Do you feel like others are holding you back? This has come to be called “the crab bucket syndrome” because crabs pull back those who try to escape. A lone crab can climb out of a bucket, but when its mates are present, it ends up boiled to death with them.
Maybe you feel like this is happening to you—whether family or friends or coworkers; whether actively undermining you or just failing to applaud when you think you deserve it. Sometimes you even feel pushed to choose between escaping the bucket and preserving your social bonds.
Why do crabs hold each other back?
Crabs did not evolve in buckets. They evolved on seashores, where clinging to others promoted survival. A crab is not consciously trying to hold back its mates. It is not consciously trying to save them either. It is just repeating a behavior that was naturally selected for.
I recently discussed this with one of my readers, Obinna Ogadah in Nigeria. He sent me some interesting suggestions for managing that situation (below). Obinna has read all my books, so here is a bit of background for those who haven’t: Your friends and family are mammals rather than crustaceans, so it’s important to understand how mammals cling to others. Mammals seek safety in numbers for protection from predators. Natural selection built a brain that rewards you with a good-feeling chemical (oxytocin) when you find social support, and alarms you with a bad-feeling chemical (cortisol) when your social support is threatened.
But it’s complicated
Living in a group means constant competition for food and mates. Natural selection built a brain that rewards you with serotonin when you see that you are in the position of strength, and alarms you with cortisol when you see that you are in the position of weakness.
These biological facts of life are rarely acknowledged because they are not progressive. (Research links are provided on my website, and my books explain this in detail.) A fast, fun way to understand the mammal brain is to watch the Attenborough nature videos on the social lives of monkeys. (The older ones are best because they came before the iron curtain of political correctness.)
You are not conscious of seeking the one-up position because your mammal brain cannot process language. You are not conscious of fearing the one-down position because the mammal brain cannot report its impulses in words. But you can easily see these impulses in others.
So where does that leave a modern mammal like you?
You care urgently about your social position, despite your best intentions. And you're surrounded by people who care urgently about their social position, despite their best intentions. The mammalian urge for social importance is obvious in daily life, but we learn to blame those feelings on others instead of recognizing how we produce them.
Maybe people are holding you back. But maybe you are just blaming others for feelings that are hard to make sense of. We all struggle to feel good with a brain that saves the good feelings for behaviors that promote survival in the state of nature. The better you understand your mammalian operating system, the better decisions you can make.
Here is Obinna Ogadah’s strategy:
Pull-down syndrome: How to stay above the fray
I recently learned about the “crab mentality” from Dr. Breuning. It resonated as it was in line with my thoughts about African society. Now I know this may be universal.
Have you ever felt your peers were envious of your progress? Do you sometimes feel your family is sabotaging you? Do you often encounter hostile colleagues when it seems you just made your best presentation yet? If you’ve felt any of these, there is a high likelihood that you are experiencing crab mentality.
Crab mentality is a metaphor for the behaviour of crabs which when caught and kept in a bucket would not allow any of the other crabs to escape. When any tried to escape, the rest pulled it down (shared joy in misery). Similar behaviour has been observed in humans, although in varied circumstances.
Understanding that those trying to pull you back are merely trying to survive is the first piece of the puzzle. We are social beings and love to stick with our own. Family members wouldn’t ordinarily wish against your success. But what happens to the fear in the family member’s mind that you may abandon the troupe due to your success? What of your colleagues at work? Your presentation being the best is a beautiful thing. But it means you may be poached by a bigger organisation or earn a promotion which leaves them where they were. They don’t want to be stagnant of course, but seeing you progress rapidly shoots of their sad chemical, cortisol. To become more cognizant of this syndrome, you should deepen your self-awareness.
Here, we explore how you can make peace with these feelings and stay above the pull-down mentality in the following ways;
- Persistence. One way to stay above the pull-down syndrome is to persist in one’s chosen course of action. when others feel negatively about your course, you are the only person who knows if it is right or wrong. Of course, you may genuinely welcome pieces of advice and suggestions. But if you have to listen to all others want you to do, you will remain pulled in the crab bucket.
- Continue adding value to yourself. Only when you lack confidence can you be pulled down. To be confident, you have to be deliberate about adding value to yourself, learning new skills, mastering old skills, etc. If you don't add value to yourself you virtually remain average and susceptible to being pulled down.
- Serve as a model to others. When we know that there is a purpose to our actions, it's harder to pull us down. By adopting and adapting healthy habits into our lives, we influence others. These people who look up to us serve as an extra impetus to not be pulled back into undesirable circumstances.
- Remain passionate about what you do. If you've chosen a particular course of action and identified it as your path, you need to persevere in pursuing it. When you constantly change course or adopt every piece of advice that comes your way, you open yourself to being pulled down. Remember, weigh and accept all meaningful advice and jettison advice that doesn't serve your purpose.
- Even in failure, persevere. It is almost inevitable; you are going to fail sometime. At work, in your family life, etc. Though this may sound a bit cliche, there are always lessons in failure. Instead of brooding over the failure and allowing others to affect you negatively, you may double down, reflect and identify the underlying causes of the failure. When you don't give up in failure, you raise your respectability among peers and family.
This post focused on the pull-down syndrome and how to stay above it. We should be mindful that except in extreme cases, no one sets out to willfully pull down another, especially loved ones. But nature has imbued us with an operating system that has its own needs and we have to make do with what we have.
While some people have a generally positive disposition, this is rare. Most would rather everyone shared the misery. To not be a person who inadvertently pulls down their loved ones or peers, you need to start understanding your deeper nature. Having a genuine sense of curiosity and happiness for the paths and journeys of others (even though there is no direct benefit for you from that) may be an added way to start honing your positive mindset in this regard.