One of the most difficult attitude problems any counselor faces is that of "entitlement". Entitlement is an attitude of "I'm owed." It is apparent in beliefs such as these:
To some degree, we all have entitlement feelings. We carry around a sense of being owed for something we have done or for some wonderful trait we have. When we feel entitled, we focus on what we are owed, not what we might need to give to others. It is a "one-way street" mind-set. When these feelings are strong and people don't meet our expectations, we often find ourselves bitter, resentful, and angry. Relationships can be (and often are) destroyed by feelings of entitlement.
Such was the case of Stan and Julie, a couple who came to see me because their marriage was in deep trouble. They have been married for just a year and were already contemplating a divorce. They both were extremely angry and bitter toward each other and felt that the other person was to blame for how bad their marriage had turned out. As I explored their feelings with them, I began to see how strongly both of them felt entitled to certain things from the marriage.
"Julie never listens to what I have to say," Stan complained. "She wants to be heard, but she never wants to listen."
"That's not true," Julie replied defensively. "I'm more than happy to listen. It's Stan who's never willing to listen to what I have to say."
"Why should I listen to you?" snapped Stan. "All you ever do is attack me for not meeting your needs ... as if anyone could! You take and take and take, but you never want to give back."
"Boy, this is the pot calling the kettle black. All you ever do is think about what you want and how you are going to get it," Julie fired back.
I lifted my hands. "Time out for just a second. Both of you sound pretty angry at each other. You both seem to feel that something isn't being offered that you deserve."
"Well, I know I don't get what I deserve from Julie," Stan acknowledged. "I work hard all day, take care of the upkeep on both of our cars, mow the lawn, pay the bills ... I do everything and she's not grateful."
"He's far worse," Julie countered. "I work all day, too, but I still do the washing and ironing and most of the cooking. But does he show any gratitude? Never!"
They glared at each other, unblinking.
"I think I see one of the main problems in your marriage," I said, as referee. "Both of you seem to have a pretty strong case of it."
"What are you talking about?" Julie asked.
"Well, it seems to me that both of you feel entitled to love and consideration from each other," I explained. "Both of you seem to believe that the other person is indebted to you for what you do. You expect special treatment as appropriate payment. Indirectly, you both are saying to each other, 'Because I did this for you, you must do that for me.'"
"So? What's wrong with that?" Stan asked, exasperated. "The whole world is based on 'I do this for you and you do that for me.' Give and take. You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours. Why shouldn't marriage be the same way?"
"Stan, a tit-for-tat approach to marriage doesn't work," I answered. "Feelings of 'I deserve' or 'I'm owed' only foster rebellion in one another."
"Dr. Thurman, I'm not sure what you mean. Are you saying that I don't deserve to be listened to if I listen to Julie?" Stan responded in his typical defensive manner.
"Yes, Stan, I am. If you listen to Julie, that does not entitle you to be listened to by her. It isn't your birthright to get something back just because you give something in your marriage."
"Then why would anybody in his right mind want to give anything in a marriage?" Stan demanded to know.
"For love," I stated flatly. "And because it's the right thing to do."
"What?" Stan said, nearly gasping. "You're joking, right?"
"No joke," I assured him. "I'm suggesting you need to do things like listen to each other, help each other, and work for each other with no strings attached because it is the mature and healthy thing to do. Look what happens when the two of you don't. You rebel toward one another.
"I think it is human nature to rebel when we feel that people feel entitled to our doing things for them. We don't appreciate the lack of respect that conveys. You rebel toward one another to show tht you don't have to do what the other expects. The response is childish, but it's typical.
"You both throw your personal versions of a temper tantrum, and everyone loses. Demand or feel entitled to 'something for something' from each other and you will continue to see the relationship suffer. The only relationships that really work are those where both partners do what is loving and right whether they get anything back or not."
"What if the other person doesn't do the same thing?" Stan kept pressing. "Wouldn't the marriage get out of balance fast?"
"Yes, it could, but would that be any worse than the situation you're already in? Most marriages based on nonentitlement don't get out of balance. When both people are doing what needs to be done without feeling entitled to payback, the marriage usually stays on pretty solid ground. Taking a nonentitlement stance with each other usually fosters emotional health, cooperation, and mutual respect. Marriages based on 'something for something' (entitlement) are doomed from the start. They never work!" I stated adamantly, knowing how cut and dried it sounded.
"So you're saying that a lot of our marital problems come from feeling that we are owed each other's attention, love, help, and so on," Julie summarized. "You're saying our marriage is troubled because we feel entitled to things from each other when we really aren't. And because we approach each other that way, we end up rebelling toward one another."
"I'm saying that is one of the more critical elements in why your marriage has been so troubled, yes," I replied.
This was the first time Stan and Julie had been asked to look at the issue of entitlement in their marriage. It was a new concept for them and one that was hard to see at first. They continued in their old patterns of "I did this for you, so you should do this for me" for a while, but small changes did occur as time went on. They eventually came to see the truth that they were not entitled to each other's love, respect, loyalty, and help just because it was "payback" time. This truth helped them appreciate what the other person did in the marriage and they started to sense that their marriage could be saved and enriched. They rebelled less toward each other. Entitlement attitudes came close to destroying their marriage; nonentitlement attitudes helped to heal it.
How much entitlement do you walk around with in your life? I can see a fair amount of it in mine. I feel those "I deserve" feelings more often than I want to admit. Even in small things, I can see the problem. When I hold the door open for someone, I feel he or she owes me a "thank you" and I get disappointed, even upset, when I don't get one. In my marriage, I sometimes catch myself thinking, "Holly owes me this because I have done that for her."
Even with my kids, I run into it. If I go to a lot of trouble to make a day special for them, I can sometimes find myself thinking, "Okay, you kids owe me some good behavior, as well as your lifelong appreciation for what a neat dad I am." (Unfortunately, they are thinking, "We are so doggone cute, it must be a real privilege for dad to get to spend a day with such adorable kids as us. We are responsible for most of the old boy's joy in life. He really owes us a lot.")
It's human nature to feel entitled. This isn't pleasant for me to admit. But unless we do admit to having these feelings, we stay in denial about them and they continue to destroy us.
The painful truth is that we are not entitled to anything on this planet. We are not entitled to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," despite what the authors of the Declaration of Independence had to say. Nothing is our birthright!
Now, the good news. While we are owed nothing, it is perfectly fine to pursue what we want (within reason and emotional health). For example, we aren't owed our spouse's or parents' love, but it is fine to want it. We aren't owed a high-paying job because we may have a diploma or a special talent, but it is okay to want a high-paying job and try to find one. We aren't owed a thank you for anything we do, but it is okay to want one and hope to get one.
Entitlement is a self-serving, one-way street attitude that creates bitterness and resentment in the people who feel entitled and in the people around them who don't like being treated that way. Take a minute to examine your own entitlement assumptions. Have you fallen into this way of thinking? Toward whom or what do you harbor feelings of entitlement? How has it affected you emotionally? How has it affected your relationships?
Are you willing to try to let go of entitlement attitudes and feelings wherever they may be directed? My hope is that this chapter has helped you recognize your need for change in this area and that you will decide to change.
I have devised an "Entitlement Quiz" for you to take. For each of the fifteen statements, mark a number from one to seven which gauges your personal feeling about the statement (one being the most disagreement and seven being the most agreement). Please answer the questions below using the following scale:
Do not spend too much time on any one item. Also please respond in terms of how you really feel as opposed to how you think you should feel. Try to avoid using the neutral response if possible.
______ 1. I deserve respect from others.
Add all of the numbers of your fifteen responses, then divide that total by fifteen. The number you are left with will show you on the scale how convinced you are that you are "entitled" to certain things.
If you score from one to four, you really are not expecting much from other people in the way of gratitude, approval, and response. As such, you probably won't be disappointed in life when such responses aren't forthcoming. If you score from five to seven, you are probably a person who is carrying a lot of internal anger over the fact that not enough people give you what you feel entitled to. If this is the case, you need to readjust your expectations the way Stan and Julie did. You need to remind yourself that you are "owed" nothing for all you do and that people have the perfect freedom to fly in the face of what you want. You need to remember that the challenge is to do things for people because it's healthy or mature or "right", not because you can earn "green stamps" that you can cash in whenever you want.
Painful as it is, you are not entitled. Don't let that truth get too far away from you in life.