We often hear people to tell us to “think outside the box,” but what if you find yourself in a box that other people are comfortable with? What if they want to keep you there?
If life is anything at all, it’s a giant adventure. Each of us is learning and growing every day. Sometimes our growth is subtle, as when we start watching a new series on Netflix and learn a bit about life inside a women’s prison. Other times, our growth can be more drastic, such as when we get a new job, ditch the unhealthy romantic relationship, or finally lose the 20 pounds we’ve wanted to lose for decades.
It can be tremendously hard to change something about ourselves. It can also be infinitely more difficult when people we love and trust consciously or unconsciously sabotage our efforts.
There’s a popular story about crabs that illustrates this quite well. It goes like this:
THE STORY OF THE CRAB BUCKET
One time a man was walking along the beach and say another man fishing in the surf with a bait bucket beside him. As he drew closer, he saw that the bait bucket had no lid and had live crabs inside.
“Why don’t you cover your bait bucket so the crabs won’t escape?” he said.
“You don’t understand,” the man replied, “If there is one crab in the bucket it would surely crawl out very quickly. However, when there are many crabs in the bucket, if one tries to crawl up the side, the others grab hold of it and pull it back down so that it will share the same fate as the rest of them.”
So it is with people. If one tries to do something different, get better grades, better jobs, improve themselves, escape their environment, or dream big dreams, other people will try to drag them back down to share their fate.
Moral of the story: Ignore the crabs. Charge ahead and do what is right for you. It may not be easy and you may not succeed as much as you like, but you will NEVER share the same fate as those never try.
Why does this happen? When we love and respect people, how can we tear them down and block them from reaching their dreams?
I’ve been a crab before. I’ve listened with half an ear to a coworker’s idea at work and before the first sentence was out of her mouth I was formulating reasons why her idea would never work. I’ve giggled when my 6-year-old announced his life plan to build a train track from Wash Park in central Denver to our front door in Parker. I’ve rolled my eyes at ex-boyfriends that pronounced they would earn a million dollars by the age of 30. I’ve squashed good ideas before they could become plans, and I’ve killed dreams before they even had a chance to take flight. I’ve done it to people around me, and I’ve sure as heck done it to myself.
I’ve also been pulled down by my fellow crabs, more times than I can count. I’ve shared an exciting new idea about career development only to have a loved one metaphorically pat my head with a patronizing smile and proceed to detail all the holes in my plan. I’ve presented an idea to my boss and immediately heard a dozen reasons why it wouldn’t work. I’ve improved my health only to have friends sarcastically joke about what I was eating for breakfast. Being pulled down by my fellow crabs sucks.
I don’t think it’s a conscious decision to keep our loved ones from reaching their dreams, but it’s real nonetheless. I’ve never consciously taken stock of someone’s goals or dreams and decided to “bring them down to size.” For me, it’s something I’ve done almost on instinct, as if my auto-pilot response is to be practical, to fit in, to do what’s expected of me, and to expect the same out of people around me.
It’s also probably done out of simple, stark, plain old fear. Discouragement of others’ often stems from our own fears and insecurities. The person who poo-poos an idea or inadvertently sabotages your efforts at self-improvement may simply be brimming with fears and insecurities of their own and projecting their fears onto you. That may be what I was doing when I laughed at my 6-year-old’s railroad dreams.
Fear thrives in the darkness. Once we understand and illuminate our fears, we can fight them. We can fight the instinct for self-protection and safety by examining the fears that limit our beliefs and that limit our encouragement of others. We can also open our eyes to the truth of other people’s limiting beliefs and fears, and in doing so, we can work through them to find the beauty of aspiration, hope and achievement on the other side.
The important thing to remember about the crab story is this: We aren’t crabs. We live in a world full of messy, beautiful, imperfectly perfect human beings. We can choose to lift each other up, or pull each other down.
We can choose not to be crabs.