Those negative family members, friends and neighbors were the “crabs in my bucket.” Every time I wanted to escape my place in life, they’d reach up and pull me back into the bucket with them. If you’ve ever been to the shore and seen how live crabs behave in a bucket, you know exactly where the metaphor comes from. If you put one crab in a bucket, it can climb out by itself, no problem. But if you fill the bucket with twenty crabs, just as one gets to the rim, the other crabs pull it back down.
I have my mentor, Bob Lyman, to thank for the expression. Because of my Irish background, I’ve heard an awful lot of references to taverns. Most of them are quite inane, but I find Bob’s axiom of life true in many ways. He explained to me that once you follow a new path in life, you can’t go back and “sit on the same barstool” because you’ll no longer see things in the same as your old cronies. Putting it bluntly, the people from your past become like crabs in a bucket. They’ll pull you back into your old ways.