How Tall Poppy Syndrome Makes Women Shrink Themselves

I am a firm believer that success should be celebrated. Maybe it’s because I’m an ENFP — a personality type also known as “The Campaigner.” I have a natural desire to see other people succeed, and to cheer them on as they make their way toward their goals.

Before I make myself sound too altruistic, I need to let you know that my desire for success to be celebrated also applies to myself. I want people to cheer me on, recognize my achievements, and rejoice with me when my hard work pays off.

Sadly, this world isn’t too keen on celebrating the successes of others.

Have you ever noticed that people are quick to cheer you on when your back is against the ropes? Everyone loves an underdog; they are generous with their support and encouragement. It’s easy to cheer for someone who looks like they might not succeed. But dare that person to rise up, to land a knockout punch and be declared the victor, suddenly the praise disappears.

In a moment’s notice, cheers are replaced with criticism.

There’s actually a name for this phenomenon. It’s called The Tall Poppy Syndrome.

The “tall poppy syndrome” is a cultural phenomenon where individuals who stand out or achieve success are subjected to criticism, resentment, or even rejection by their peers. The term is derived from the tendency of some poppy flowers to grow taller than others, making them easy to notice and potentially vulnerable to being cut down. This need to cut down high-achievers can be fueled by many things, including envy, insecurity, cultural norms of humility, and the fear of the successful person’s achievements overshadowing others.

Something I’ve noticed, much to my chagrin, is that the tall poppy syndrome seems to disproportionally affect women. In Western culture, and perhaps around the world, it seems like men are allowed to rise to whatever heights they wish. Their successes will be received with applause and praise.

Oh, what a driven man he is. So dedicated to his work.

What sacrifice it must have taken to get to where he is! What an inspiration!

Our culture naturally incentivizes and rewards men who obtain extraordinary success, and attributes that success to the “natural male tendency” to work hard and achieve greatness. When men share their accomplishments with others, it is seen as confidence. When they reward their hard work with grandiose expenditures on cars, vacations, and women, they are admired by the masses.

But should a woman tell of her success, she is labeled arrogant, conceited, pretentious. Should a woman purchase nice things for herself as a result of her hard work, she is greedy, shallow, materialistic.

Women are expected to be humble, to respond to praise with a flushed cheek and a, “oh golly gee, you mean little ol’ me??” Anything outside that cookie cutter response is met with offense, criticism, and shame. A female poppy is only allowed to grow so tall, you know. Once she exceeds the culturally agreed upon height, it’s time to cut her down.

We fear being treated this way, so we downplay our accomplishments. We conform. We capitulate. We don’t let ourselves be too extraordinary. Sometimes, we even avoid pursuing our fullest potential because we fear the backlash or negative attention our success would bring.

The worst part is, it’s not that we just receive this treatment from men. If that were the case, I think at least most of us would be willing to ignore it. Fragile men will always be intimidated by the success of women. That’s nothing new to us. But what’s truly heartbreaking is that women are just as quick to cut down the tall poppy as the men are.

I’m not here to criticize women for this behavior. I do not, in any way, believe it is our fault. We have been indoctrinated into the idea that, for us, resources and opportunities are limited. Whether overtly or covertly, while young boys are taught to believe that the sky is the limit for their success, young girls come to understand very early that success is something we have to fight each other for. We are all vying for those coveted spots in the boardroom, in the workplace, in the entrepreneurial space. So, many of us grow up to become cut-throat women, willing to yank other women down the ladder if it means we get a leg-up. And this isn’t our fault. It’s the fault of patriarchy, the fault of a society that makes only so much room for women to succeed.

And I am so fucking tired of it.

We are making much progress. I am excited to see more and more women stepping into their power, owning their success, and speaking boldly about their achievements. But we have so much more work to do.

So, here’s what I want.

I want my daughter to grow up in a world where she aspires to be the tallest poppy in the field. I want her to never think she needs to shrink, to make herself smaller for those who are intimidated by her bigness.

I want all of us to embrace our successes. I want us to say, “I’m so proud of myself” without fearing that someone will say we’re bragging. I want us to put our intellect on display without being called pretentious. I want us to be firm without being called a bitch. I want us to celebrate our achievements without people tutting us for failing to be humble.

I want us to celebrate our enormity. I want the world to embrace it with as much aplomb as they do a mediocre man who has accomplished half as much as we have.

I want us to stop competing with other women for limited opportunities. Instead, I want us to be opportunity makers — women who claim spaces for other women and invite them in, making room for them, too.

I want us to cultivate a garden where every woman, every beautiful poppy, can grow as tall as she dreams.

My entire soul yearns for it. For all of our sakes, especially for our gentle daughters, I hope we get there soon.


Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.

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