What is entitlement? How can you recognize it in yourself or others? Read more to find out how you may be perpetrating an ongoing cycle that may create strong feelings of resentment and anger in others or yourself, may keep you in toxic relationships, may create and perpetuate negative mental health states, may intensify pre-existing mental health disorders, and may ultimately push others away.
Entitlement is the belief that you have the right to have or to be given privileges or special treatment without putting the work in for it. It is one element of narcissistic personality disorder; but contrary to the opinion of popular psychology, not all entitled people have narcissism.
An entitled person believes that they always deserve to win.
They believe this because of who they are because life owes it to them, or because they believe they are better than everyone else. This belief propels them to win at any cost, even if that destroys relationships with people close to them. These behaviors may be extreme such as lying, cheating, stealing, or engaging in otherwise unethical behavior to get what they want. Alternatively, they may engage in more subtle forms of boundary-violating and ostracizing behaviors such as:
- Being inconsiderate
- Dismissing others’ concerns
- Demanding things from others
- Not following instructions
- Acting selfishly
- Not apologizing or making amends when wrong
Entitled behavior is harmful to all of your relationships whether they be personal, professional, familial, or any person close to you. Your pets might even suffer. And ultimately, the results are harmful to you.
Entitlement sounds like: You Owe Me!
This destroys relationships and leads to depression, conflict, loneliness, and isolation. When you treat everyone else as subordinates or less-thans, they will distance themselves. No matter what a person may think, you really aren’t better than everyone else (no one is). People consciously or unconsciously recognize those imbalanced interactions. They may react with irritation or hostility, may refuse to cooperate, may become avoidant, or may try to change the balance. When nothing changes, they leave or distance themselves from the relationship.
In conversation, entitlement is frequently used in reference to our daily observance of others and their behavior. The word entitled may be used in several ways: People may be entitled to vacation days at work or payment for the work that they do. In the United States, the Bill of Rights entitles all citizens to free speech. A person may be entitled to holding a first-place trophy because they were able to swim the fastest lap in a competition with others. These uses differ from the harmful entitlement that we are discussing because it is earned or is a consequence of contractual or legal obligations. In contrast, harmful entitlement is the unearned conviction that I’m inherently better than you.
There are degrees of entitlement, ranging from spoiled behaviors learned unconsciously, to those displayed by malignant narcissists. We all encounter some level of it daily.
Here are some examples of entitlement-related severe boundary-violating forms of behavior and the inherent sense of privilege behind it.
- I ate my coworker’s lunch because I was hungry. She didn’t need it, as she could lose a few extra pounds anyways.
- The job promotion is rightfully mine because I am the boss’s son and I deserve it.
- I should get served first because I am in a hurry, so I am going to cut in line. Those people can wait.
- I expect to be given preferential treatment because: don’t you know who I am?! (Or what I’ve been through)?!
What does entitlement feel like?
How do you react when someone gets chosen over you and you know they didn’t work for it? How does it land with you when someone else takes your belongings without asking? What about when your spouse gets mad at unspoken expectations for you to cook for them daily or take out the garbage? Isn’t that why you got married?
Not great, usually. These feelings may range from:
These responses don’t involve good feelings at all. It feels really bad when someone else gets that thing you wanted. It’s unfair! That 10-year-old justice-oriented inner child pops out at the drop of a hat to tell everyone exactly how biased life has been.
Sure, your umbrage has merit. We should ideally respect others’ physical and psychological boundaries. In an alternate universe, there may be entire civilizations where all beings see each other as equals. However, that is not our reality. There are unreachable people that will forever hold these toxic traits of treating others poorly. And, subjectively, many (especially older) people in our society feel that this attitude is a lot more prevalent today than in prior decades.
We see the greatest conflict between generations in this realm of entitlement. The boomers vs. millennials debates are so entertaining.
The basis of the conflict is that the older generations label the younger as selfish, entitled, narcissistic, spoiled, and lazy. There are several areas these two will fight over, just like siblings. Boomers believe they made life easy for the millennials and they should be grateful. Millennials believe the boomers destroyed the earth, future, economy, and civilization, along with their personal lives. The two fail to see most anything on the same level.
They are both right and also both wrong. The truth lies in the middle.
Joel Stein’s 2013 article in Time discussed some great points. Several shocking statistics provide some objectivity to the generational entitlement argument such as the increase in narcissistic personality disorder for people in their 20s being 3 times higher than those of retirement age, or that 58% more college students scored higher on the narcissism scale than in 1982. In 1992, 80% of people under 23 wanted to have a job. When the article was published in 2013, only 60% did.
In my experience, generations that have passed the baggage of trauma down the line, most unconsciously, are being held accountable now by their progeny. Children and grandchildren of the Baby Boomer population are becoming aware of these unhealthy patterns in relating to and treating others through experiencing their own crises that have forced them to seek help for understanding and coping with their experiences.
Those who sought treatment began building boundaries, and say, NO MORE. These toxic styles of relating to and treating others include those behaviors defined by Pia Mellody. Physical hitting isn’t the only definition of abuse.
Psychological and emotional abuse are more damaging.
Physical wounds heal fairly quickly, while psychological damage permanently alters a person’s reality.
This gets dismissed easily by those who are afraid to look within, acknowledge fault, or continue to benefit from those types of power-imbalanced relationships. Shaming, dehumanizing, marginalizing, projecting, scapegoating, and general emotional or verbal abuse are relatively common. I believe this is at the very root of the boomer versus millennial debate. The younger generations realize they want to be treated better, and the older ones are frozen in their ways, scared to face consequences or admit fault. Though likely unconscious, this is a critical point.
So, why is this a bad thing?
If everyone was owed something, and few were willing to pay back those imaginary debts, our civilization would crumble. If we all only looked out for ourselves, we would merely be coexisting islands, with a few resources, but not enough to fulfill all of our needs. It would be our complete undoing. The entire basis of all civilization is cooperation, community effort, and resource pooling. When there are no people working and everyone consuming, we will run out of resources. Think of markets, roads, and factories; all of which would be impossible if everyone was universally entitled.
If everyone acted entitled and relationships remained broken, people will suffer from a lack of connection that is imperative for survival. When we fail to support each other and increase conflict in every relationship due to selfish and antisocial behaviors, we isolate ourselves from friends, family, and the community. Social isolation increases depression, and health risks, and brings in a host of numerous other problems. I will speak more about this in The Cost of Entitlement II: Fallout.
Nathan Jamail (2017) calls entitlement one of the most harmful traits a person can instill in another person or child. When obstacles are removed from a child or they are given rewards for unearned behaviors, that child fails to learn to problem-solve or cope with everyday problems. They don’t learn to accept challenges. In fact, they might outright avoid them, find them elsewhere, or substitute them with unhealthy ones. Jamail refers to leaders and employees, but the same principle applies to parents and children. If you empower and encourage children to find their own solutions to problems and obstacles, they will learn coping skills and build confidence naturally.
Nobody owes you anything.
I continue this discussion in The Cost of Entitlement II: Fallout for further discussion on how entitlement interacts with addiction and creates isolation, personality disorders, and entitlement, the difference between entitlement behaviors with trauma and toxic social entitlement, how entitlement increases physical and mental suffering, ways to recognize these destructive behaviors in yourself, and how to best interact with those who display these traits.
1. Zitek, E. “Entitled People – What to Expect and How to Deal With Them.” MAY 15, 2019. The Society for Personality and Social Psychology. Accessed 6/2/23 from: https://spsp.org/news-center/character-context-blog/entitled-people-what-expect-and-how-deal-them#:~:text=People%20high%20in%20entitlement%20believe,aren’t%20better%20than%20others.
2. Stein, J. “Millenials: The Me Me Me Generation.” May 20, 2013. Accessed June 11, 2023 from: https://time.com/247/millennials-the-me-me-me-generation/?fbclid=IwAR042gPPQkCwkqAmg4455ASjey4OSwKpB73gMGoQ_YDb8FyOKWY-ol30h4Y
3. Jamail, N. “The Harm of Entitlement: Some leaders fear that if they push their employees, they will quit or rebel.” Lab Manager. November 23, 2017. Accessed 6/9/23 from: https://www.labmanager.com/the-harm-of-entitlement-5885
4. Martino J, Pegg J, Frates EP. The Connection Prescription: Using the Power of Social Interactions and the Deep Desire for Connectedness to Empower Health and Wellness. Am J Lifestyle Med. 2015 Oct 7;11(6):466-475. doi: 10.1177/1559827615608788. PMID: 30202372; PMCID: PMC6125010