1. avoid being overcome by a difficult situation
I'm barely earning enough to keep my head above water
If you 'keep your head above water' in a literal sense, it means you avoid being consumed by water or drowning. Figuratively, therefore, this expression means to avoid being consumed by a difficult situation, particularly one related to work or finances. The term evokes a sense of desperation, and is similar to the phrases 'stay afloat' and 'make ends meet.' It is commonly used in both a social and professional context.