Creative Counselling: Prom Queen Syndrome

March 7, 2019

Gossip, envy and sabotage… does adult life ever make you feel like you’re still in high school? Marie Bruce explains the  psychology beneath Prom Queen Syndrome in her latest Creative Counselling column.


I didn’t have a prom when I left secondary school in 1990.  It wasn’t really a thing back then, but in recent years this American tradition has leap-frogged into the British school system. Lots of teenagers now anticipate their prom with equal amounts of enthusiasm and trepidation, because with the prom comes the Prom Queen – or at least a magnification of the comparisons and envy that are not just confined to our teenage years, but constitute a part of life.



I am reminded of a line in the film Ice Princess when Joan Cusack hits the nail on the head, saying “I guess no matter how old we get, some of us will always hate the Prom Queen.”  And it’s true, isn’t it?  For every Mean Girl who grows out of her spitefulness, there is always the odd one who grows into it; that one woman who sees all other women as a blanket threat to be torn down.  To such an individual as this, all of us represent the Prom Queens she loves to hate.

So how do you navigate interactions with this kind of envious woman, and how do you support your daughters and granddaughters as they face similar challenges in their own lives?  Well, first it helps to understand where envy comes from. We’re led to believe that envy is an emotion, but while it can be felt at an emotional level, its root is in the psychological workings of the mind.  Psychotherapists often talk about the locus of evaluation and how it can be internal or external.  Basically, this is a posh term for one’s world-view – bear with me as I explain.

People who have an internal locus of evaluation focus on their own lives, goals and ambitions.  They form their own opinions and are not governed by what others think about them.  They are true to themselves and tend to be well-adjusted, productive individuals. They also typically begin their sentences with “I think/I feel…”

On the other hand, people who have an external locus of evaluation focus on what everybody else is doing.  They begin their sentences with “She thinks/They think…”  as in “She thinks she’s all that!”  This is another Americanism, but one which is a classic sign of an external world-view. They constantly compare themselves unfavourably to their peers and have trouble making their own judgements.  This means that they watch other people’s lives from the side-lines – not to cheerlead, but to bring an unhealthy degree of competitiveness and a tendency to find fault in the perceived ‘competition’.  If they see a woman who is doing well, they are likely to be resentful of her success and the seeds of envy are planted. Acting from a place of envy, they may attempt to tear down or sabotage their rival.

“…the envious woman is in a bit of a bind because in truth, she admires everything about her rival and wants to be just like her… “

The truth is that this kind of envy comes from a deeply repressed sense of admiration. The envious woman is in a bit of a bind because in truth, she admires everything about her rival and wants to be just like her; she might even try to emulate her rival’s style or hobbies to prove to herself that she is just as good.  And yet because she cannot bring herself to openly admire the competition, instead she resentfully tries to pull her rival off the pedestal in an attempt to try to take her place.

I call this kind of behaviour Prom Queen Syndrome. This isn’t an official diagnostic term, but rather a phrase I use with my clients to help them understand what’s going on in these situations. Sadly, it’s often close friends and even sisters who demonstrate this kind of behaviour, seeing their targets as the Prom Queen they want to tear down.  It can be difficult to cope with, and it can be highly damaging to relationships.

In a strange way Prom Queen Syndrome is a kind of compliment, so try to react to it as one and let the envious woman know that it’s how you’ll be taking her sniping jibes.  The last thing she’ll want to do is offer you a compliment, so gently telling her that’s how you’ll receive her spite might well be enough to silence her and nip it in the bud. 

Try to get her to focus more on herself, pointing out the things she can do that you perhaps can’t, and nurturing her towards a more internal world-view as you maintain your own internal viewpoint. Because if you spend too much time worrying about any envious woman, she’s already won.  

So live your life, keep doing you – and to quote Anne Boleyn “Let them grumble”! Until next month,

Serene Blessings

Marie Bruce x


Find out more:


Marie Bruce Dip. T.C. MBACP is a qualified psychotherapist and a best-selling self-help author.
In this monthly column, Marie offers simple tools used by therapists to help clients and readers improve their mental well-being.
Marie’s books are available on Amazon UK, in digital and print formats.


Posted by: Leah Russell