What the “crabs in a bucket” mentality is & how to overcome it.

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What does "crabs in a bucket mean?"

"Crabs in a bucket" is a metaphor that comes from the behavior crabs exhibit when they pull each other down if one tries to climb out of the bucket.

The story is, if a crab was in a bucket by itself, it could probably escape.  But if you dropped a bunch more crabs into the bucket, they'd grab the one trying to get out, back down.  The result is, no one succeeds in climbing out.

This "crabs in a bucket" metaphor is a mentality that describes people who try to bring down others who are more successful or higher up in life than they are due to jealousy, insecurity, greed, etc.

You may have heard of this mentality by different names like "the crab mentality" or "crabs in a barrel".  You may have even experienced this phenomenon yourself.

If not, you'll learn how the crab mentality can hold you back and how to triumph over it.

"Crabs in a bucket" mentality.

How the "crabs in a bucket" mentality can affect you.

Studies on the crab mentality.

There's surprisingly little research done on "crabs in a bucket" behavior compared to other types of maladaptive behaviors.

However, it's prevalent across different demographics, given the personal stories of people I've heard or read about from diverse backgrounds.

I also came across a few studies, as well as a few anecdotes in my own culture.

Examples of crab mentality.

Filipino culture.

The term crab mentality was not in my vocabulary growing up, but I experienced internalized crab mentality and witnessed it in others in my own culture.

For instance, when my sister and I would purchase something we considered expensive, we would deflect how much money we spent on it by emphasizing how much money we saved, so no one would think we were showing off.

The first time I actually heard the word crab mentality was from my husband.  He said it's a mentality that is familiar to the Filipino community.

In fact, it was a term that Filipina writer, Ninotchka Rosca, is given credit for, but I couldn't find any texts, articles, or quotes that stated she actually coined the phrase.

I did, however, come across a research article written by Manuel B Dy Jr. in 1994 titled, Values in Philippine Culture and Education.  His article explained the crab mentality that exists within Filipino culture:

Filipinos have a selfish, self-serving attitude that generates a feeling of envy and competitiveness towards others, particularly one's peers, who seem to have gained some status or prestige.  Towards them, the Filipino demonstrated the so-called "crab mentality", using the levelling of instruments of tsismis, intriga and unconstructive criticism to bring others down.  There seems to be a basic assumption that another's gain is our loss.

I don't mean to pick on my own culture, but in the same article, he wrote about the roots of the Filipino character and how it contributes to the crab mentality:

Subtle comparisons among siblings also are used by mothers to control their children.  These may contribute to the "crab mentality."

I personally experienced the latter growing up in my home, as I was often compared to my own siblings by my mom.

I've also heard similar stories from my friends of different backgrounds.  This meant that this behavior wasn't unique to my culture.

In fact, I came across a couple of studies that highlight the "crabs in a bucket" behavior in other communities and groups.

The healthcare system.

I found two studies on crab mentality and behavior within the healthcare system and healthcare personnel.  The first was a study done on the 1982 Medi-Cal reform bills in California.  The second was a study done amongst healthcare personnel in Turkey.

The 1982 California Medi-Cal reform process became a power grab amongst physicians and hospitals.  Every time a solution was presented to each group, it was struck down because neither group wanted the other to win.

Here are some excerpts from the article:

If physicians became "crabs in a bucket" in 1982, business can certainly be credited with helping to put them there.

 

Business interests were used by legislators to counteract the power of the physician and hospital lobbies.

Because physicians and hospitals were fighting for control of the healthcare reform, they ultimately lost to businesses, insurance companies, and interest groups.

Another study investigated crab mentality through the accounts of healthcare personnel within the emergency department of a hospital in Turkey.  These are replies from the staff when they were asked how they felt after they experienced "crabs in a bucket behavior":

"It made me feel bad", I did not want to go to work", "I felt lonely" and "I felt a lack of motivation".  In addition to these, other responses were "I felt helpless", "I felt depressed", I "I felt furious", "I wanted to get away from other people" and "I felt I had to accept the situation".

The health impact of the crab mentality.

As you can see from the last quote, the crab mentality can have negative consequences on a person's overall health and performance.

study done on teachers and staff from Mangalore, India revealed the health consequences of the "crabs in a bucket" effect.

The study revealed that the biggest impact of the crab mentality on health was stress.

Other consequences of crab mentality from the study were:

  • Divorce
  • Separation
  • Heart surgeries
  • Physical disorders
  • Mental disorders

Reasons for this were:

  • Not accepting others' feelings.
  • Not acknowledging the work of support staff.
  • Greed
  • Jealousy
  • Lust
  • Obsession
  • Disrespect
  • Hatred

Personal counseling was suggested as the key to solving these types of misconceptions in the workplace.   Acknowledgment and reward for hard work could also help alleviate stress and curb the crab mentality.

What we learn from all these studies is that the crab mentality can have negative consequences, regardless of gender, race, socioeconomic position, belief, or nationality.

When we pull each other down like crabs in a bucket instead of propping each other up, no one really ends up winning in the long run.

WHY PEOPLE HAVE CRABS IN A BUCKET MENTALITY.

According to an article on the crabs mentality in Psychology Today, people, like crabs, evolved to seek safety in numbers.  When you feel safe and supported in a large group, your body releases the chemical oxytocin, which makes you feel good.

When that support feels threatened, your body releases cortisol, which is a hormone that makes you feel scared or bad.  However, when people are in a group, there's bound to be competition for resources.

When this happens, the same chemical that makes you feel bad is released because your position in the group is weakened.  On the other hand, when you feel like you're in a position of power, the hormone that makes you feel good is released.

This explains why people have a crab mentality within their own group.  If someone is in a better position or tries to leave, then that person will be pulled back down by someone in the group who feels threatened.

This doesn't mean that we can't unlearn the crab mentality.  I know this because I see the opposite of "crabs in a bucket" in my own culture.  It's called "Bayanihan", a Filipino term that describes the spirit of working together for the greater good.

My husband told me that when someone in the village needs to move their house, the able-bodied men come together and literally put the house on their backs and move it to a new location.

When they're done, they are given food as a token of gratitude.  The villagers essentially come together to help the others in times of need.  We also see this empathic and compassionate behavior in other communities when disaster strikes.

This tells us that even though crab mentality exists, humans are wired to help one another out, especially when the situation calls for it.

How, then, can we rise above the crab mentality even in the absence of catastrophe and especially when others are more successful than us?  Here are some tips that might help you overcome the "crabs in a bucket" mentality and become genuinely happy for others.

How to triumph over "crabs in a bucket."

1. Be aware.

Being aware of your own thoughts and behavior is a great first step in recognizing crab mentality.

For example, if a friend announced that she is pregnant or got a job promotion, would you feel a twinge of jealousy?

OR

If your younger sibling bought a home bigger than yours, would you judge them for investing so much money?

Being aware makes you more cognizant of how your thoughts and actions affect yourself and others.  Awareness is a technique that is practiced in mindfulness meditation.

The aim is to help bring you into the present moment and enjoy what is right in front of you instead of worrying about others, what happened in the past, or hypothetical calamities about the future.

You don't have to sit for hours to be mindful and aware.  You can practice meditation as you go about your day while walking, cooking, doing dishes, or driving.

2. Get some help.

I used to think asking for help was a sign of weakness.  It's actually a sign of strength because you're putting your trust in someone else and being open and vulnerable to them.

You can ask someone you know and trust for help, like a close family member or friend.  Or a leader in your community like a religious or spiritual leader.

Or you can get professional help, such as a certified coach, licensed therapist, or doctor.

3. Be kind to yourself and practice random acts of kindness.

You can’t give what you don’t have, so fill yourself with kindness first so you can have enough to give to others.  Some of the benefits of kindness are:

  • Increased happiness.
  • Release of oxytocin-the love hormone.
  • Increased energy.
  • Longer lifespan.

Acts of kindness toward yourself and others takes courage and practice, and they don't have to be grand.  A simple smile, hello, self-affirmation, or friendly note could be enough to boost your happiness or make someone's day.

4. What is it that you want to learn?

Is there something you always wanted to learn?

Learning something new, like a new skill or hobby, could be one way to boost your self-confidence and raise your self-esteem.

If you're scratching your head about this, you can start by finding a quiet place where you can think and write.  This will allow the ideas to flow to you easier.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Meditation
  • Foreign language
  • Musical instrument
  • Drawing & sketching
  • Running a marathon
  • Reading a book
  • Knitting
  • Cooking
  • Sewing
  • Travel
  • Public speaking
  • Going back to school.
  • Gardening
  • Adopting a pet.
  • Martial arts
  • Sports

5. Assess who you spend your time with.

Do you spend time with people who are negative, toxic, or hurtful?

Are the people you hang out with making you feel like you're worthless?

Think about the people in your life who act like crabs in a bucket.  Are they constantly trying to drag you down?

This can be tricky because the person who is pulling you down you might be a family member or friend that you can't cut off, at least not right away.

Therefore, it might be best to get some help with this if you need to let go of people in your life that you have close ties with.

6. Surround yourself with supportive, positive people.

Joy is infectious, so if you want to overcome the crab mentality or get away from people who only want to drag you down, surround yourself with supportive, positive people who bring joy to your life.

These are the people who add to your energy rather than take away from it.  They lift you up when you are down.  They are there when you need them and the support you receive and give is mutual.

7. Don’t compare yourself to others.

"Comparison is the thief of joy." - Theodore Roosevelt

One way to curb your inner crab is to stop comparing yourself to others.  I know this is easier said than done because I do it myself all the time.

It's also easy to compare yourself to others these days since we're connected to the internet and social media 24/7.

But, like Teddy Roosevelt said, comparing yourself to others will only steal your joy and keep you stuck in a crab mentality.  Unplugging from your digital devices is one way to stop comparing yourself to others.

You can unplug and unwind for a certain period of time to help you disconnect from the world so you can reconnect with yourself and find your center again.

8. Identify and let go of your limiting beliefs.

Another way to stop comparing yourself to others is to let go of your limiting beliefs.

Limiting beliefs are something you accept as true and can be hurtful or harmful to you.  They keep the crab mentality internalized by making you fearful and preventing you from going after what you want in life.

Some examples of limiting beliefs are:

  • I am not smart enough.
  • I don't have enough talent.
  • I am too scared.
  • No one will like me.
  • I am not worthy.

To let go of your limiting beliefs, you have to identify them first before you can release them and create new, empowering beliefs.  This may take some practice, so give yourself plenty of time.

9. Practice positive, self-affirmations.

Positive, self-affirmations are words or phrases that you say to yourself or out loud to boost your mood, confidence, or self-esteem.  Some examples are:

  • I am perfect, radiant health.
  • I am worthy.
  • I am beautiful.
  • I am intelligent.
  • I have something to contribute to the world.

People who practice positive, self-affirmations are resilient and better able to perform when they are under stress, which is why they help bolster self-confidence and self-esteem.

10. Practice gratitude.

Expressing gratitude on a regular basis creates abundance in your life and increases your awareness of the things in your life that you may be overlooking.

These are usually small things in life that have become a habit that you don't have to think about, like drinking your coffee in the morning, listening to the birds chirp outside your window, or eating your lunch.

When you practice gratitude, it's these "little things" in your life that give you the greatest joy.

One way to practice gratitude is to start a gratitude journal.  A gratitude journal is a place where you write down what it is that you're grateful for.  It can be a notebook, smart device, or computer.  You can even just say it to yourself.

It shifts your mind from a scarcity to an abundance mindse.  Some of the benefits of practicing gratitude are:

  • Improved physical and mental health.
  • Increased empathy
  • Reduced aggression.
  • Improved self-esteem.
  • Increased mental strength.
  • Better sleep

Final thoughts on crab mentality.

"Crabs in a bucket" is a metaphor for the behavior that crabs display when are placed in a bucket and pull each other down when one tries to escape.

People that exhibit this behavior are said to have a crab mentality.  They typically experience negativity or threat in their own lives, which explains why they feel the need to pull others down who are more successful than they are.

You can overcome the crab mentality through simple practices like expressing gratitude, doing mindfulness meditation, letting go of your limiting beliefs, and saying a powerful affirmation to boost your confidence and self-esteem.

I hope you found these tips on how to overcome crab mentality helpful!  Do you have any tips of your own?  Please let me know in the comments below.

Christine Songco is the creator of Third Bliss and is passionate about helping others thrive holistically by finding passion, meaning, and purpose in life. Christine has been featured in WebMD, Authority Magazine, Philips Lifeline, Owl Guru, and The Lifestyle Blogger UK.

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