Escaping the crab barrel
As you start to develop self-discipline, and order your life well, others around you will try to pull you back down like crabs in a barrel. Here are some tips for dealing with that.
“I don't want to be a soft man. How do I change?”
There are really just two steps to change: see the need; take action. You’ve already taken the first step if you’re asking this question. Now you must take action.
It doesn't matter where you start. Just start. Self-discipline is like a muscle: the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets. A little self-discipline will turn into a lot over time. Ryle says:
So it is with habits: the older the stronger—the longer they have held possession, the harder they will be to cast out. They grow with our growth, and strengthen with our strength.
Start developing discipline through consistent application of small actions. Start one simple habit to improve your spiritual, physical, relational, and financial shape. Don't over-exert yourself. No one jumps from a 150 lb to a 300 lb benchpress overnight. It takes time to develop that strength. So it is with self-discipline.
This article isn't about what actions to take. It is about a pitfall you will encounter—probably quite quickly—that will threaten to drag you back into softness:
Your efforts to change won’t always be well-received by others, due to “crab mentality.”
Proverbs 27:17 says, "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another."
This sharpening is a natural part of masculinity. It is built into us in a unique way. You may have noticed that men insult each other and don’t mean it. In fact, insults are a natural way that men bond and show affection. Women are quite different. They compliment each other and don’t mean it. When they insult each other, it's serious. Men can fight and be friends afterwards; women become bitter enemies. As a general rule, men bond by a process of exclusion; women by a process of inclusion.
This is to be expected, since we are designed for different things. Men are designed to work together to subdue the outward world, to get on mission together—so testing each other is critical. It is how we can establish a working hierarchy.
Every man must test and ensure his place by competing within the group.
But not all the criticism and correction you will receive will be well-intentioned. Some will not be even remotely true. As you start to develop self-discipline, as you start to pursue mission and order your life well, your efforts will be ill-received by some—often the very men you hope to forge fraternity with.
Like crabs in a barrel, as one tries to escape, the others try to drag him back down.
So, while some men will be impressed and inspired as you start to become a better man, others will become envious and self-loathing—the crabs. You will become a lightning rod for their effeminacy and negativity…and they will look for ways to take you down a peg.
Crab mentality is just envy. As the 1828 Webster’s puts it, they “feel uneasiness, mortification or discontent, at the sight of superior excellence, reputation or happiness enjoyed by another.“
Envy is the key motive behind “haters.” And there is no avoiding haters, because envy lives in the heart of every man.
It is easy, reading this, to muster the bravado to dismiss haters. The problem is, in real life, you will be affected by it—because of the power of brotherhood. Many men who want to get on mission spend their lives with one foot hovering over the gas, the other tapping the brake, because they're afraid that they might actually be successful—and then everyone will discover that they are frauds, and pounce on them.
You need to get over this.
You may not live up to the hype, but that's no reason not to step up to the plate. Here are five specific things you can do to prevent anyone pulling you back into the barrel:
Repent of your own envy. At some level, we all are envious haters. Envy leads to disorder (James 3:16). So escaping the crab barrel, reordering your life, begins with repenting of your own envy and covetousness. Your first spiritual habit should include recognizing and mortifying envy when it arises in your own heart.
Don’t tell people you’re making changes until you have established a true habit. Don’t talk about it. Just do it. Proverbs 14:23: “All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.” Acta non verba. A mere talker invites mockery—but it’s hard to mock a doer. It’s easy to go to the gym for a week, or practice family worship for a month. Big whoop. It’s also easy for others to hate a braggart and a dilettante—so don’t be one. Focus on the work.
Start smaller than you want to. Sudden drastic changes not only tend toward failure, but also draw unnecessary attention to your efforts. It will trigger crab people. We have found that small changes are best, because they go unnoticed until significant things have been accomplished.
Receive correction even if you suspect it is motivated by envy. Remember that you lose nothing by hearing a false correction, and gain much by hearing a true one—even if it is given out of wicked motives. It is always possible that you are in the wrong. Other men don’t trust a defensive man; it shows that he is brittle. They do trust a reflective man. If your critic was wrong, he’ll come to see it in time. There is certainly a time to defend yourself; the Apostle Paul defended his ministry vigorously on occasion. But you must be willing to spend time as the anvil, not just as the hammer.
Do all your work unto the Lord. This is the foundation on which all the other points rest. Those that live for the praise and notice of men will never escape the crab barrel. The little verbal jabs of crab people will injure their pride, and cause them to tumble down. Not so with those that labor for God. Your efforts to change will be derailed if you get caught up with proving yourself to crab people. Don’t try to please them. Pursue change in a spirit of humility for the glory of the Lord.
Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you. (James 4:10)
For wicked men to succeed, they must keep good men pacified and isolated from each other. A mass of unified, principled and disciplined men is a threat to evil kings—and to the kingdom of darkness.
You need a gang of men. You need men who will correct, improve, and push you. Not insecure crabs, but a brotherhood committed to godly excellence. Take to heart the wisdom of Paul when he exhorts Timothy to "flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart" (2 Timothy 2:22).
Flee sinful effeminacy, pursue godly masculinity, and do it with brothers in the Lord.
This article is excerpted and adapted from chapter 13 of our book, It’s Good To Be A Man: A Handbook for Godly Masculinity.