whether that’s a job we love, a caring partner or healthy children.
Then look at the person we’re envious of, and see their whole lives, not just their new kitchen or rapid job promotion as featured on Facebook.
‘For every success that you see, there will be something the person is struggling with,’ she says. “Realising this usually puts things in perspective and gives you a balanced view of people and their lives.
‘Use the feeling of envy as inspiration. Reflect on what it is you long for and if it is something you can work towards.’
Ration Social Media
Many experts agree rationing our time on social media will help us focus on our own success stories and stop fixating on other’s seemingly perfect lives.
‘Social media doesn’t help at all,’ she says. ‘It can just make you feel bad about where you’re at compared to other people. Instead of focusing on what others are doing, look at what’s good in your life. It might be that there’s food in your fridge, a pillow under your head, the beach on your doorstep or a flock of birds just flew overhead.
‘I believe we’re here to serve and give back to the world in some way, and it is our job to find that purpose. There are people who need your help and it’s your job to find your talent and step up.
‘We use all sorts of excuses for not putting our own heads above the parapet. We don’t go to a Third World country to do charity work because we’re afraid we’ll be lonely, we don’t speak the language or we will get an infectious disease.
‘We don’t train as a yoga teacher because we fear we might not get enough clients to make a living, and we put off writing a vegan cookery book in case we get a bad review or people don’t like the recipes.’
Louise stresses we must push ahead with our dreams, despite our misgivings and our urge to procrastinate.
‘There’s never an absolutely perfect time to take these steps, whether we want to start a business, have a baby or do voluntary work,’ she says.
‘We only know if we’re doing the right thing once we’ve started. If we’re on the right path, what we’re doing will feel good and we’ll be too happy about that to resent other people’s success. In fact, we’ll be so fulfilled and happy, we will be pleased for them. There’s plenty of space in this world for tall poppies.’
For your free Happiness Planner from Louise Presley-Turner, go to www.thegameoflife.co.uk