Crabs In A Bucket. How To Keep Going When They Try To Hold You Back.

I was catching up with an old work colleague the other day, we hadn’t spoken in a while. She’d been overweight most of her adult life, but a recent health scare had finally convinced her to do something about it. By making small changes to her diet and gradually increasing her physical activity the weight started to shift. Several months later, she had lost close to forty pounds and more importantly felt healthier and happier. A great 50th birthday present.

Yet, the people closest to her were anything but supportive during those months. They criticised how she looked as the weight came off, kept offering her junk food and discouraged her from working out. She was sad and disappointed, why did her own family and friends act like they wanted her to fail?

People inspire you or they drain you – pick them wisely. Hans F Hansen

Do you have someone like that in your life? They just can’t be happy for you. As you work towards your goals, they can’t seem to celebrate your achievements. Instead of offering encouragement they meet you with resistance, criticism and negativity. It’s as if they are trying to derail your efforts. There’s actually a name for this, it’s called the crab in the bucket syndrome or crab mentality. The experience that some of us go through when striving to improve ourselves.

The reality is if you want to achieve great things in your life inevitably you will come up against this obstacle, it is the price of admission. So how do you stay focused, continue to believe in yourself and keep going in the face of the haters? You need to understand what’s going on.

The Crab Mentality

A single crab placed into a bucket will probably find a way to climb out. Add more crabs and the task gets much harder. The crabs at the bottom of the bucket will latch onto the ‘climbers’ and pull them down ensuring that none escape. It’s analogous to people who are trying to advance and improve their lives; often those around them try to sabotage their efforts, undermine their achievements and pull them back down.

The mantra of someone at the bottom of the bucket is:

‘If I can’t have it, neither can you!’ ‘If I can’t get out of this bucket, neither will you!’

Understanding the psychology

In any relationship especially established ones there is a dynamic. Each person occupies a certain position and plays a particular role within that construct. Like in any institution the stability of the structure relies on everyone maintaining their ‘correct’ position and playing their role. It doesn’t matter whether the relationships are healthy or dysfunctional order has to be maintained.

When you start to change you are in effect changing your position in that structure. The people around you feel threatened by the perceived resulting ‘disorder’. If you’re fortunate you will have growth-minded individuals who will see your evolution and applaud it. They may even go with you. However, often those around you (friends, family) will try to pull you back into place in an effort to maintain the status quo, the stability of the structure. Your success is deemed a threat. Any steps you take to elevate yourself from the mediocrity is perceived a threat. Any attempt to do more and be more is perceived as a threat.

Warning signs

This can show up in a number of behaviours aimed at undermining or sabotaging your efforts. Remember if you fail to get out of the bucket, order is restored.

  • Maybe you have decided to stop drinking but your friends just won’t accept it. They tell you they prefer the person who used to get drunk every weekend, so drunk that you would pass out and not remember any of the events of the evening. Instead of trying to support they keep offering you alcohol.
  • Maybe you’re the guy who has finally decided to stop sleeping around and you want to cultivate a real relationship, be in a committed partnership. Your friends encourage you to cheat in fact they facilitate situations to make it easier for you to.
  • As was the case with my friend in her bid to improve her health brought out actions aimed at bringing her back to her old unhealthy behaviour.

All of these behaviours ring with a tone of:

‘Who do you think you are?’ ‘You’re not better than me!’

Avoid this trap

Sometimes in a misplaced sense of loyalty to friends or family you give in. Some may call it peer pressure or perhaps it’s your inbuilt desire to just fit in, but you succumb to the familiarity of your old role, after all it’s what you’re used to. You surrender your dreams and sacrifice your progress on the altar of being ‘liked’. Essentially, your desire to please is greater than your desire to grow. So, you stay at the bottom of the bucket gazing yearningly at those who are able to fight their way out all the while surrounded by other crabs who are criticising them every step of the way.

How to get out of the bucket

1. Know who you are and more importantly who you want to be

Lots of people will try to tell you who you are, what you’re capable of, what you can and cannot do. They will keep reminding you of your mistakes, your past failures as if those define you. They will keep trying to pull you back into those old stories and behaviours. Remember you get to choose what you believe and who you are, learn from the past but focus on who you are now and who you aspire to be. Understand your values, modify your behaviours and live them. Don’t be held hostage to your past, don’t ever let anyone stop you from growing or changing.

2. Identify the crabs in your life

Who are you sharing the bucket with? Are you continuing to associate with people who feed your self-doubt or encourage limiting or destructive behaviours? Do you have people you call friends and yet their actions belie that? They say they support you but undermine you at every turn, talk badly about you to others and never have anything positive to say about your ideas. Knowing what you stand for will help you to identify who is there to boost you and who is there to pull you down.

3. Remember that your dream is your responsibility

You are the custodian of the idea and vision that resides inside. Often, we expect others to come on board and get disappointed when they can’t or won’t support what we want. Remember this is your dream, your goal. If you want to bring it to life you will have to nurture it, grow it and give birth to it. Don’t expect support but appreciate it when you get it. Ultimately you may have to go it alone, the test of whether you really believe in what you are trying to achieve. So, stand up for yourself and your dream.

4. Be selective about who you share your dreams with

Some people are walking, talking negativity generators. Can’t, shouldn’t, it’s impossible … are the only words they can offer about anything you want to do. If the only feedback from your ‘friend’ is all the reasons something won’t work, then maybe it’s time to stop talking to them about your dream. The comedian, Steve Harvey has a great quote: ‘Stop telling your big dreams to small-minded people.’ A friend if they genuinely think that you haven’t considered something will give constructive feedback. So, beware of the person who constantly deflates you and offers nothing else.

5. Limit your exposure or cut them out of your life

You may find it difficult to sever certain relationships especially familial ones, so limit your exposure to those people who you have identified just suck the life out of you. If you feel worse after every interaction with someone then that’s a big clue. Sometimes though, there is no other option, you have to be ruthless and cut them out of your life. You don’t have to continue to associate with people who do not have your best interests at heart. You can choose to eliminate the negativity from your life.

6. Find and cultivate your tribe

You get to choose who you associate with. These are people who have the right mindset and will support you. Instead of pulling you back down into the bucket they are the ones who will push you up. If they are on the outside, they will throw that rope over the edge to ease your climb. Positivity is reciprocal, when we help others to do better, we attract people who also want the best for us. So, surround yourself with positive, motivated people. You may need to go looking for them, but they are out there.

7. Don’t take it personally

It always boils done to this simple fact. No matter what you do someone out there will find something to criticize. So don’t take it personally, it’s not about you. It’s really about their beliefs and the stories that they have running in their minds. It can be difficult to remember that in the sea of backbiting, backstabbing and negativity that you have to wade through but through awareness you start to understand that your sense of value does not depend on what others say or do. You can choose your experience by changing your beliefs.


Your dream is relying on you

The people in your life reflect who you’ve been up to that point. As you grow and change, it’s important to stop and take stock. Is a relationship adding to your life or draining it? Is this person holding you back from being better or are they in your corner urging you on. You don’t want to leave your loved ones behind but if they’re not ready or willing to grow and evolve, you may have to distance yourself from them. It was Jim Rohn who said we are an average of the five people we spend the most time with.  Choose yours wisely.

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