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What the Hell is Crab Mentality?

By: Jonathan Smith, Psy.D

May 9, 2024

Nobody talks too loud

In my hometown

Nobody stands too tall

For fear of getting knocked down 

– Robert Ellis, “Sing Along”

Have you ever heard of “crab mentality”? It’s the idea that people try to stop others from succeeding because they’re jealous or afraid of being shown up. It’s like a bunch of crabs in a bucket, where they keep pulling each other down, preventing anyone from climbing out. In fairness, we may be giving the crabs an unearned lousy reputation; beyond anecdotal evidence, it’s unclear if crabs actually engage in this behavior, but it works well as a metaphor. 

This concept has been around for a long time and can be seen in different parts of the world. Some cultures continue to prize aspects of this way of thinking. In New Zealand and Australia, “tall poppy syndrome” describes the criticism of successful people. In Japan, they use the phrase “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” Much of this is framed as a method for keeping people humble and focused on the greater good, and it may serve that purpose in many cases. But it isn’t used exclusively for that reason, and even when it is, the consequences can be significant and insidious.

We can see crab mentality on a micro-scale when someone somehow discourages their friends from outshining them. At work, it might take the form of underperformers criticizing overachievers or even sabotaging a coworker to hide their own shortcomings. In the world of video games, people sometimes rail against “try-hards,” which are players who dare to…try hard. Many people from humble means who succeed in some way often encounter criticism and rejection from their families for “rising above their station,” “forgetting where they came from, or the one that rattles around my southern-born brain, “getting too big for their britches. 

Crab mentality can manifest in many different ways, including:

  • Put-downs and insults: undermining the accomplishments of others or making them feel bad about themselves.
  • Gossip and spreading rumors: spreading rumors or gossip about others in order to damage their reputation or make them look bad.
  • Sabotage: sabotaging the efforts of others or preventing them from achieving their goals.
  • Withholding support: withholding support or encouragement from others when they are trying to achieve something.

Are any of those familiar to you? Do you recognize those tendencies in people you know? Do you recognize them in yourself? 

There are many reasons people might engage in this behavior. Among the more obvious are a fear of looking bad by comparison, resentment and envy of someone’s success, and deliberate attempts to gain a competitive advantage by undermining others. It’s easy enough to identify villains in our lives who act this way for some of these reasons. What’s harder is considering our own motivations and behavior and acknowledging that we’re all susceptible to this way of acting. 

Recognizing when this behavior occurs has many benefits, but identifying its functions, intended or otherwise, may even be more beneficial. For one, understanding the function can help generate empathy and understanding of the person engaging in the behavior. This is true whether we see it in ourselves or in someone else. Understanding the intended function can also help us meet needs more positively.

Fears of losing connection to loved ones often cause “crab mentality.” Imagine you have a close friend who you meet weekly for drinks. And then imagine that friend deciding to stop drinking. At the most conscious level, you might be happy for your friend. You might be excited to see them taking steps toward self-improvement, and you might even be relieved if you’ve noticed they have a problem with alcohol.

Those might not be the only feelings you experience, though. Maybe you’re worried about your own drinking, and your friend’s decision activates some defensiveness. There may be a piece of you that worries about the security of your friendship if the one activity you regularly engage in together isn’t an option anymore. You may also wonder what else might change about your friend and about your friendship.

So what do you do if you notice those feelings? Recognition is something to celebrate and appreciate. When we identify that we worry about losing our friend, we can consider ways to maintain the connection while supporting their decisions. When we lack awareness of those feelings, however, we’re far more likely to behave in ways that hurt our friends. We might be critical of their choice, invalidate their reasons for making the change, or just withdraw from the relationship.

Carl Jung said, Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life, and you will call it fate. I can’t count the number of clients who have told me how terrible they know they are because of thoughts they have had. Not actions they’ve engaged in but thoughts they’ve noticed and decided not to act on. It’s sad and ironic that many of us notice uncomfortable feelings and judge ourselves for feeling them. If we regularly punish ourselves for noticing feelings we have but don’t want to act on, then we risk never noticing them and simply acting on them instead. When a client is beating up on themselves and describing the many ways they know they’re a “bad person,” I sometimes ask if they think most bad people are as worried about being bad as they are. Actually, I put it more bluntly. “Assholes don’t worry about whether or not they’re assholes.”

Mindful awareness of uncomfortable thoughts and feelings gives us power. Not necessarily the power to make them go away, but the power to decide whether or not to act on them. Over time, the feelings we acknowledge but don’t act on tend to reduce in frequency and intensity. This can work with crab mentality. We can notice our immediate reactions, the thoughts and feelings we wish we didn’t have, and compassionately consider the potential functions of those thoughts and feelings. We probably want or need something, and there are different ways of getting those things without negatively impacting the people around us.