Entitlement is a trap, rooted in ego and unfulfilled expectations. It’s the belief that you did some kind of work and now you’re owed something.
This isn’t to say that you don’t deserve what you think you’re owed; I’ll bet you do. But there is a clear difference between knowing who you are and seeing your own value versus convincing yourself that you did all the work needed to be done and now it’s time for the world to pay attention to you because you’ve achieved more than anyone else out there.
We get that feeling of entitlement because we are seeking reassurance — because our egos are deflated and we just want to be loved. Whether it’s getting that new job you’ve been working hard for, or reaching a certain number of social media followers because you’re relevant and just the right amount of snarky, or finding that perfect someone to fall in love with, reassurance is viscerally satisfying because it is an affirmation that what you’re doing is good and worthy. When reassurance comes from another human being, you’re given the ego-satisfying gifts of attention and appreciation.
You might be beautiful, talented, educated, and kind, but still be single. When you tell yourself that story and your friends affirm this to you and the person at the checkout counter says you have a beautiful smile, that feeling of entitlement grows exponentially. It can make you wonder if people are lying to you, if the world is crazy, or if it just isn’t the right time for you yet.
Entitlement is dangerous because it’s a safe place to hide and it gets you nowhere; at best it is merely self-serving, and at worst it trends toward narcissism. You can hold up an image of yourself and scream, This is as perfect as it can be. I have worked so hard on this. Why is no one buying it?
Your mind seeks ways to make meaning out of this psychological mess because your expectations are in shambles and uncertainty looms over you like the one dark cloud in a vast blue sky. You modestly tell yourself that you’re slightly above average and that the culture you’re subscribed to values people like yourself. You look at other people who you think are less educated, talented, and attractive and wonder how they’ve been dating for years or how they have the job you deserve. What do they have that you don’t?
When we use language like this, we need to check ourselves and put our feet back on the ground. We need to accept that we feel hurt and disappointed and that it’s okay to feel this, but it’s not okay (or healthy) to leverage it forever—and that we need a bit of an ego check to put things back in order.
Ask yourself the following: What is this sense of entitlement for? Is it helping me make better decisions and find new opportunities, or is it keeping me stuck? What have I done to earn or accomplish the things I believe I should have?
We cannot be immune to entitlement. Anyone with ambition and grit will ask, When is it my turn? When will this struggle end? When will I get what I deserve?
Let me say this clearly: Even if life were to give you everything you think you deserve, you are the judge that determines the value.
This reminds me of a story in Tiny Beautiful Things, by the lovely author Cheryl Strayed. A 26-year-old writer wrote to Cheryl (Dear Sugar) about her difficulties and frustrations as a writer trying to build her career.
Strayed gives a response that resonates well with overcoming our sense of entitlement [emphasis mine]:
The most fascinating thing to me about your letter is that buried underneath all the anxiety and sorrow and fear and self-loathing, there’s arrogance at its core. It presumes you should be successful at twenty-six, when really it takes most writers so much longer to get there. It laments that you’ll never be as good as David Foster Wallace—a genius, a master of the craft—while at the same time describing how little you write. You loathe yourself, and yet you’re consumed by the grandiose ideas you have about your own importance. You’re up too high and down too low. Neither is the place where we get any work done.
We get work done on the ground level. And the kindest thing I can do for you is to tell you to get your ass on the floor. I know it’s hard to write, darling. But it’s harder not to. The only way you’ll find out if you ‘have it in you’ is to get to work and see if you do. The only way to override your ‘limitations, insecurities, jealousies, and ineptitude’ is to produce. You have limitations. You are in some ways inept. This is true of every writer, and it’s especially true of writers who are twenty-six. You will feel insecure and jealous. How much power you give those feelings is entirely up to you.”
When I deduce experiences like this, I look at what remains when we strip away all the needless excess that serves no fruitful purpose. After we acknowledge and examine our entitlement and calm down, the only things that remain that are truly helpful for our well-being and our lives are humility, a focus on the long-term, accepting and working with the ebb and flow of change, and realizing that a good life isn’t about what you gain but about how you’ve earned it and how you share it with others.
Entitlement is a bubble that surrounds you and distorts your reality. Pop it as soon as you can and get back to the things that truly make a difference in your life.