Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Crabs-in-a-bucket Theory

The people in our lives reflect who we are. In different phases of life we may attract different types of people. As we grow and evolve as individuals the people in our lives will grow with us, fade away, or hold us back. We can influence others but we can not change them. Change can only came from within. If we make the conscious choice to improve ourselves, we may also have to make choices about the people with whom we associate. This is not always easy. We do not want to leave behind the ones we love. If they are not ready to make the same choice to evolve, we can allow them to keep us from our own goals or we can separate ourselves enough to move toward our personal goals. As we achieve our goals, we can offer encouragement and guidance. In any recovery or self-improvement program it is recommended to separate oneself from the people that you are used to being around, because it is often those people that were involved with the behaviors you are working to overcome. Any successful person will tell you they surround themselves with like minded people. When we are surrounded my positive motivated people, we lift each other up and propel each other forward. Wanting the best for others, attracts people who want the best for us. Operating from a place of limitless possibility, we do not need to compete to be successful. We can rejoice in the success of others.

Our society does not promote the idea of limitless potential. We tend to act from a state of lacking. We are taught to think another person’s success diminishes our own. We measure our level of success or failure by comparison to others. This is the cause of the crab-in-a-bucket theory. The crab-in-a-bucket theory refers to the behavior of crabs when placed inside a bucket. While a single crab may find a way to escape, when several crabs are put in a bucket, none will escape. As one crab claws its way to the top, the others will pull it back down. This is a true phenomenon. Crab mentality is also a metaphor for the human response to self-improvement in others. Often when people see others advancing themselves, they subconsciously reach out to hold them back.

John and Matt had been friends for a long time. They went to bars to drink and pick up women at least a few nights every week. They would laugh about being hung over and calling in sick for work. They did not have meaningful relationships. Women were merely a conquest. Eventually, Matt began to see the harm he was doing to himself; physically, emotionally and spiritually. He was sacrificing so many goals and desires for the same shallow experiences week after week. He decided he wanted to make a change. He told John he did not want to behave like that anymore. Instead of encouraging Matt to better himself, John took it as an insult. He saw nothing wrong with the social rut they had dug for themselves. He was comfortable with the way things were. He did not want change. John tried to drag Matt down any way he could. He even used guilt to try to keep Matt from changing. Subconsciously, he was afraid that if Matt found happiness elsewhere, it would reflect a weakness in him. Instead of seeing an opportunity for personal growth, he chose to hold his friend back.

Does this sound familiar to you? Have you ever been in Matt’s or John’s position? I would love to hear your stories about crabs in a bucket.


  1. Excellent theory !! Good explanation and definition.
    I notice this all the time when young adults are making there transition from high school into college. When some young adults are forced to go to community college due to them not getting in to a University, their peers will get accepted but with them comparing their self to sourounding peers they may feel in competent and try and ruin the success of others.

  2. Great article. I didn't realize how much this is a HUMAN problem. I always tend to think of it as more commonplace in inner-city communities. I'm well aware of how it takes place out here. As soon as a man starts to improve his life, and remove his self from all of the negativity that takes place on a day to day basis, he is dragged back down by "friends" or "family". I've been through it repeatedly, and I appreciate this article as a potent reminder. Take care.

  3. I love this theory, I use it myself in my writing. So very importanat to check who you are sharing your bucket with!


  4. Your story is pretty much similar of what we have been experiencing in our Deaf community especially when we are in a society where we don't want another Deaf person to be successful by making them look bad. We call it "Crab's Theory" just like your title but I'm trying to think of what do you call that? _____ist and _____ism?

  5. I learned about this theory many years ago in college. To date, it still is a useful tool I use when talking to kids, young adults and the predicaments they tend to place themselves in due to negative outside influences. In some cases its effective. Again, it has to come from within, which is the bottom line of it all.

  6. Someone once told me, a friend isnt just a person that grieves with you when you are sad, but is also happy for you when you are doing well.

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  8. I love the idea of this philosophy. Absolutely, but you need to proof read your work. Other than that, I agree.

  9. It seems to be human nature to bring others down around us instead of allowing the individual to succeed. I have had training partners in the past that would rather hold a person back rather than see then be successful. I call it being a crabby training partner.

  10. this is so true and I have known about "crab in the bucket" saying since my school days. And recently felt the pain of it. After working hard, when I started blogging, it was very few "friends" who actually shown their support and cheered for me. Recently I got spotlighted by Lonely Planet and felt so alone at the moment of celebration.