real life

Elizabeth Gilbert thinks it's time we all stop behaving like a bucket of crabs.

As author of Eat, Pray, Love, The Muse of the Coyote Ugly Saloon, and Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert is no stranger to tales of growth and self-discovery.

But while we might be thrilled with resolutions we make, journey’s we take and things we change, others might not be.

They may try to pull us back, and we in turn, may do the same to them. Constantly pulling each other down, like a bucket of crabs trying to escape.

Gilbert believes it’s imperative that we stop this ‘crab bucket behaviour’, and here’s why:

“THE CRAB BUCKET…revisited!

The holidays are upon us. Many of you will be spending time with your families in a far more intense and intimate setting than you do the rest of the year. This can be wonderful. It can also be difficult.

Some of you have asked me to re-post this essay, which I wrote last December about why sometimes we feel like we backslide and struggle when we re-enter the family circle.

Hope this is helpful, for putting things in perspective!

MUCH LOVE, and here goes:

Dear Ones –

A few months ago, I was on stage with my friend Rob Bell — minister, teacher, family man, great guy — and a woman in the audience asked him this question:

“I’m making all these important changes in my life, and I’m growing in so many new and exciting ways, but my family is resisting me. I feel like their resistance is holding me back. They seem threatened by my evolution as a person, and I don’t know what to do about it.”

Rob replied, “Well, of course they’re threatened by your evolution as a person. You’re disrupting their entire world order. Remember that a family is basically just a big crab bucket. Whenever one of the crabs tries to climb out and escape, the other crabs will grab hold of him, and try pull him back down.”

Which I thought was a VERY unexpected comment to come from a minister and a family man!

Rob surprised me even more, though, as he went on to say, “Families are institutions — just like a church, just like the army, just like a government. Their sense of their own stability depends upon keeping people in their correct place. Even if that stability is based on dysfunction or oppression, order must be maintained at all cost. When you try to move out of your ‘correct place’, you threaten everyone else’s sense of order, and they may very likely try to pull you back down.”

And sometimes, in our loyalty to family (or in our misplaced loyalty to the dysfunction that we are accustomed to) we might willingly surrender and sacrifice our own growth, in order to not disrupt the family — and thus we stay in the crab bucket forever.

An example: Maybe you have started taking good care of your health recently — exercising and eating well — but your family undermines your efforts, either by making fun of you for your “weird” fitness routines, or by tempting you into overeating, in order to bring you back into your old behaviors.

Maybe you have quit drinking or smoking, and your family won’t accept it, and they keep putting alcohol and cigarettes in front of you, as if it’s no big deal.

Maybe you’ve embarked on a new spiritual path, and they find it so threatening that they mock you or shame you for it.

Maybe you’ve been working on pulling yourself out of depression, but they tell you that they liked you better the other way — that they preferred you when you were a shut-down and broken-down mess. (I’ve actually been told this by people I knew years ago: “I liked you better when you were depressed.” Those words are such a blow to soul. What are you even supposed to DO with that?)

Maybe you’ve come out of the closet, and your family members are all desperately trying to stuff you right back into that closet, so things will feel “normal” again.

Maybe you’ve been going back to school, or you’re trying to save money to travel, or you’ve been talking about moving to a new city, and your family subtly or (or not so subtly!) makes you aware that they don’t approve: “Oh, so you think you’re better than us now, Miss Fancy-Pants?”

All of this is crab bucket behavior of the highest order, and you can count on it to flare up around the holidays.

Friend groups can do this to each other, too. My friend Rayya was a heroin addict for many years, and she saw the same phenomenon at play with her friends in the drug world: One junkie would try to get clean, and the other junkies would instantly pull her back down into the world of addiction again.

I’ve seen it happen, too, when friends try to sabotage another friend’s efforts to get out of debt, or to move into better relationships or situations in life. (The mentality being: “If I can’t get out of this crab bucket, NOBODY is getting out of this crab bucket.”)

When I first got published, I was working as a bartender, and when I shared my happy news with co-workers, one of the managers at the bar said, in real anger, “Don’t you DARE go be successful on us. That was not the agreement.” (And, silently, I was like: “The agreement? What agreement?”) That person never forgave me, actually, for aspiring to climb out of that crab bucket — so I had to disentangle myself, and move on.

Not every family (or tribe-like grouping) is like this, of course. Some tribes encourage their members not just to climb, but to SOAR, and sometimes even to fly away. That is true grace — to want somebody to grow, even if it means that they might outgrow you.

But all too often, there are those in your tribe who will try with all their might to hold you back, or to pull you down into the crab bucket again and again.

“If that is happening in your life, you must identify it and resist it.

Establish your own code of honor, belief, or behavior — and stand quietly strong within that code.

Don’t ever let anyone stop you from growing or changing.

Don’t forget who you are. Not who you WERE — but who you are. Most importantly, don’t forget who you aspire to become. That’s the most vital thing. (My husband always says that the most important thing is not how you feel about your past or your present, but how you imagine your future. Keep your eyes on that future — that’s where you need to be heading.)

As Rob Bell said beautifully: “If people love you, they want you to grow. If somebody doesn’t want you to grow, then you can call their feelings about you by many names…but you cannot call it love.”

If somebody doesn’t want you to grow, you call their feelings about you “anger”, or “resentment”, or “insecurity”, or “dominance” — but it damn sure ain’t love. Nobody ever held anyone back because of love.

So here’s the takeaway: If it’s time for you to grow, you have to grow.

If it’s time for you to change, you have to change.

If it’s time for you to move, you have to move.

If it’s time for you to finally crawl out of that crab bucket, start crawling.

Holding yourself back in order to make all the other people in the bucket happy will not serve you, and — ultimately — it will not serve them, either.

Be loving, be compassionate, be gracious, be forgiving. But by God, be whoever you need to be — not just over the holidays, but always.

(And needless to say, if you are the crab at the bottom of the bucket who is holding back another crab from escaping, it might be time to summon up all your love and all your courage and gently, generously, LET GO. It won’t be easy, but it might be the most important thing you ever do. You might even liberate yourself in the process.)

ONWARD and all love,

You can find Elizabeth’s post in it’s original form here.

What Elizabeth Gilbert discuss the advice she would give her younger self on Oprah’s Super Soul Sessions:

Video via OWN