“S/he’s acting so entitled!” That expression has become commonplace today in many Western countries, usually referring to someone who acts and speaks in ways that suggest they expect special treatment, status, privilege, preference, and priority access to more resources than others. Often, though not always, at others’ expense.
Is entitlement necessarily and always a bad thing? Like “power”, another term that often gets viewed negatively, I want to explore a more nuanced way of thinking about entitlement.
The Oxford Dictionary refers to entitlement as: 1. The fact of having a right to something.; 2. The amount to which a person has a right; 3. The belief that one is inherently deserving of privileges or special treatment.[i]
As a therapist, people come to me for assistance with a variety of issues they struggle with, and which they feel unable to change. These can involve repeatedly experiencing hurtful patterns in relationships with others, what could be seen as self-sabotage, not seeing or taking up opportunities that might arise, and not being able to actively build the kind of life and relationships they would like to experience. Most often, people have experienced hurt at the hands of others (and some continue to do so).
Others appear to have learned to hurt others in their path to get what they want. Typically, gambling, addiction and violence, and wilful disregard for others are manifestations of this kind of pattern. They create havoc in their lives and those of others around them.
One way I think of both presentations is to think of them as two sides of one coin. I think in terms of some people being ‘conditioned’ – trained, if you will – by their early environment to expect a level of (mal) treatment. The same applies in the opposite situation, where people become conditioned to think they have a right to treat others however they want in their bid to get what they want.
I first started thinking about ‘entitlement’ as a potentially useful descriptive concept for use in my work as a therapist in the late 1980s to address what I saw as two sides of the one coin.
At first, I sought a suitable term to describe what I was trying to support many clients to develop in both aspects – a missing piece in their developmental toolbox, so to speak.
Working at the pointy end of mental health (trauma), I found that many people emerge out of early experiences of abuse, material deprivation, violence, trauma, exploitation and deprivation, with a warped view of what they might have a right to ask for/ to expect in a relationship with others.
Typically, I found many often went on to endure and suffer through more abuse and trauma, similar to what they suffered as children, as they made their way through life. When I would ask ‘did it occur to you to say no/ to tell them to stop?’, the answer was often a puzzled ‘no’. (I still often get that response today.) Sometimes, I hear of efforts to set limits, followed by histories of fierce negative consequences (sometimes involving threat to life, body integrity or material survival, or exclusion form family/community) that serve to discourage the person from standing up for themselves. Lessons that sometimes hold for life.
When I looked further into it, I discovered that this undeveloped sense of what I see as having an inherent sense of value and boundaries, and hence, much less any capacity to protest against poor treatment and to invoke protective limits and boundaries, also played out in the areas of expecting respect, reaching out to seek care, support, as well as secure access to resources and opportunities.
When working with the other side of the coin, those who felt the world owed them whatever they wanted, and felt they could do whatever they wanted in life, I found them to have one thing in common – the belief that the world/ others/ their therapist owe them whatever they want — irrespective of context, irrespective of what others might also need and want, and of how they treat others and act in the world.
While some of this second group seem to develop this kind of attitude in reaction to abuse or maltreatment as their way of overcoming adversity in a dog-eat-dog way, I have also found this not to be the only way people become like this. In my experience, I have found that this kind of obnoxious entitlement can also arise out of an early history of privilege and being taught that they are so special, the world owes them whatever they want.
A third group who become this way are those who, while not having experienced abuse or trauma, have nonetheless grown up in difficult circumstances – possibly material adversity, family or political conflict or loss, who see themselves as having overcome their earlier experience of adversity through their own efforts. People from this background can see themselves as self-made, have a focus on being “winners” (as distinct from losers) and, in their bid to achieve what they consider “success”, can demonstrate this kind of entitlement also.
I started to think of entitlement as lying on a continuum with two extreme ends.
At both ends of the continuum, people miss the same piece – a discrimination strategy[ii] to help them discern what might be fair and reasonable to ask for, to expect, in terms of how they are treated, in terms of access to resources they want, and in terms of how or whether they think their contribution influences their chances/ rights of getting what they want, their capacity to weigh up competing needs in the face of limited resources within the context of the environment and people around them.
At one end, people give too much weight to others’ needs and wants and what they see as their ‘claims’ and not enough to their own. At the other, people give insufficient to no weight to the context they exist in and the needs and wants of others. At neither end is there any recognition of existing in a context, an ecology – one that depends on all parts being considered and attended to, and one in which all are inter-dependent.
I started to look around for words to try to describe the patterns I was encountering. When I came across the term ‘entitlement’, it seemed to have the potential of capturing something of what I was looking for as a discrimination strategy.
As I wanted a term that encompassed a sense of birthright in its healthy manifestation, I started to think about royalty. I noted that, in idealised representation in many cultures, persons of royal descent are often deemed to hold a stance of grace and authority that arises out of the position they hold in the society. They hold an expectant attitude when it comes to expecting to be treated with respect, to have their voice heard, to have their requests listened to, to have their requests carried out, to set limits and to have those limits respected. In short, good, respectful, cooperative treatment seemed to come to royalty, in part, out of the birthright attached to their title and the power and privileges that stemmed from that. Their expectant attitude, mixed with others’ acknowledgement of the legitimacy of their position and its attendant claims, combine to increase the likelihood of royalty having their wishes complied with. Part of what drew me to this view of entitlement is that, in idealised form in most cultures, royalty is not only seen as having rights but also duties of care, obligations and responsibilities towards their subjects. Their ‘rights’ exist in relation to and in the context of the society they rule over, not in isolation from them. In some countries, the monarchs even refer to themselves as serving their people.
So, this notion of entitlement is what I first used as a starting point: the degree to which a person has a sense of their needs and wants being legitimate, and having a right to have those taken into consideration within a wider context of relationships with others, who also have needs and wants and must similarly be considered and taken into account.
From there, I developed a model of thinking about this issue of entitlement as lying on a continuum, with under and over-entitled forms at either end and what I called ‘healthy entitlement’ somewhere in the middle.
To me, ‘healthy entitlement’ is a birthright we all have in potentia just because we exist. It exists in active form where a person has a basic expectation born out of their birthright as a human being to be treated with care and respect, to have their voice heard, to have their requests considered. They do so with consideration for the environment and people around them, mindful that other people too have needs, wants, preferences and a right to be treated with care and respect, to be heard and have their requests considered also. Healthy entitlement does not expect to be given at other people’s’ expense, nor does it negate its own needs and wants in the face of others’ presence and requests. Healthy entitlement accepts that, sometimes, there will be competing priorities. It expects to negotiate, and it seeks outcomes that serve all parties wherever possible. Healthy entitlement knows – if you don’t ask, you most likely won’t get. Healthy entitlement also knows and accepts that sometimes, despite wanting something and asking for it – you don’t get. Or you might even choose to forego getting what you want in the face of what you consider to be someone else’s greater need. And that’s part of life.
In my observation, healthy entitlement seems to me to most often develop in people who were raised in families and communities that considered each person as part of an ecology, where people are taught that every part affects the others and affects the whole, and in turn, where the wellbeing of the whole determines the wellbeing of each of its members. This seems to cultivate qualities of care, respect and consideration for self and others. It also seems to increase the chances of people developing a value system of seeking what’s good for them in a context where it will also be good for all/ be unlikely to harm others. It also cultivates a long view, rather than a purely short-term one, of what is likely to be good for the whole. It seems associated with a strong capacity to tolerate short term discomfort for long term gains.
I then started to describe what I first saw as ‘underdeveloped sense of entitlement’. An unwieldy expression, but my best effort at capturing what I see happens when people seem to have no sense of the birthright I identified. Instead, I see these people often not ask for what they want, accept not getting their needs met as their lot, and expect that to be the case, act in ways that defer to others, attend to others compulsively at their own expense, see other people’s claims as more important than their own (or assume they must be), and not push back if someone’s expectations/ actions are at their expense. For them, life is harsh, resources scarce, and they don’t think they can do anything to change this set of circumstances.
At the other end of the continuum, I saw people as having a ‘distorted, inflated sense of entitlement’. Whether they were born into unearned privilege (e.g. white, higher SES, male gender), raised to expect privileged treatment, or have cultivated it out of what they deem to be their “rights” or “hard-earned rights”, these folk act as though the world owes them. If they want something, they expect to be able to get it/ be given it, with no questions asked or challenge.
If they don’t get what they see as their due, then they are likely to redouble their efforts to get what they want, react strongly and even aggressively. There is an a priori assumption that they are owed what they want, that they’ve earned or ‘deserve’ it. There is little to no consideration for others- how their behaviour impacts others or the context they live in. To these folk, other people are disposable objects, potentially useful to serve their ends. They see them as competitors for scarce resources, a means to their ends, or irrelevant. In a situation of competing needs for limited resources, they ramp up their efforts to secure their claim. They come first. They often espouse “survival of the fittest” philosophies, in a self-serving distortion of Darwin’s observations.
Years later, I came across the work of Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy, a family therapist of note in the 1960s and 1970s[iii]. Boszormenyi-Nagy also referred to entitlement, but in the context of what he termed “constructive “ and “destructive entitlement”. He described this as “unearned” privilege. Boszormenyi-Nagy gave much consideration to what each person in a system (what I view as an ecology) contributes to the functioning of the whole. In his view, we cannot expect to take unless we are also contributing to the system. He sees systems where some give themselves the right to take more than they give as destructive, both to the person holding that position and to those around them. To that end, Boszormenyi-Nagy talks in terms that resemble accounting transactions – seeing members of a system as needing to deposit into as well as withdraw from the system. In Boszormenyi-Nagy’s view, if a person has not contributed appropriately to the wider ecology, it is unacceptable and destructive for them to act as though they have a right to take what they want whenever they want.
So, it seems to me that it’s worthwhile considering entitlement from the standpoints of context, fairness, contribution and the common good.
Without such notions in place, we end up with either an under-developed sense of entitlement, or a distorted inflated sense of entitlement. At either end of the entitlement continuum, we don’t function well as part of the whole. At one end, we hurt ourselves by not taking our rightful place and staking the healthy claims that are our birthright to care, respect, and access to resources. Others get what they want at our expense (knowingly or not).
At the other end, we hurt and exploit others by constantly taking more than our share at the expense of others. We over-estimate our rights over those of others, and out of this, show little of no care for others and context, and often hurt and exploit them as a result.
So. You might consider asking yourself some questions-
- Try naming and describing the behaviours of 2-3 people you know who demonstrate underdeveloped entitlement, and 2-3 people you know about who demonstrate a distorted inflated sense of entitlement.
- For each group, if you can, describe what appear to be the benefits of acting this way to those people and what appear to be the costs to their lives, work, relationships?
- Consider- do you know anyone who has a healthy sense of entitlement? Again, describe how this person acts behaviourally around others. Identify how they fare and how others around them fare as they go about living their lives. What tells you they are entitled in a way that’s healthy?
- Consider- where are YOU on the entitlement continuum? Do you find you tend to be at one end in certain contexts and more towards the other end in other contexts? Or do you tend to be more one way most of the time? Has your ‘position’ changed over time? What behaviours do you engage in when you act in a way that reflects a particular kind of entitlement? Write out examples for yourself of when you act in an underdeveloped way, a distorted inflated way, and a healthy way.
- Finally, consider some of the issues that you find challenging in life, work, relationships. Can you see that perhaps these may well relate to your (or other people’s,) relationship to entitlement?
If you think it’s time to address this issue, call me and let’s see if we can help you cultivate the kind of healthy entitlement that will best serve you in your life and relationships now and in times to come.
[i] https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/entitlement[ii] Michael YAPKO, (2016), The Discriminating Therapist, Yapko Publications.
[iii] Boszormenyi-Nagy, I., & Krasner, B. R. (1986). Between give and take: A clinical guide to contextual Therapy, New York: Brunner/Mazel