Crabs in a bucket: More on guilt, despair competitions, and so on

The internet is full of crabs in a bucket.

Here’s a quote from wandering-scientist that illustrates the concept, and a bit more.

As I was reading the comments on the various blog posts in the latest round of the WAHM vs WOHM vs SAHM argument, I was struck by how many mothers sound genuinely miserable and even bitter about their lives. Sure, there was a lot of venting and some oneupmanship, but there was also a lot of genuine pain. I’d read what the WOHMs wrote and think that their lives didn’t sound that different from mine. So why am I happy when they clearly are not?

Crabs in a bucket, pulling themselves and each other down.  Why not lift people up?

Why do we get into these ridiculous “my life is worse than yours” (yet “my choices are better than yours”) arguments?  My childhood was more troubled.  We had less money growing up.  My husband is more sexist and lazy than yours.  My child is more of a problem.  I’m sicker than you are.  I’m more discriminated against.  You have no right to call yourself badly off because that denies my experience of being worse off.  You (professional women) shouldn’t be allowed workplace rights until independent contractors (cleaning folks) are allowed workplace rights.  I feel so guilty for things that you never considered feeling guilty about before but maybe now you’re thinking there’s something wrong with you and are feeling guilty about not feeling guilty.*

Why do we encourage each other to complain about things we could instead be thankful for?

My social science doesn’t study these questions.  So all I can do is complain and speculate.  But seriously, human beings are messed up.  Evolution is a harsh mistress.

And we’re rational.  We don’t have to pull ourselves and others down.  Sure we can listen to each other vent, but we don’t have to encourage it.  We don’t have to attack people who offer solutions instead of sympathy (though we can say, “I’m not ready for solutions yet, just listen”).  We don’t have to one-up each other in despair competitions.  We don’t have to attack different choices as wrong choices.  We don’t have to be miserable about the choices we’ve made.  We can actively try to be happy and we can actively encourage other people to be happy too.  Either happy with the choices they’ve made or encourage them on the way to implementing new choices.

Let’s create small tides that lift all boats.  Let’s focus on how we can grow to be the people we want to be and encourage others to do the same.

*Disclaimer:  The above statements have nothing to do with our actual lives.

Do you think most people are as miserable as people on the internet seem to be?  Do you think people on the internet are really as miserable as they pretend?  Do you think sharing/spreading the misery on the internet helps or harms?  How can a person help decrease widespread misery without getting hir head bitten off?

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36 Responses to “Crabs in a bucket: More on guilt, despair competitions, and so on”

  1. Everyday Tips Says:

    I do think people are either more miserable than they used to be, or people are just more willing to talk about their ‘miserableness’. I too have sat and thought about this.

    When I think about it, my generation has had it pretty good. Women have more opportunity than ever before (although it isn’t perfect), children were not forced to go off to war, technology has advanced and life has many more conveniences than in previous times.

    Part of me thinks it has does have to do with how open our society has become. For example, when I had a miscarriage, I could talk about it with various people without feeling like I was revealing some horrible secret. However, my mom’s generation was not so lucky. Many things were kept hidden, and therefore people did not have as much access to information to help in the healing process.

    The one-up-manship is another story all together. That is something I will never, ever understand and I actually have a post in ‘draft’ status about.

    (On an unrelated note, as I type this, the comment box keeps flashing on the screen with each strike of a key. Not sure why…)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      So sorry for your loss. The miscarriage section of the fertility forum I was on was indeed a wonderful solace. It is a terrible club to join, but an incredibly supportive one.

  2. First Gen American Says:

    I noticed that when you’re surrounded by complainers at work, then you end up being generally more dissatisfied as well. I think it’s much healthier to focus on the positives. Also, I want to be that person that lifts people up and doesn’t bring them down. We all tend to rant once in a while but that’s not healthy to do 24/7.

    Dwelling on what’s bad in your life doesn’t actually fix anything unless you analyze things and then take steps to change them.

    I think the internet allows people some level of anonymity which makes them feel safer about spilling their guts. Perhaps talking out problems was initially meant to help them find answers, but instead turned into a pity party.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      It’s great when people talk about problems and are receptive to solutions. When they are hostile to suggestions it drives me nuts! I also don’t like it when folks complain about things that I had no idea were supposed to be problems. No, you’re not the worst mom ever for doing X, Y, and Z. Honest. Though maybe a hobby would help…

      *Yes, I’m currently off all mother’s forums at this time. See, not hostile to suggested solutions. :)

  3. Jacq Says:

    Makes me glad I’ve never gone on a parenting forum. I wonder if mixed gender forums are different – maybe they’re more solution oriented than wallowing oriented?

    One thing that I’ve learned over the years is that being stuck in the pain of whatever you’re going through or worrying about is always worse than the doing something – anything related to changing the circumstances. Maybe easier said than done though when you’re depressed. In “Train Your Mind – Change Your Brain”, Sharon Begley writes about neurogenesis and neuroplasticity:

    “…people suffering from depression are unable to recognize novelty… And this inability to see things as new, as fresh, as different, this is what elicits the feeling of depression. That may be why you want this reservoir, this cache of young cells in the hippocampus. It’s able to recognize novelty, to recognize new experiences. Without that, you will have these fixed connections unable to recognize and acquire new information.”

    So I think people (including me in the past) get stuck in a groove of physically not being able to see solutions and it’s like a record playing over and over in their heads, drowning them in their misery and self-pity.

    OTOH, I do think that a little bit of showing problems for people can be constructive. Sometimes on the interwebz it can seem like everything is all rosy with some people (the early retirement forum is like this) – so when I looked there for answers as to why I felt something in life was missing when I wasn’t working, there were no answers there and I had to do the searching elsewhere.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      No, I don’t think mixed gender forums are different. The GRS forum is pretty nice (or at least were– haven’t peeked in in a while), and from what I’ve seen so is Boggleheads, but the davidson gifted forum is full of sexist/racist/classist asshats who provide the *opposite* of solutions (encouraging fixed mindsets, so to speak). Maybe it’s parenting forums. Except the Chronicle of Higher Ed. forums are also full of sexist/racist/classist asshats (or at least were in the past).

    • Cloud Says:

      I don;t think parenting forums are the only example of this. I’ve seen Slashdot threads degenerate into this sort of thing, too. And that’s a techie site, and I’d guess the demographic there is slanted towards young, childless men.

      And I think feminist blogs have a real problem with this, particularly the “you’re privileged, so you can’t say anything relevant” sort of thing.

      I don’t know why this happens. But @First Gen American is right about the impact of complainers at work. So maybe its a “misery breeds company” sort of thing?

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I refuse to feel guilty for being awesome. Period. Perhaps those anonymous trolls are really secret agents of the patriarchy. Actually, of course they are. It’s just a question of whether they’re willing agents or hopelessly misguided.

        I like the Callahan’s Saloon idea that shared joy should be multiplied and shared misery lessened. Too bad it doesn’t always work out that way.

        p.s. You should totally turn your comments on Historiann’s thread into posts of your own. You could probably just copy-paste. :)

      • Cloud Says:

        You’re right. Actually, I have several threads I’d like to pull together into a coherent post. But my work has gone bonkers right now- we have a big system rollout coming up soon. So I’ve been working at night instead of blogging. As usual, by the time I get around to writing my post, it will be “stale”- i.e., the threads that prompted it will have gone silent.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Just copy-paste that first historiann comment…. then the second one. :) They came out complete and beautiful just like Athena from Zeus’s skull.

        (Satisfice! Don’t bother pulling together a ton of threads if you don’t have time. You can do that later when you do have time. It’ll be new again at that point.)

  4. scantee Says:

    Related to the crabs in a bucket theory: I think a lot of people subscribe to the idea that there is a limited amount of happiness in this world and if someone else is happy that means she’s depleting the pool of joy available to everyone else. SoandSo might not be happy NOW but she might want some happiness in future, but damnit, JennydowntheBlock is stealing all her happiness! This is especially true if JennydowntheBlock is happy in a life course totally different from SoandSo.

    I was thinking about something (very) tangentially related to this just this morning: that a certain segment of SAHMs are driven nuts when working moms put their children in daycare for the day and then, gasp, don’t go to work. Seriously folks, why even have kids if you’re going to put them in daycare and then do something crazy like take a day for yourself! The only way to understand this is to accept that these women just don’t feel valued in their lives. They must crave some time for themselves and are completely resentful that there people, mothers even, who are getting that essential need filled even if it means they have to pay someone.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      YES! That’s a brilliant theory! I hadn’t thought about it that way before.

      It’s the same with folks not understanding that there aren’t a finite number of jobs out there. If more people are working, the economy is doing better and that creates more jobs.

      I’ve seen that judging of SAHM who put their kids in daycare or have a nanny on multiple multiple occasions. I know for sure that if we were independently wealthy we would still put our kids in daycare/preschool, for many reasons. Similarly, back when our child was much smaller and reading we would get attacked for hothousing our kid (we didn’t), and then they’d go straight home and put their own child on starfall.

  5. scantee Says:

    I just had a chance to read Cloud’s post and it seems the thread that ties her reasons for happiness together is control. There’s a lot of truth to the idea that a greater amount of control over one’s life leads to greater happiness but I think that it’s more of a threshold than cumulative effect, like income; once you have a basic level of control over your life circumstances additional control doesn’t necessarily lead to greater happiness. Surveying the WOHM vs. SAHM wars it looks like most of the participants have quite a bit of control over their lives and yet they’re still unhappy. Why? Does too much “choice” lead people down the path where they feel their lives should be absent any hardship? Are they comparing themselves to their parents’ generation, a time when they, rightly or wrongly, believed things to be easier? Without externally created adversity (war, food insecurity, repressive religious or cultural norms) do people create hardship as a necessary component to an authentic life?

    Maybe a better way to frame the dilemma is, assuming we don’t have complete control over our life circumstances, why are some able to accept that fact and thrive while some are stuck on that which is beyond their mastery? My life is far from perfect but I love it anyway. The messy, complex life IS perfection, in a way.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      The Paradox of Choice is that people can be made less happy by having more choices. The trick is whether you second-guess yourself or not. If you’re good at rationalizing your choice as having been for the best, or even better, having been for the good enough (or as a necessary learning experience), then you are more likely to be a happy person. They’re changes people can make too. (Loosely paraphrasing from Stumbling on Happiness, The Paradox of Choice, and Mindset. Go psychologists!)

      From reading Jane Austen books, it is obvious that when people have too much time on their hands they create trouble. The devil’s playground and all that. I actually wrote a paper on that for Emma in college. The only time Harriet sounds sensible is when she’s talking about farming.

  6. becca Says:

    *I don’t believe there is moral virtue in being happy. Or, for that matter, moral virtue in being unhappy (even though there are many things in this world that if you stop to think about you *should* be unhappy about). There is moral virtue in actions.

    *I think everyone has their own individual set point for action. That is, if you are ‘too unhappy’ about something, you basically wallow. It’s self-defeating. But if you are ‘too happy’, you just don’t care enough to get off your bum and FIX things.

    *People on the internet don’t seem particularly miserable to me. It’s just more intense than in person because people don’t modulate based on your situation. It’s more intense in the happy direction too.
    If I based my assessment of the internet on my facebook friends, I would conclude not only that everyone else was happier than I am- but that the normal state is somewhat ecstatic. I might feel, like Abraham Lincoln:
    “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth. Whether I shall ever be better I can not tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me.” (best description of depression I’ve ever read)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Who cares if there’s anything moral about being happy? I do think there’s something immoral about making other people unhappy unless it is for a greater good. How can there be no moral virtue in actions? There’s definitely immoral virtue in things like the Holocaust.

      If you’re happy, why do things need fixing?

      • becca Says:

        I said there was moral virtue in actions. Just not in emotions per se.
        And in answer to your second question, because you are not the only human being on this earth. Really. How blind can you be to not see things that need fixing, irrespective of your own personal happiness??? Do I need to Godwin that one back at you?

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        That reminds me of this xkcd comic. http://xkcd.com/871/

  7. oilandgarlic Says:

    I think the misery competition is similar to the “I’m busier than you” competition. It’s hard to fight against. I’m not Ms. Sunshine but I hate to get dragged down by chronic complainers.

  8. Dr. Sneetch Says:

    Glad to hear you are happy. Valid point about surrounding yourselves with people who are satisfied. As you grow older you realize that some bad stuff just happens. and it takes a while to recover. Being a friend means being there when the bad stuff happens. I for one am grateful for all my friends who stand by me when bad stuff happens.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Sure, it is valid to be unhappy when bad stuff happens. But sometimes people are unhappy because they insist that the stuff that’s happening is bad, when in actuality, it isn’t.

      Similarly there’s the one-upping, “Oh, your husband doesn’t do X, well, that’s nothing, my husband doesn’t do Y” and so on. And the not actually wanting to fix the problem. (“Have you asked your husband to do X?” “You just don’t understand, even if I asked him to do X, he wouldn’t do a good job. You women with perfect husbands just don’t understand.”)

  9. MutantSupermodel Says:

    The misery contest is most definitely not limited to the internet. I don’t think it’s amplified by the internet either. I just think it’s somehow evolved into that as part of our society’s new normal. Why? I have no idea. There is a huge undercurrent of guilt in this society and I don’t understand it. I don’t think it’s as prevalent in other societies but it sure is big time here.
    Personally, I don’t think it’s too hard to spread a little cheer without having your head bitten off. Like anything else, there’s a difference between offering something positive to someone and forcing something positive down their throat. This reminds me so much of a post Gretchen Rubin did on Tiggers vs Eyores.
    It also seems to be varied across communities. For instance, I haven’t found much of misery-spreading in the single mom community. There is a lot of motivation and encouragement and support. Yes people let you know they can relate to something that’s got you down but they also usually chime in with something positive. Why that exists in that community but doesn’t in other mom communities is something I’m sure can be figured out with some analysis but my brain isn’t up for it (vacation!). It’s the same sort of thing in the personal finance communities, mostly. People try and encourage each other instead of moan themselves into despair.
    Hmmm now you have me all thinking and stuff…

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      You’d think we were all raised Catholic! Except with Catholic guilt you know where you stand. Sort of.

      I do like personal finance communities a lot. Though sometimes they do get into these competitions: I was brought up poorer than you were. I got into more debt than you did. I’m frugaler than you are. I’m more balanced than you are. (And maybe we’re guilty of partaking ;) )

      • Jacq Says:

        Please have more “more balanced than you are” posts. I’m more frugal than you are and am trying to change my silly ways. :-) I went so far as to make a list of things to buy and am forcing myself to purchase one of those things a month and have one more exceptional experience per month so it’s getting better. Somehow I try to trick myself into telling myself that the roomba I just bought is both a “stuff” and an “experience”. How to train a dragon… ;-)

        What I find interesting is that it’s sort of verboten to say anything related to “I make good money…” on some PF sites. Not all, but some.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Hahaha. There’s always Tyler K…

        We think the scooba is awesome.

  10. Z Says:

    I don’t like people who complain just to complain.

    I don’t like people who compete about relative degrees of misery.

    I do think life is hard now and hard to understand, and people vent on the Internet, yes (I do anyway).

    However, I think these offensive forms of misery predate the Internet and exist outside as much as on it.

  11. Sandy H Says:

    I think it is a lot easier to be miserable with people you don’t know than it is to be miserable with people you know. For example, I’m not about to comlain about money problems or hubby frustrations with my mom (luckily she doesn’t read my blog- haha). I think everyone exagerates when the people you are venting to won’t know the exact truth- maybe your baby only cried for 30 minutes but you posted it was HOURS because that gets you more sympathy (and paints a more dramatic picture).

    One ups really exist. I think competition is bred within us. Unfortunately, it isn’t just trying to outdo the positive, there are a lot of people trying to outdo each others negatives as well.

  12. bogart Says:

    I think the relative anonymity of the internet fosters or at least allows a certain kind of unpleasantness, perhaps including oneupsmanship (sp?). I think it also allows a lot of single-interest communities to flourish, and that this is both a good and a bad thing.

    Predating the arrival of the internet by a number of decades but still fairly recently (and confined even today to the developed world), I think we’ve moved from a world where bearing and raising children was seen as close to unavoidable for and by women to being seen as a “choice.” That’s a gross oversimplification, but I think now instead of it being something we do because we have to, it’s something we do because we want to. And given what a major hassle it is (not to say that many of us don’t welcome the opportunity to experience those hassles), I think that fosters rather a lot of ambivalence for many of us. I know it does for me, and I worked really, really hard against long odds to achieve motherhood and am perfectly at peace with acknowledging the downsides to it. I occasionally see women posting about how they “don’t want to miss a single moment” of their children’s youths and I think, “Really? I can name five that happened just today that I could easily have foregone.”

  13. Comrade PhysioProf Says:

    “…people suffering from depression are unable to recognize novelty… And this inability to see things as new, as fresh, as different, this is what elicits the feeling of depression. That may be why you want this reservoir, this cache of young cells in the hippocampus. It’s able to recognize novelty, to recognize new experiences. Without that, you will have these fixed connections unable to recognize and acquire new information.”

    This is unscientific contentless gibberish.

  14. Are you supposed to pretend everything’s perfect or pretend everything’s screwed up? « Grumpy rumblings of the untenured Says:

    […] and acknowledging my awesomeness, and, importantly, the awesomeness of others, gets out of that crabs in a bucket framework and helps build everybody up.  I’m awesome and you’re awesome too, even if […]

  15. What makes a blog post popular? Drama or the hope of redneck jokes? | Grumpy rumblings of the (formerly!) untenured Says:

    […] Schadenfreude reasons or we must be filling some kind of SEO niche that isn’t predicated on misery, but instead on redneck jokes, Mr. Money Moustache, and the love of a happy medium.  (Also, man, […]


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