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What To Do When Your Family Holds You Back

In some families, nobody's happy unless everyone stays in their place. Forever. Elizabeth Gilbert explains why they feel threatened, and how to break free.
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If you come from a family that encourages every member to succeed, hoisting its kin on loving arms toward their destiny, then few of the following ideas will make sense to you. (And, also, where do you live and what do they put in your drinking water?!) Everybody else, please keep reading.

A few years ago, I found myself in a beauty salon in Detroit, getting my hair done by an edgy-looking rocker chick in her early 30s. My hairdresser was full of life, and I liked her spirit right away. But when I mentioned that I’d flown in that morning from New York City, she seemed suddenly overcome with sadness.

“Ah, New York,” she said wistfully. “It’s always been my dream to live there, even for just a year.”

“You should do it!” I said.

“I could never,” she said. “It’s too far out of reach.”

“No, it’s not!” I pushed. “People move to New York City every day! There are planes, trains, and buses heading from Detroit to New York every hour. There’s probably one leaving right now! You’re young ― go!”

“I wish I could. I’m suffocating here. But it’ll never happen.”

I have an internal alarm that goes off whenever I hear people talking about dreams that will “never happen,” so of course I had to request further details.

“My family keeps me trapped here,” she explained.

“Oh, you’re married?” I asked.

“No.”

“Kids?”

“No.”

“Taking care of an elderly relative?”

“No,” she sighed.

“So what’s the trap?”

“I come from a big family,” she said, “and we’re really close, so I can’t really ever leave....”

And I thought, Ah, the crab bucket!

The first time I ever heard about the “crab bucket” was from my friend Rob Bell, an author, former pastor, and frequent public speaker. He was taking questions after an event when a woman in the audience said, “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 holding me back. They seem threatened by my need to evolve, and I don’t know what to do about it.”

Rob replied that her family was threatened by her need to evolve. She was disrupting their world view. Sometimes a family believes that stability depends upon keeping people in their correct place, he explained. If you dare to move from that place, you’ve challenged everyone’s sense of security. Some families are just like a big crab bucket—whenever one of the crabs tries to climb out and escape, the other crabs will grab hold of him and pull him back down.

Some lucky folks come from fabulous crab buckets—ones where the inhabitants form a helpful ladder for the most promising crustacean to climb up and out. But some come from crab buckets where an attempt to leave is met with a swift, clamping claw to one’s little crab ankle (or whatever crabs have instead of ankles).

In families, a crab bucket mentality can create the worst kind of loyalty—an honor code that forbids anyone from changing or growing. (The mentality being “If I can’t get out of this crab bucket, nobody’s getting out of this crab bucket.”) I’ve also seen crab bucketing happen in peer groups, when friends subvert one another’s efforts at transformation. I know someone who was committed to losing weight, but when her coworkers relentlessly mocked her healthy food choices at lunch, she finally caved and rejoined them in their junk food binges. At which point she was instantly accepted back into the tribe.

That’s where we have to be really careful, because the threat of losing our tribe can be so scary that we might sabotage ourselves to avoid testing the limits of our clan. But if you have a dream for your life, then a crab bucket is no place for you to remain. If you feel like you’re suffocating, it might be time to fight your way out.

And as you’re crawling out of that bucket, take one last look behind you. Do you see a young and ambitious cousin crab of yours, perhaps, desperately trying to climb that wall to freedom, too? Reach down and pull her out with you. Together, maybe the two of you can go form a new family somewhere, a place where you are no longer held back by the needs and sorrows of others—but instead get to march (sideways or otherwise) toward the miracle that is your own right life.

Elizabeth Gilbert is the author of, most recently, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear (Riverhead).

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