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The Crab Bucket

Sometimes, the people you love dearly will go to great lengths to keep you small. They’ll dislike the fact that you appear happier than you used to be. They’ll mock the things you love, belittle your goals and take pleasure from the obstacles you face. Of course, this has absolutely nothing to do with you and everything to do with them.

Insecurities lead to comparisons. An insecure person will always try to measure themselves against others, and if they don’t like how they place themselves in the results, they’ll try to tear the other person down to their level. While some people appear to be intentional with this behaviour, I believe many don’t even realise they’re doing it. 

Wouldn’t it be lovely if people could see and accept their own inherent greatness, rather than trying to pull down others in order to feel good? Sadly, we can’t control other people’s behaviour, but we can stay aware of what’s happening and take care of ourselves. 

Writer Elizabeth Gilbert took to Facebook to address this very issue, sharing a story told by her friend Rob Bell about what he referred to as “the Crab Bucket”. I think of it every now and then, and would like to share it with you.

She wrote: 

A few months ago, I was on stage with Rob Bell — minister, teacher, family man, great guy — and a woman in the audience asked him this question:

“I’m making all these important changes in my life, and I’m growing in so many new and exciting ways, but my family is resisting me. They seem threatened by my evolution as a person, and I don’t know what to do about it.”

Rob said, “Well, of course they’re threatened by your evolution as a person. You’re disrupting their entire world view. Remember that a family is basically just a big crab bucket — whenever one of the crabs climbs out and tries to escape, the other crabs will grab hold of him and pull him back down.”

I thought was a VERY unexpected comment to come from a minister and a family man!

Rob surprised me even more, though, as he went on to say, “Families are institutions — just like a church, just like the army, just like a government. Their sense of their own stability depends upon keeping people in their correct place. Even if that stability is based on dysfunction or oppression. When you move out of your ‘correct place’ you threaten their sense of order, and they may very likely try to pull you back down.”

Friend groups can do this to each other, too. My friend was a heroin addict for many years, and she saw the same phenomenon at play with her friends in the drug world: One junkie would try to get clean, and the others would instantly pull her back down into addiction again. I’ve seen it happen, too, when friends try to sabotage another friend’s efforts to lose weight, or quit smoking, or stop drinking, or get in shape. (The mentality being: “If I can’t out of this crab bucket, NOBODY is getting out of this crab bucket.”)

Not every family (or family-like grouping) is like this, of course. Some families encourage their members not just to climb, but to soar, and sometimes even to fly away. That is true grace — to want somebody to grow, even if it means that they might outgrow you.

But others will try with all their might to hold you back, to pull you down into the crab bucket again and again.

If that is happening in your life, you must identify it and resist it…

As Rob Bell said beautifully: “If people love you, they will want you to grow. If somebody doesn’t want you to grow, you can call their feelings about you by many names…but you cannot call it love. You can call it fear, you can call it anger, you can call it control issues, you can call it resentment…but nobody has ever held anyone back because of love.”

Holding yourself back in order to make other people happy will not serve you, and — ultimately — it will not serve them, either. 

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