Tall Poppy Syndrome: Handling Criticism in Integrative Medicine

As practitioners learn and reap the benefits of functional medicine, they will inevitably encounter colleagues that try to belittle their efforts.  Any practitioner that goes beyond the constraints of allopathic medicine (particularly if they have received training in Western medicine) will be subjected to judgements and criticism. When this happens, it is only natural to question our passion and take any negative comments/actions personally.

No one is immune to this.  I’ve been involved in functional medicine since the 1990s, and over the years have encountered a lot of criticism.  Functional medicine is a part of me – it helped me as a patient, and as a practitioners, it has given me a roadmap by which I implement personalized medicine.  I am so lucky to see and experience so much success with my patients!  My practice does not go without criticism from my peers, and every time I am subject to disparaging comments from my colleagues, it has led to me momentarily question who I am and what I do.  How do I stay strong through these times?  Let me introduce you to a concept that helps me.

For anyone that is put in a situation that criticizes your beliefs and life work, remember that it is human nature to question and cut down those who go against the grain (especially when the perceived success is greater than those that are judging).  One way of describing this process is known as Tall Poppy Syndrome (TPS).

What is TPS?  First, it’s not going to be found in the ICD-10 codes!  Tall Poppy Syndrome was a term coined in Australia in the 1870’s.  It is a social phenomenon

 “in which people of genuine merit are resented, attacked, cut down, or criticized because their talents or achievements elevate them above or distinguish them from their peers.”  

Those that are the “poppy cutters” use words and actions to bring down the high achievers, in an attempt to maintain uniformity.  Instead of being happy for someone who is having great success, they may be inclined to tear them down to make themselves feel better.  And unfortunately, in our world of perceived anonymity, many “cutters” are prone to expressing their beliefs at the expense of others on social media.  

Functional/Integrative medicine is particularly vulnerable to TPS.   We are passionate about our work, we are progressive (e.g. “biohacking”, constantly looking and implementing new literature and medical discoveries…), and we practice differently than our Western medical peers (e.g. cash-based, no insurance, operating as both a practitioner and an entrepreneur).  We are automatically an outsider in the world of Western medicine.  

So how can we respond to these “attacks”?  

  • Do we respond to those who attack us as functional medicine practitioners by showing them the data?
  • Do we give them a “piece of our mind”?
  • Do we let them attack without response?
  • Or do we enlighten our “cutters” about Tall Poppy Syndrome, hoping that recognition of TPS will make people more mindful of their behavior?

There is no right way to respond, but I will leave you with a few things to consider.

  1. Always ask yourself if a comment is a judgement, or is it coming from a dogmatic belief system?  
  2. You can never convince anyone to alter his/her opinion – you can only inspire.  
  3. You can have hundreds of well-done scientific studies that back you up, but data will rarely alter a belief system. 
  4. It’s never really about you.

So the next time you find yourself a victim of TPS, hold true to your integrity and accept that not everyone will support and agree with what we do.  Continue the great work you are doing!

Best in health,


Check out this brief article on Tall Poppy Syndrome in medicine.