The Crab Mentality: Are People Around You Holding You Back?14 min read

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We like to think we’re free. No chains bind us at birth, and we can (practically) do whatever we want, right? Not quite. When you look around, you can tell that everyone is constrained to a certain degree and some far more than others.

The Laws of the countries we reside in restrain us. Our social background and economic status can also limit us. Most people can’t just board a plane and fly across the globe on a whim. But beyond these obvious factors, we are also often further held back – for better or worse – by the mentality of those in our immediate circle.

When you listen to conversations, perhaps, even of yourself, you will often hear things like, “I can’t do that”, “Dad will kill me”, “They will laugh at me”, “They won’t permit that”, “I don’t want to be a disappointment”, and so on.

And, while sometimes they stop us from making bad decisions, they also often prevent us from making good decisions. A phenomenon sometimes referred to as the Crab-bucket effect.

In this blog post, we will explore how this dynamic works, helping you become more aware of it and decide when to stay, when to let go of people, and when to do what’s best for you.

What Is Crab Mentality

Crab Mentality or Crab Bucket Syndrome describes a phenomenon where a group tries to maintain the status quo by hindering or resisting change among themselves, mirroring the behaviour of crabs in a bucket, who tend to pull down any member who tries to climb out of the bucket. It is rooted in the belief that everyone should remain on the same level, have the same things, or behave alike. It is often summarised with the phrase, “If I can’t have it, neither can you”.

There are many perspectives on what the crab mentality is, and it can also stem from a lot of places such as spite, envy, jealousy, or a misguided concern for the well-being of others. How the status quo is being maintained can also differ drastically, ranging from a simple frown to an outright threat to kill non-conformists. Consequently, depending on the situation, it can be good or bad;

For example, 

  • If you grew up in a Muslim household your family may not easily allow you to convert to Christianity. They may attempt to hold you back – pull you back down into “the bucket of” Islam – by advising you, withdrawing their support, or even threatening to kill you.
  • If you grew up in a middle-class family, after graduation your parents may encourage you to go get a regular, safe job, rather than going the entrepreneurial route. They may forward you job openings, help you craft a CV, and even pull strings to secure a job for you.
  • If you wanted to travel to a new city to start life as a bachelor, your parents and friends may discourage you from leaving, and rather remind you of all the nice things that are available right where you are, and some may even threaten to kill themselves if you leave.
  • If you wanted to stop drinking and smoking, your pals may laugh and scorn you, and in fact, set traps and tempt you with your best brands of drink/smoke. 

You get the idea.

Notice how each of these buckets seems great for everyone in them, and members may not necessarily feel antipathy towards you even if their actions may cajole and hurt you. Heck, even some cultures and companies lean towards it to ensure the success of the group over the individual.

Most times, for most people, the phenomenon of there being a crab mentality at play doesn’t occur to them because they never really try to do anything different from the norm. They don’t try to abandon their religion, they want to get a job just like their parents (perhaps, even where their parents work), they do not want to travel away (heck! they want to inherit their parent’s house), and, they do not have plans of quitting smoking or drinking (in fact, they would rather get replacement lungs and an extra liver than quite the lewdness).

For most people, life is quite nice within that bucket. For most people, being held back feels safe, familiar, and good.

“Those who do not move, do not notice their chains.”

– Rosa Luxemburg

However, if you feel there is more to life than your bucket, or worse, you feel a fire is kindled under it so that you feel the need to metaphorically climb out, then it becomes almost impossible not to notice the pull.

The Problem With The Crab Mentality

All through my life, I’ve been yanked by (mental) chains that try to limit how far I can go – with my thoughts, statements, and actions. From school to religion, and most recently to my career and romantic life,  there is no shortage of advice about what I can/should or can’t/shouldn’t do.

As a kid, I was often punished if I made my younger brother cry during play. When I didn’t want to play with him, I was nudged to do so. As a teen, when I became a religious zealot, my local church frowned upon speaking in tongues. When I started to let go of religion, I was discouraged and even threatened with hell. Now, as a grown-up, I’ve been teased on different occasions to get a girlfriend, even though a few years ago it was something to be afraid of and ashamed of. In short, when you don’t do what is expected, when it is expected, and the way it is expected you get pulled by those around you to maintain the status quo.

Are these limits bad? Not entirely. To a large extent, they are the limits the average people live within. And, the average is what most people are. And, truly, when you look around, society seems to be functioning just fine with these average people – people who follow their religion, work hard on their jobs, get married and give birth to a few kids, and generally don’t do anything out of the ordinary.

It’s like their lives were scripted. *shudders*

But, just like any bell curve distribution, although the average may be higher, there are always outliers (they may be labelled troublesome, rebels, or crazy). These outliers either veer towards the crude and destructive – those who become extremists, steal, rape, and don’t care about building anything sustainable. Or they veer towards the creative and productive – those who improve on society’s shortcomings by questioning harmful beliefs, starting businesses, becoming philanthropists, and inspiring or raising others who contribute to building a truly thriving society.

This reminds me of the famous quote by Steve Jobs, “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”.

The main problem with the crab mentality is that the pull towards the average is always stronger. If you were a bad or destructive person, you’d be pulled towards becoming an ordinary person. Conversely, if you were a good or productive person, you would also be pulled back to the average. Hence, while it prevents decay, it also hinders growth.

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

George Bernard Shaw

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When People Hold You Back: How To Overcome Crab Mentality

If you’re unhappy with the usual way of doing things and plan to take a different path, expect resistance. The people who try to hold you back would only intensify their efforts as you try harder to break free. So, you must be determined and well-prepared to do this.

As someone who has been threading this part for as long as I can remember, here is my honest advice; a step-by-step guide to escaping the Crab Mentality (or being held back):

See their motives for holding you back

Most of this post has dealt with this first step. Understanding the reasons behind their actions can help you not take things to heart and also anticipate their moves. 

This doesn’t mean it won’t hurt, stress, or scare the hell out of you, but it is always easier to bear a slap that you saw coming.

“The opposite of courage is not cowardice, it is conformity. Even a dead fish can go with the flow.”

– Jim Hightower

Be clear on the reasons you want the change

You may not know what is outside the bucket which makes it even more scary to climb out, but you can be clear on all that is wrong with the bucket you’re in.

Perhaps something seems off. For me, in terms of religion, it was just how contradictory Faith seemed to Reality. It was as though I was being told a fairy tale and told to believe it against my senses. Perhaps, for you, you could recognise the downsides of traditional jobs, your culture, gender roles, or something else.

“The reward for conformity is that everyone likes you but yourself.”

– Rita Mae Brown

Brace for resistance and possible consequences of your actions

For me, I have many times remained in buckets simply because I was afraid or unprepared for the consequences. 

For instance, I’m not seeking any jobs (and have had none in the past). In a couple of years, I might no longer be employable because I would be too old for entry-level positions and lack the experience for other roles. So, how am I bracing for these consequences? I am developing my skills, network, and brand. I am writing books, building a blog, and trying to grow my online presence.

“To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.”

– Joseph Chilton Pearce

Find support

The funny thing about life is that climbing out of a bucket is climbing into another. The crab mentality works no matter the ideology or community you end up picking/following. And, while none is perfect, some are far better and more progressive.

When I started to climb out of the buckets of jobs, religion/faith I started climbing into the buckets of entrepreneurship and philosophy/science – I started reading books and connecting with people who resonated with me. Interacting and connecting with them, made the escape easier – I didn’t feel like an outcast, but a member of something better. It was almost as though I was the “bad/destructive” person being pulled towards being “average” in their buckets.

“Surround yourself with only people who are going to lift you higher.”

– Oprah Winfrey

Rinse and repeat

You must understand that there is no perfect bucket for you. So, whenever you’re in a bucket and sense that there are still some wrong things, you can always climb into another that is better. It’s just like people leave shitty jobs for better ones, or go to a different church with better doctrines and leaders.

Perhaps it is important to clarify here that climbing out (or breaking free from the influence of people) does not mean abandoning all that is good about a community or idea. You may stop being a Christian or Muslim but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t (still) avoid cheating on your spouse (adultery).

The idea is to keep learning and evolving – to keep reaching out to people who are in a different bucket than you are and escaping the gravity of the place you were.

“One repays a teacher badly if one always remains nothing but a pupil.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

Conclusion: Embrace Change, Reject The Crab Mentality.

It is tempting to think that breaking free from the crab mentality is the same as “pushing the limits,” “being the best,” or “breaking glass ceilings.” While these are admirable goals, they are, in their own way, simply a continuation of the crab mentality – a fixation on success. Breaking free from the crab mentality is about embracing change and doing things differently. Sometimes, this could mean abandoning the conventional idea of success and choosing to live a tranquil life with your family, far from the hustle and bustle of big cities.

It’s about doing things differently. For instance, working from home was once considered impractical, but since the pandemic, it has become mainstream. This shift also applies to other once-controversial ideas, such as monogamy, democracy, and mental health awareness which have gradually gained acceptance.

The emphasis isn’t on being different for the sake of it, but on being willing to do things differently when you see the need. However, since your perspective is often limited by the “crab bucket” you’re in, it becomes essential to be genuinely curious, open-minded, and adventurous.

But, perhaps the most important traits that will help you break free from the constraints of the crab mentality and add more dimensions, depth, and nuances to your life are personal faith and perseverance.

“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.”

– Alan Watts

Book Recommendations: Books For Breaking Free From The Norm And Challenging The Status Quo

Here are 5 books that will help you ditch the crab bucket mentality:  They will inspire you to challenge the status quo and design a life that aligns with your values.

  • The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere and Join the New Rich, by Timothy Ferriss: This book critiques the traditional work model. Ferriss proposes strategies for designing a lifestyle that allows you to work less and live more. The book outlines a framework for eliminating unnecessary tasks, automating your business, and outsourcing work. 
  • The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life, by Mark Manson: This book challenges traditional ideas about happiness and success.  Manson argues that chasing after external validation and endless wants ultimately leads to unhappiness. He encourages readers to focus on what truly matters in their lives while caring less about everything else.
  • Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain: Susan Cain’s book challenges the stereotype that extroversion is the ideal personality trait. If you’re someone who feels pressure to conform to a loud and outgoing personality, this book can help you embrace your introverted nature.
  • The Courage to Be Disliked, by Fumitake Koga and Ichiro Kishimi: This book unfolds as a series of conversations between a philosopher and a young man. Through these dialogues, the philosopher challenges the young man’s (and potentially the reader’s) perspective on happiness and living a fulfilling life. It encourages readers to break free from the need for external validation and embrace the courage to be disliked if it means staying true to themselves.

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I enjoy writing long-form SEO content for self-help and personal development blogs. I can also do simple graphics design and copywriting. I’m an author, coach, logician, introvert, and storyteller. I love simplicity.

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