Is Your Family’s Crab Mentality Holding You Back?
At a wedding just a few months before the pandemic hit, an acquaintance of my mother came over to greet us, with her 20-something daughter in tow. After niceties, the said acquaintance began tooting her daughter’s horn. She had cracked CA exams in the first attempt, and was now handling GST accounts at the firm she had joined (her first job, no less).
If you know how competitive the exams are, and how challenging GST regulations are even for seasoned chartered accountants to grasp, you know that this young woman’s accomplishments are no small feat. After a round of congratulations and jubilations, her mother announced that the over-achieving daughter was going to start a course in B.Ed. very soon. Studying, not teaching. Why? Because being a chartered accountant often means long and unpredictable hours, and in her mother’s own words, ‘pataa nahi aage jaa ke kaisa ghar mile. Teacher ki job kam ghante ki hoti hai, toh kar legi. (God knows what kind of a family she will marry into. Teaching is not a very demanding profession, so she should do that).’ My heart broke into a million pieces when I heard that. We just lost a brilliant CA to the Indian crab mentality, ladies and gentlemen!
Wait, what’s Crab Mentality?
When you put a bunch of live crabs in a bucket of boiling water, you’ll notice that if one of them tries to escape, the others will put it down. This behaviour of pulling a clan member down and keeping them tethered to the clan is called ‘Crab Mentality’. It’s also called ‘The Crab Bucket Syndrome’. According to psychologists, Crab Mentality doesn’t always stem from a place of wanting to control or manipulate. It is, in fact, a survival mechanism of sorts. By keeping everyone in the pack together and seeking safety in numbers, mammals (humans are mammals too) protect themselves from predators.
Crab Mentality doesn’t wait for a real threat to kick in, though. Nor is it limited to work situations. It can happen in a group of friends, within families and certainly, at work. The goal of Crab Mentality is simple — to keep the pack together. But, the consequences can be damaging for individuals.
Crab Mentality in Indian Families holds us back from everything between unconventional career choices to inter-faith, inter-caste marriages
In Indian society, which is centred around the family unit, Crab Mentality means family supersedes everything — personal ambitions, romantic relationships, professional goals and even one’s mental health.
It begins when a child says they want to pursue a career other than the traditionally acceptable quartet of family business, law, medicine and engineering. Anything outside of the safe quartet can be threatening. Desi parents are infamous for brushing off ‘unconventional’ career choices as too risky or just a ‘shaunk’ — a hobby. But this dismissal is similar to the fear that Crabs in a bucket feel for their adventurous companion who’s trying to get out.
This Crab Mentality — the need for sameness and togetherness — may be at least in part responsible for the unpopularity of inter-caste and inter-faith marriages in India. It’s considered risky and unsafe to marry someone outside of the ‘community’. So, when a family member who recognises the scalding effects of boiling patriotism wants to marry someone outside of their caste, class or race, they are met with opposition. The pull-down naysayers will make sure they remind this person that there will be insurmountable cultural differences. In other words — ‘We don’t think you can survive alone outside the bucket.’
From the career we choose to the friends we make, to whom we marry or where we live, it’s seldom an individual’s decision in our culture. It’s a family decision, taken in consultation with not just one’s parents but also sometimes extended family. If an individual desires something that’s unfamiliar to their family, they can expect opposition. Questions raised, perhaps silent judgements passed.
While the Crab Mentality of one’s own family can feel stifling — and perhaps it is stifling in some cases — it’s important to remember that it comes from a deep-seated fear which is a hangover of our evolutionary journey. It’s nothing personal — mammals survived by sticking together. And even today, in our global society which allows unprecedented mobility and connection, we are still driven by that primal fear.
But, what can you do? How can you get out of the Bucket?
Every family is unique. So, there’s no one way of getting out of the Bucket. But, perhaps talking, explaining and reassuring your loved ones that you’re not abandoning them might be a good place to start.