Social Anxiety

What Is Crab Mentality?

Emily Mendez, M.S., Ed.S

Written by

Emily Mendez, M.S., Ed.S

Last updated October 17, 2023

What Is Crab Mentality?

You don't need to have pincers and a hard shell to have a crab brain. What do humans have in common with crabs in a bucket? If you've ever felt held back by others, the comparison is something that's going to resonate. If you've ever felt threatened by others, the comparison will also hit home pretty strongly.

There is a common interpersonal pattern called the "crabs in a bucket" phenomenon that describes the human inclination to pull others down when we feel threatened by them. It is very similar to the idea of "tall poppy syndrome" which causes people to feel the need to criticize highly successful people.

When placed in a bucket, live crabs will pull down any crab that reaches the top of the bucket while attempting to escape.

Crab Mentality In Humans

In humans, this instinct stems from deep stirrings of insecurity and fear that cause people to feel like others shouldn't be allowed to have something if they can't also have it. It springs up in families, workplaces, social circles, and romantic relationships. There will be an attempt to tear someone down to stop them from acting like they are "too big for their britches."

While people engaging in the "crabs in a bucket" dynamic don't physically pull the victim down, they use a form of psychological warfare that's intended to undermine that successful person who is perceived as a threat. Typically, this is done through insults that are intended to chip away at the victim's self-esteem.

In certain situations, bitter crabs may try to alienate the person they perceive as a threat using gossip or rumors. The goal is to ultimately get the victim to become intimidated and defeated enough by peer pressure to step down from their high horse.

Bucket mentality is toxic. In addition to harming the person who is being pulled down, it also causes the person doing the pulling to become immersed in envy and jealousy. These are nonproductive emotions that don't actually benefit the person doing the pulling.

Most importantly of all, bucket mentality puts so much focus on other people's accomplishments that we don't actually look at our own issues. Crabs would rather see another person destroyed than take a closer look at why they feel so unsatisfied.

Why Does Crab Mentality Exist?

Let's talk a little bit about why the crab dynamic emerges in groups. It's an interesting phenomenon based on human behaviour. In life, we often group people into different buckets based on socioeconomic status, educational levels, and appearance. Our "bucket mates" are the people we give the most attention to because we feel a sense of equalness and belonging.

A deep fear can set in when someone who is in our bucket appears to be trying to climb out to reach higher ground. Someone who is in our bucket getting "just a little more" than us is actually more painful than watching a celebrity or stranger attain success simply because those "other" high achievers were never in our bucket to begin with.

The sting comes when a bucket mate begins ascending higher than the rim of the bucket. This is why many successful people are shocked to learn that strangers are often more supportive of their success than close friends and family members.

The uncomfortable truth about crab mentality is that most people feel uncomfortable when someone close to them starts to do better than them. While people who care about you want to see you succeed, they don't necessarily want to see you doing better than them

When a crab spots another crab skittering up the side of the bucket, they are seeing someone who was once an adored friend suddenly morphing into competition. Of course, not everyone participates in bucket battles. Self-actualized people with self-confidence often have the maturity to champion other people as they embark on their journeys to success.

The goal for everyone is to become someone who isn't threatened by "other crabs." 

What Are Some Examples of Crab Mentality?

Crab mentality can happen in any situation where a person or group feels threatened by the success of others. It stems from a competitive mindset that makes a person feel that they are somehow losing something when another person gains something. Here's a look at some common ways that bucket syndrome can play out in different areas of life. 

Crab Mentality in the Workplace

Crab activity is rampant in workplace settings. One common scenario occurs when an employee feels that a colleague is attempting to outshine them. Fear of the colleague being recognized or promoted above them will cause the fearful crab to spread rumors about what they perceive to be an overly ambitious colleague.

In other cases, bucket activity may be activated when a member of a team is promoted. Feeling left behind, the rest of the team will do their best to "punish" the team member who dared to aspire to something more.

Crab Mentality in a Family

Crab activity that occurs within a family dynamic is often the most painful and destructive manifestation of this phenomenon. In families, the "runaway crab" can be anyone who is attempting to elevate their financial, educational, societal, or health status. For the crabs in the bucket, there is a deep fear that their ambitious family member will leave them behind.

Bucket activity can be far more subtle in family scenarios compared to workplace scenarios. In fact, it often looks like a quiet form of sabotage. If a person is trying to lose weight, family members who feel threatened by this may begin bringing home fast food or desserts to tempt the fitness-minded family member. They may also get angry when the person who is trying to lose weight tries to leave the house to go to the gym.

Another common technique used to sabotage a loved one is trying to make them feel so defeated they give up. They may tell the person who is trying to lose weight that they will "never reach their goal." Mocking and planting seeds of doubt are used to try to tear down a loved one out of fear of losing them if they reach their goals.

Crab Mentality in a Social Circle

When crab mentality plays out in a social group or professional circle, the symptoms can be nearly undetectable. In fact, it's common for people to wonder what they "did wrong" once friends give them the cold shoulder.

The telltale sign of crab envy is often silence. For example, a person may decide to start an online business that sells jewelry. They ask all of their friends to "like" their Facebook page to help drum up some attention for their new business. This action requires essentially no cost or effort. However, most friends will simply ignore the request instead of offering free support to someone they supposedly care about.  

Another telltale sign of crab behavior is withholding connections. Some people might refuse to offer recommendations or introductions for a friend or peer because they worry that the person will become more successful.

In some cases, the person with the connection will make excuses for why they aren't able to "make it happen" when asked by a friend or peer. Others will simply keep useful contacts or information about opportunities to themselves when they could be sharing them with people in their lives who would benefit.

There's one more toxic crab habit to know about if you're finding resistance as you try to succeed in life.

When people feel threatened by someone else's success, they will withhold compliments. This is a response to feeling inferior. They can't help but to compare the other person's success with their own failures. As a defense mechanism against feeling bad about themselves, people who feel resentful while watching another person succeed will often make "excuses" for the other person's success. They will say that the other person was simply "lucky." They may even attribute the success to cheating or unethical behaviors even though they have no evidence to support the accusation.

The common thread is that the person with the crab mindset will attribute a threatening crab's success to anything other than hard work! 

Overcoming Crab Mentality

The reality of the crab phenomenon is that we all have the capacity to be both perpetrators and victims. In fact, most of us have been on either side of the bucket at different points in life. Here are some practical tips for rising above envy and insecurity. 

Adopt an Abundance Mindset

The first step is to live by the mindset that you are only competing against yourself in this life. When we do this, we are able to measure progress by how far we've come in comparison to older versions of ourselves instead of how we measure up to other people. The abundance mindset also puts us in a position to want to help others.

When we believe that there is enough success to go around, we begin to feel excited when other people reach their goals.

Embrace Reciprocity Instead of Jealousy

The one thing that almost all successful people have in common is that they know how to utilize relationships.

When we help other people, we create a spirit of reciprocity that actually makes those that we've helped happy to help us. Reciprocity builds a ladder that all crabs can use to ascend to the top of the bucket! By focusing on helping others to achieve their dreams, we're proclaiming that we possess the self-confidence needed to meet our goals without tearing others down.

Set Your Own Goals

We often become jealous when other people reach their goals because we struggle with feelings of confusion and listlessness that are caused by lacking our own vision.

When you have a vision for your life, you can begin making a plan that has realistic and measurable goals. Once you have your own goals, you may find that watching other people's success actually provides you with a blueprint for your own success instead of serving as a source of discouragement.

Choose Your Relationships Wisely

While we can't always avoid toxic crab thinking in families, we do have some degree of control when it comes to the people we associate with. "Crabs" will often reveal their true nature in word and deed long before they ever turn on you. Just pay attention to how the people you associate with talk about other people. Signs of crab mentality include:

  • Talking negatively about other people.
  • Making disparaging comments when other people in your circle succeed.
  • Competitive behaviors that come across as "petty." For instance, a friend may try to outdo you whenever you share something positive.
  • Not praising or congratulating you when you accomplish something.
  • Creating false reasons for why you succeeded at something. For example, a friend may tell you that running a marathon was easy for you because you had a lot of free time to train. They may tell you that "anyone" could do what you did if they had the time.
  • Pulling away from you when you achieve something. If you announce a new promotion, you may notice that a friend suddenly stops replying to your texts. They may also start making plans with the rest of your friends without including you.

If you have crabs in your life, you may need to put up boundaries. It's okay to stop sharing good news with people who aren't happy for you. If you're dealing with crab behaviors in a professional setting, limit interactions to work-related topics only.

If you're dealing with crabs in your family, the issue can be more complicated.

It's necessary to decide how much distance you want to create. In some cases, simply keeping your victories to yourself may be the best way to stop crabs from trying to drag you down. Work humbly in "silence" without going to the crabs for feedback.

It's important to understand that any good news you share with family members who are trapped in a crab mindset will come across as boasting, bragging, or "rubbing your success in their face." Their own low self-esteem causes them to feel belittled by actions that ultimately have nothing to do with them.

Escaping Bucket Mentality: Why the Group's Collective Demise Doesn't Need to Be Your Problem

Ultimately, the king and queen crabs of society will never be pulled down by a toxic group mentality. The best way to escape the competitive mindset that often grabs hold of human behavior when one person in a group tries to rise higher is to simply lead by example. In addition to doing your best work, make an effort to be a champion of others who are also trying to reach life goals. Adopting the mindset that there's "enough for everyone" puts you in a winning mindset.

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Where can I go to learn more about Jacobson’s relaxation technique and other similar methods?

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You can ask your doctor for a referral to a psychologist or other mental health professional who uses relaxation techniques to help patients. Not all psychologists or other mental health professionals are knowledgeable about these techniques, though. Therapists often add their own “twist” to the technqiues. Training varies by the type of technique that they use. Some people also buy CDs and DVDs on progressive muscle relaxation and allow the audio to guide them through the process.

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