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What Makes Some People Feel Entitled to Special Treatment?

What can we do about entitlement?

Key points

  • Entitlement, or the sense that we have the right to have something, can be a healthy expectation.
  • Questions of entitlement frequently cause conflicts.
  • Adults and children can learn to manage feelings of entitlement in a healthy, productive manner.

A client burst into my office for his session. “What is it with people?” he demanded. “I got into a packed elevator, and some woman wanted to come in behind me with her kid in its stroller. She was miffed that no one would hold the door for her so she could ram us all with her overpacked, oversized carriage. And here’s the thing—there’s a sign outside the elevator door saying “Please fold strollers before entering elevator.”

This man had two young children of his own. “It’s something you would not do? “ I said. He shook his head. “My wife and I agree that it’s really important not to give our children preference over everybody else in the world. We don’t want to teach them to be entitled. It’s such an ugly way to be in the world. We fold the stroller before we get into any elevator, and we’ve asked the babysitter to do the same thing. We also don’t let our kids run around in restaurants or stores. It’s not just about good manners; it’s also about learning to respect other people.”

The subject of entitlement has been swirling around my office, casual conversations with friends, and of course the news in recent weeks. Who is entitled to what is a central question in politics, business, and personal life.

Are we all entitled to medical care? To food and shelter for ourselves and our offspring? To a sense of well-being and safety? And does that sense of well-being include a right to insurance for our medical care? Are we entitled to find work? To earn money? And to keep all of the money we earn?

Are we entitled to individual religious beliefs? And to practice those beliefs, even if the prevailing government is opposed to them? Questions of entitlement have been and still are causes of wars, rebellions, political movements, riots and uprisings.

Psychologically, what makes some people feel certain that they are entitled to more than others? And what can we do about it when someone else’s sense of entitlement encroaches on our personal space or individual rights?

Entitlement, or the sense that we have the right to have something, can be a healthy expectation. It is, for example, a normal part of a child’s psychological development to think that he or she is the center of the world. Sometimes called healthy narcissism or egocentrism, it is part of how a child views the world in the early stages of cognitive and emotional development. However, as my client said, it is part of a parent’s task to help his children begin to recognize that while his own self is important, it is also equally important to recognize and respect the rights of others.

Interestingly, sometimes a sense of entitlement can emerge from feelings of being mistreated or not getting what we need. It can be a way of saying "I deserve to be taken care of, or treated with compassion and respect, just as much as anyone else does."

Often individuals who have been mistreated or disrespected exhibit a sense of entitlement when they start to feel that they deserve better than they have been getting. This is part of a healthy shift towards self-respect. Yet they, too, eventually need to find a way to balance self-respect with respect for others.

It’s important for children to feel special. They need to have the sense that they can be a princess or superhero. But it is also crucial that they learn, gradually and gently, that sometimes even the most special people have to put their own needs on a back burner.

A certain amount of entitlement is also valuable in adults. The belief that we have the right to take care of ourselves and our family, the right to be respected by others, and the right not to be hurt by them is important to psychological well-being. But the feeling that we are entitled to go to the head of the line or to be given special treatment at all times is not only not healthy, but it is not a particularly productive way to be in the world.

So what makes someone believe that she is entitled to preferential treatment over others? As the psychoanalyst John Gedo points out, like most other aspects of human nature, it’s a combination of environment and biological makeup. We are programmed to be entitled at an early stage of life, but we are also programmed to gradually develop the capacity to recognize that other people have needs. This growth cannot be forced before a child has the internal ability to understand; but we can all gradually learn, through experiences with our parents and other people who love and care about us, to manage our needs to be special.

Eventually, children need to respect the needs of others. They can only do that when their own feelings are taken into account as well. But they can also only learn to do it when they are taught that other people also have needs.

Only when we learn to manage this balance between our own needs and those of others can we have genuinely satisfying, intimate relationships with other people. And we can only learn to manage them through careful, kind and supportive guidance from others, who we know also love us.

Unfortunately, our culture does not always support this developmental process. My PT colleague, Steven Stosny, has gone so far as to say that we are living in an “Age of Entitlement.”

But I think there is hope. Just as children learn to negotiate the balance between their need to be seen as special and their need for connection to others, so can adults learn the same thing.

In a blog for the Christian Science Monitor, Trent Hamm writes that a pervasive sense of entitlement can backfire, leading to the exact opposite of what one wants. Instead of feeling special, we can lose friends as well as business opportunities. Being respectful of other people's needs and wishes, while not neglecting our own, can lead to much more satisfying results.

In a review of five recent studies on entitlement, Paul Piff points out an interesting finding: that both narcissism and entitlement can be decreased when admired leaders model a more respectful stance towards others. His point: Adults, like children, can learn to manage feelings of entitlement in a healthier, more productive manner.

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More from F. Diane Barth L.C.S.W.
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