There once was a man who sat on a fishing dock and observed how a bunch of live crabs, in a bucket, behaved.
While all of them squirmed at the bottom, every now and then, one crab would crawl up the side in an effort to reach the top and escape. But each time it made its way closer to the rim, a crab from below would reach up and pull it back down. Then, another crab would climb upward, and again, one crab from the bottom would tug it back down.
A crab placed alone in a bucket will easily climb out and escape, but when you place it with a few of its mates, this interesting phenomenon occurs: One at a time, as the crabs try to escape, other crabs will pull them back down to their misery and the group’s collective demise.
In psychology, this behavior became known as “The Crab Effect,” or “The Crab Mentality,” as a way to illustrate the selfish, harmful, and jealous mindset of some members in a group, who will try to undermine and halt the progress of the other better-performing members in the group.
Is Your Environment Holding You Back?
Do you ever feel like people in your life are holding you back? Do you ever feel like you’re that crab in the bucket, trying to escape, only to be pulled back down by those around you? Like you’re a victim of this Crab Mentality?
I felt that way once.
In my last year of working at Google, the idea of leaving the company to try and explore new territories and experiences in life (mainly entrepreneurship) was running circles in my head. A colleague on my team would always mock me and say “look around you man, this is the best you’re ever going to get in life.”
His comments bothered me. “How could you be so cynical and small-minded?” I would think. In fact, whenever I tried to go beyond at work and prepare an extra presentation to share with the manager and my team, he would attempt to discourage me by asking this question: “Why waste your time with this?”
Eventually, I realized that he’s just a lazy guy who doesn’t want to see others shine or progress at a faster rate than him—he was the crab in the bottom, pulling me back down anytime I tried to crawl out of the bucket.
Why Does The Crab Mentality Exist?
My colleague’s jealous nature of thinking is illustrated by what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck termed “The Fixed Mindset.”
People with a fixed mindset believe that their character, intelligence, and creative qualities are fixed and cannot be improved. That’s why they have the tendency to avoid challenges, give up easily, render effort useless, ignore feedback, and feel threatened by the success of others. So instead of doing challenging work and advancing themselves forward, they’re naturally playing small and pulling others down as a means of “staying on top.”
In essence, that’s why the crab mentality exists. It manifests in people with a fixed mindset who are not willing to expand their boundaries of thinking or to look beyond their self-constructed ego. They’re dissatisfied with their current circumstances, but don’t accept that they have a choice or the ability to create in life what they truly want. And whether it’s due to fear, insecurity, excuse-making, bad habits, limiting beliefs, or a lack of motivation, they struggle to accept the notion that anyone can make positive change happen for themselves.
As a result, instead of owning up to their situation and facing their own issues, they attempt to reduce the self-confidence and halt the progress of anyone who shows signs of achieving success beyond them. And they do it out of their envy and resentment and through downplaying, criticism, discouragement, and unkind actions.
In short, people who fall into this crab effect, carry this mantra with them: “If I can’t have it, neither can you.” And that’s why sometimes, without realizing it, our environment can be holding us back from moving forward in the direction that we wish. In a way, that’s why, in Atomic Habits, James Clear wrote:
“Environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behavior.”
But here’s what you and I need to realize:
Sometimes, we’re the victims of the crab effect, and sometimes we’re the instigators of it. Sometimes, you’re the one being pulled down, and sometimes you’re the one doing the pulling.
Are You The Instigator of The Crab Effect, or The Victim of it?
Regardless of which role you’re playing, the truth is that there is nothing healthy behind this way of behaving and relating to others. Whether you’re the victim or the instigator, a collective downfall benefits no one, it only sabotages the advancement of everyone involved.
The Crab Mentality might produce an instant dose of dopamine and positive feelings for the person doing the pulling, but it’s not a healthy strategy for long-term well-being. Downplaying or criticizing another person’s success doesn’t really lift you up, despite the short-term illusion of it doing so.
When you actively participate in it, your actions are simply projecting your jealousy, fears, and limiting beliefs onto someone else—and so you’re feeding into your existing weight of unworthiness and insecurity.
The reality of life is that there will always be someone who is wealthier, smarter, wiser, luckier, and perhaps much more successful in your field than you. So if you constantly compare yourself to others and let their success diminish you, then operating from a stable sense of self-worth will be incredibly hard to establish, and you will always play small in life.
If you’re on the other end of the paradigm, playing the victim role, well, then you’ll never be able to spring-free from the environment that’s anchoring you down within its boundaries of limited-thinking.
In either role you find yourself in, one thing is certain: You must break free from this Crab Mentality.
How to Break Free From The Crab Mentality: If You’re The Instigator, Build a Mindset of Growth and Abundance
The Crab Mentality thrives on the fixed mindset that was described above, but this mindset is also an extension of what Stephen Covey described in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, as the scarcity mindset:
“People with a scarcity mentality tend to see everything in terms of win-lose. There is only so much; and if someone else has it, that means there will be less for me.”
It’s a mindset we cultivate from our environment and one that is built on the assumption that if someone else becomes successful, this would somehow mean that we can no longer reach higher levels of success anymore.
And this kind of thinking will suck the joy out of your life: You’ll perceive your peers as competitors rather than people you can collaborate with and learn from. You’ll work from a place of fear, emptiness, and insecurity rather than a place of self-worth and confidence. You’ll narrow-down your vision and so you’ll only see the one small piece of the pie, not the entirety of it.
A broader and more empathetic, ego-less perspective, is what Stephen Covey describes as the abundant mindset: “The more we develop an abundance mentality, the more we are genuinely happy for the successes, well-being, achievements, recognition, and good fortune of other people. We believe their success adds to...rather than detracts from...our lives.”
This abundance mindset flows from inner confidence and security. It elevates your consciousness so that you can clearly see how everything is connected—any increase in progress and joy in the ecosystem of the world around you also implies a positive growth you can experience as well. How? You can observe and learn from someone’s experience or you can collectively celebrate it.
And this abundance attitude is also reflected in psychologist Carol Dweck’s growth mindset, which is based on “the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts, your strategies, and help from others.”
In other words, we are all capable of change and growth—especially when we allow ourselves to move past our limiting beliefs and stretch ourselves in the process of working toward whatever we pursue.
So, here’s how you can build and maintain a mindset of growth and abundance:
Push, don’t pull. You don’t need to be the crab pulling others down. Instead, you can be the one who lifts them up. Learn to give and be in service to other people. I write to be of service to you. I write to inspire and to contribute to the world of personal growth and better thinking. It helps me stay grounded. It gives me a purpose. Your first step is to become a giver, not a taker—to push up and not pull down. In the words of Gandhi: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
Consciously practice gratitude. Gratitude is the secret to an abundance mindset, and the daily practice of it trains your mind to see all the good that is already there. Here’s a habit to get you started: Write one line per day.
Stop comparing. Only compare yourself to your previous self. Sure, it’s easier said than done. But here are some tips: Define what success means to you, write it down, get busy doing the work, and track your progress as a visual representation of your growth (it will keep you motivated).
Drop “I’m jealous” from your daily use. Jealousy will ruin you. It breeds unjust feelings of hate and resentment. When someone works hard for something, and they share their news of triumph with you, reply with “I’m proud of you,” or “I’m happy for you,” or “I admire what you’re doing.” These words will elicit more joyful emotions in you than “I’m jealous.” Sometimes, whenever a friend says those words to me, I stop them and bluntly ask, “why can’t you just be happy for me?”
Don’t judge others, see their light as inspiration instead. You can paint somebody’s success in a negative light. You can point out flaws in their achievements. You can say they don’t deserve it, complain that it’s unfair, succumb to the pitiful victim role, and judge this person for all the luck they’ve enjoyed along the way. Or you can be compassionate. You can recognize the vulnerable effort that a person endured. You can view him or her as a source of light and inspiration that sparks the fire in you. It all lies in your perspective.
Take action toward what you want in life. If you want something, go get it. It’s as simple as that. Sitting still, complaining, judging, or watching the world lapse forward will only make you more regretful and resentful. There is no greater defeater of dreams and hope than inaction. Instead of watching people taking action, participate in the action yourself.
As you develop this new mindset of growth and abundance, you will naturally transform from being the instigator to becoming the motivator. And you will go on to do what Plato advised us thousands of years ago: “Never discourage anyone...who continually makes progress, no matter how slow.”
How to Break Free From The Crab Mentality: If You’re The Victim, Upgrade Your Environment and Form a New Tribe
Sometimes, it’s not about resewing the fabric through which your environment is built, it’s about upgrading the threads so that whatever you sow next is more conducive to your growth than before.
Changing your environment can be impossible sometimes—you can’t always just get up and leave—but you can always instantly upgrade it. Reconstruct it. Be the architects of it. Move from the grimness of the shadow to the light of the sun.
As James Clear writes in Atomic Habits:
“You don’t have to be the victim of your environment. You can also be the architect of it… If you want to maximize your odds of success, then you need to operate in an environment that accelerates your results rather than hinders them.”
And the first thing you must do as you begin to reconstruct is to steer away from anyone who doesn’t contribute any kind, supportive, and empowering energy to your life. In other words, immediately distance yourself from negative circles and then form a new tribe.
Negative and small-minded people are life-sucking, dream-crushing, energy-draining. They’re made of people who don’t want to take ownership or responsibility for their own lives. Instead, they find comfort in complaining—it brings them an illusionary sense of relief. So, if someone’s thoughts, beliefs, and energy levels don’t inspire you, go hang out with someone who does.
Form a new tribe. One that inspires you. That supports you. That helps you fully step into your own world so you can lean into what calls you—what you know is right for you—and swim in the deep end of the sea, away from the shallow end, where everyone else swims.
Find someone who will water your strengths.
Find someone who will dim the voice of your inner critic so you can raise that of your confident-self.
Find someone who will lift you up, not claw you down.
Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher, perfectly captures this notion in his book, A Manual for Living:
“The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best.”
And you’re the sole holder of that key. Now, go build your uplifting circle of support, an environment that will allow you to thrive.
In The End, Once You Climb Out of That Bucket, The Open Sea is Yours to Discover
The crabs that try to climb out of the bucket are the ones who don’t want to be confined. They see the light atop and they know they have a chance to reach it. They’re willing to venture outside of their imposed boundaries in search of that freedom. Unfortunately, the others in the group do not recognize the same; they see another crab’s freedom as their own demise and so they would not allow the venturing crabs to leave the rest of them behind.
But you’re not a crab, you’re a human.
You’ve been gifted with a brain that allows you to think critically.
Ultimately, no one can keep you in a confined box except you. Yes, it’s difficult to succeed when people are constantly trying to pull you down, but it’s not impossible. It can be done, and it has.
If you’re happy being confined to a box, then so be it. But if you’re a dreamer, a visionary, someone seeking something better for yourself, then start the crawl upward, because before you know it, the constant effort, struggle, and sacrifice will forge the wings upon which you will soar, and fly.
And once you climb out of that bucket, the open sea is yours to discover.
An article by OMAR ITANI .