- The sense of entitlement tends to arise from child-rearing practices and cultural values.
- Gratitude attracts other people, while entitlement repels them.
- Gratitude and humility are kindred concepts that can sustain optimism.
What are we legitimately entitled to? Besides life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we are entitled to pursue our own career and personal paths peacefully—without intimidation or assault. In addition, we have the right to speak our minds openly in a variety of settings.
While the above-mentioned rights don’t appear controversial, there are some debatable considerations for even these entitlements. For example, does freedom of speech include the right to spread inflammatory disinformation that leads to chaos and violence? From a common-sense and ethical perspective, the answer is no. But because this controversial issue has not been settled legally, it rages on in our discourse.
As for gratitude, the attributes and events that merit gratitude are unique to each person’s experiences and values. Should we be thankful that we are still alive when others have succumbed to the pandemic? Or that our imperfect parents were nevertheless loving? Or that we weren’t poor and homeless? Or that we were gifted with a healthy body and/or a unique talent? In other words, what warrants gratitude?
The Sense of Entitlement
Beyond legitimate rights, people nowadays often feel entitled to all sorts of special privilege. The sense of entitlement (a personality trait, an attitude, or a mindset apart from a narcissistic diagnosis) can be defined as an unrealistic, unmerited, or inappropriate expectation of favorable treatment at the hands of others. Entitled people believe they shouldn’t have to wait in long lines, shouldn’t be stuck in traffic, and should get the best seats at a venue because they see themselves as rich, good-looking, talented, or otherwise special. Always wanting to be the first and/or the best, they push their way to the front of lines to catch a cab, to get shopping bargains, or to take photos.
Regularly seeking admiration, entitled people are quite boastful. Bragging about their accomplishments and their children’s successes, they are adept at name-dropping and place-dropping, letting everyone within earshot know about the glamorous places they have traveled to and the important people they know. In general, entitled people feel superior to others and deserving of the best that life has to offer. And when they aren’t treated with special consideration, they can become enraged and loudly demanding.
Where does the sense of entitlement come from? Primarily child-rearing practices and cultural values. With respect to child-rearing practices, both extremes—too much positive attention and too much negative interaction—can breed entitlement. For example, hovering over a child’s every move and acquiescing to his every desire can lead later to expectations of special treatment from others. Likewise, excessive praise and being treated as “the center of the universe” in the family can create feelings of entitlement. Some parents feel entitled to special privilege themselves, which is then passed onto their children via imitation or identification.
The sense of entitlement can also arise as a compensatory mechanism for deeply ingrained inferiority feelings. When children are criticized or abused regularly in their families, children may develop a grandiose self that requires ongoing admiration for its maintenance. The grandiosity serves to mitigate the underlying sense of worthlessness. When this occurs, the sense of entitlement is usually part and parcel of a narcissistic personality disorder, lacking empathy and sensitivity to others.
Cultural values are another important source of entitlement. In American culture, human rights are often touted at the expense of responsibilities. While everyone has the right to speak on a social media platform no matter how trivial the message, being accurate or especially insightful may not be important. The airwaves can be filled with propaganda, outrageous theories, and uninformed commentary, often without repercussion. In this way, a country’s popular culture becomes a breeding ground for entitlement, based not on the value of communication but on sheer outcry.
Differences Between Gratitude and Entitlement
Gratitude, both a positive feeling and a dispositional trait, is the appreciation of one’s blessings—independent of monetary worth. According to Robert Emmons, an expert on gratitude, it is an affirmation of goodness and a recognition that the source of goodness is outside of ourselves: from God, the universe, and/or other people. People feel grateful for loved ones, friends, animals, nature, music, great food, good health, random acts of kindness, and life in general, among other positives.
Gratitude, the opposite of entitlement, is humble, quiet, and gentle, whereas entitlement is demanding, loud, and abrasive. Gratitude is attractive and strengthens relationships, while entitlement is repellant and weakens them. People value gratitude because it acknowledges the importance of gift-givers in promoting joy and goodness.
Gratitude strengthens self-esteem while entitlement diminishes it. Entitlement may elevate our mood momentarily when an entitled desire is achieved, e.g., after getting the best table at the restaurant, but it doesn’t enhance self-worth with any durability. Entitlement is insatiable. In addition, entitlement can be frustrating because life doesn’t readily provide what’s expected.
Where does gratitude come from? Historically, from religious traditions. Healthy religions have emphasized and continue to focus on gratitude toward a supreme being, where prayers of thanksgiving are part of prescribed rituals. Gratitude can also come from a spiritual perspective, inner peace, or an appreciation of the ordinary, such as a glorious, sunny day, a walk in the park, or a long-awaited rain.
What seems to be required for gratitude to develop is humility, an awareness of our place in the universe. As a chiropractor friend said, “In order to be grateful, you have to go through humility.” What he was saying is that profound disappointment or loss needs to shake up self-centeredness. Then, we can begin to see ourselves as cast members—not superstars—in life’s drama and be thankful for what’s good in our lives.
The Path to Gratitude
Religious and spiritual practices often begin with gratitude for the previous 24 hours. Because we’re hard-wired to focus on what went wrong (those items seem to need the most attention), we often ignore the good things in our daily experience—those events that gave us joy, pleasure, or a sense of accomplishment. In any 24-hour period, on even the worst of days, there are some positives, even seemingly trivial ones, that can lift our spirits.
Learning to focus on positive experiences for a few minutes daily and even writing them down, e.g., the beautiful sunrise, the surprise phone call from a friend, or the shared laughter with a partner, before thinking about the disturbing events can put the day into perspective. The negative emotions warrant attention (they need to be processed, understood, and resolved), but they don’t need to dominate the daily landscape.
Michael J. Fox, in the throes of Parkinson’s disease, recently wrote about his emergence from depression: “As I came through the darkness, I had an insight about being grateful and how gratitude makes optimism sustainable.” Gratitude enables us to feel that it is good to be alive, despite life’s disappointments, hardships, health concerns, and losses.
This post is adapted from an essay, “A Smidgen of Narcissism Adds Joy and Spice to Life,” published in BEYOND PIPE DREAMS AND PLATITUDES: Insights on Love, Luck, and Narcissism from a Longtime Psychologist, Outskirts Press, 2021.
Corsello, A,, (2022). Unbreakable. AARP magazine, Dec. 2021/Jan. 2022. pp. 37-39.