You likely have heard the story about the behavior of crabs in a bucket. When one of their number tries to escape the sorry lot of being stuck in a bucket, just as it reaches the rim, one or more of his fellow crabs grabs and drags him back into the bucket pile. It seems they cannot allow anyone to escape or be different from them.

The same thing happens in human behavior. Even though you might be ambitious, eager to improve your lot in life, those around you might not always be the best in supporting your change. As the first children of our families to go to college, both my wife, Michelle, and I both felt the pressure to conform and stay in the same comfort zone our families inhabited. They may have been proud of our education but really didn’t have the context for encouraging us to move to the next step. We needed to find new friends and role models to do that.

In his book, “12 Rules for Life,” Dr. Jordan Peterson’s rule No. 3 is: make friends with people who want the best for you. He tells stories of those who struggled and often failed to rise above their life circumstances. Though they had talent, ambition and opportunity, they continued to surround themselves with people from their past who they were comfortable with. These folks might have been with low self-esteem, losers, drunks, addicts or deeply wounded themselves. What they tended to do was something like what happened to the crab seeking escape from the bucket. They dragged the person back from their potential to their mediocre past.

We may sometimes choose new friends with the same troublesome tendencies as those we have left behind. Freud referred to this as a repetition compulsion, an unconscious drive to repeat past horrors, rather than developing new tools and methods to learn and grow beyond our old lives.

We may think we are doing good by trying to rescue someone, perhaps someone who doesn’t really want to be rescued or helped. This drags us down as well. Maybe they are there because of decisions they preferred and continue to make. By cultivating bad habits, they push away virtue, redemption and change.

Friendship should be reciprocal, and choosing to be with people who want you to be better and not worse just makes sense, doesn’t it? Surrounding yourself with those who support and empower your aspirations and highest vision is enlivening. On the other side is the dead weight of those who might envy or oppose your personal improvement. This is because your growth spotlights their own lack of motivation, discipline or character.

Billy Graham, surely he rests in peace, looked to a higher source than himself or society for ultimate answers. He told his son that though it might be rumored he was dead, they should tell folks that he had just changed his address.

So it is with those of us who seek to change our lives for the better. We must in a real sense die to our past and be reborn to new friends, relations, community and opportunities that did not exist in our former state of mind. Choose those who can help, not thwart you, in this process of progressive personal improvement and enlightenment.

Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.

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