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Laurie Helgoe Ph.D.
Laurie Helgoe Ph.D.

The Stress of Entitlement

How my return to the U.S. made me crabby.

My husband and I had been living temporarily on the island of St. Kitts for two months, prepared for a permanent move to the Caribbean. But Hurricane Maria meant that Dominica was not ready for us, St. Kitts was not set up for us, and we would be relocating for several months to the U.S. I grieved the separation from sea views and simplicity, while looking forward to more movie options during Oscar season. I had been observing the up and downsides of island life -- the fantasied geographical cure for an introvert. The downsides were real: On a small island, it's hard to get away from people you know, which was strikingly evident when I met a long row of colleagues while in line at the one movie theater on the island. (I go to movies, in part, to hide from people.) But the upside was a surprise to me: I was different on the island. And I observed this difference in me while at the threshold of my departure -- at the airport.

Photo by Marcel Fuentes on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Marcel Fuentes on Unsplash

Everything went wrong at the island airport. The travel agent who had booked tickets for my husband and me -- and had confirmed our reservations -- had somehow forgotten to pay for my husband's ticket. This took eons to figure out, and by the time we recognized this, there was one seat left on the plane. After we called the agent, worked things out and booked the seat, we then had to shift items from our heavier bags to the lighter ones, then we got stopped by immigration and went back to fill out some forms, then I was selected for a random bag check, and then I was flagged by TSA for special screening and was quarantined while waiting for my bag to be searched yet again. What I observed about myself is that, while I had moments of feeling a little mystified or a little annoyed, my overriding feeling was one of calm. I rolled with each new delay, and was even a little amused by it all. I somehow trusted that we would both eventually get on that plane, and relinquished control. I was actually in a good mood when we boarded.

When we landed in Miami, passport control was a breeze, we called an Uber rather than waiting for an expensive taxi, and we were surrounded by conveniences. As if convenience was a trigger for entitlement, I suddenly had little tolerance for anything that didn't flow. I was mad at the weather, which was unseasonably cool. I was mad about our hotel, which -- I don't even remember why I was mad. I expected more, and felt responsible for asserting my expectation. I was in the plentiful U.S., and was supposed to have things my way. I was supposed to be having fun. I had the right, and responsibility, to pursue a constant state of happiness.

Photo by Mike Marquez on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Mike Marquez on Unsplash

These expectations are stressful for most of us, but especially for introverts. Pursuing happiness in the external world is not our thing. We're not even that uncomfortable with sadness. After all, it's a calming emotion. The idea that we are entitled to happiness creates anxiety: "If I feel bad, something is not right -- something that can and must be corrected." Maybe I need a pill. Maybe the coffee is not hot enough, the pillows not soft enough. And if anything is wrong, it's my job as an American to feel indignant and complain. Observing myself after stepping off the plane, I saw how my own home-bred entitlement oppressed me.

So much of what we have put up as solutions to stress end up inducing stress: ever-present technology, unlimited choices, even the expectation that we should be perpetually happy and entertained. What the islands, and life, reminded me is that less control and fewer choices can indeed be more. The grocery store tells me what's for dinner, based on what's in stock. I can wait on the slow service, because I have no other choice. And while I'm waiting, oddly, I relax. There are fewer services, so I expect fewer services. I can insist all I want on having things my way, but things will be the island way. I am relieved of the burden of my entitlement.

A colleague who has lived in Dominica for 12 years told me, "Narcissism doesn't survive well in Dominica." What survives, even now in the wake of Hurricane Maria's wrath, is deep grief, but also acceptance and trust. These wonderfully passive qualities are too often devalued in a society that forgets that nature--even the nature within--always refuses subjugation.

About the Author
Laurie Helgoe Ph.D.

Laurie Helgoe, Ph.D., is an author and clinical psychologist studying the relationship between personality and culture. She is an Associate Professor of Behavioral Sciences at the Ross University School of Medicine.

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