Everyone has some inner sense of entitlement. We all claim certain rights for ourselves and believe these rights are pretty much our birthright.
The right to protection by law enforcement
The right to a fair trial
The right to our own opinions
The right to a non-tyrannical government
The right to a paycheck for completed work
The right to our own beliefs
The right to clean air and clean water
Even if these were not available in previous generations. Even if they aren’t available everywhere in the world today – WE SEE THEM as basic birthrights.
But are these really birthrights? Should we be entitled to these things? Or have we grown so accustomed to them that we no longer see them as benefits that are in no way guaranteed?
Well, I suppose the answer to that question depends upon whom you ask. So let’s take a few minutes and explore this concept of entitlement. Then we’ll look at some ways we can combat the sense of entitlement that gets out of hand, whether we’re fighting it in others or in ourselves.
The Legitimacy Of Entitlement
There’s a legitimate aspect to entitlement. The first definition in the Merriam-Webster dictionary being: the fact of having a right to something.
This idea of a fundamental right to something was expressed in 1776 in America’s Declaration of Independence. Here, the fundamental entitlements were seen not as rewards for qualifying accomplishments – but birthrights granted by our Creator. That every person is endowed with certain inalienable (that which cannot be transferred, taken away, or denied) rights. That is, ENTITLEMENTS. Something we have a right to by virtue of being born. There are no other requirements.
Whether you believe that a Creator grants these rights or that some other authority grants these rights – these rights are nonetheless granted. These rights are INALIENABLE. They cannot be DENIED TO anyone, TRANSFERRED TO anyone, or TAKEN FROM anyone.
The American founders specified that these rights included the right to life, the right to liberty, and the right to the pursuit of happiness. The guarantee is that these aspects of life can be freely pursued. That these goals are equally accessible and equally available to ALL.
Of course, there’s no guarantee of the outcomes. Results may vary. Just as everyone may be entitled to take the same exam, not everyone will get the same grade. Just as everyone can audition for a singing role in the play, not everyone will get the part because not everyone sings with the same ability.
So, what is entitlement in the legitimate sense? It’s the recognition that there are fundamental rights that we all have by virtue of being born a human being. These rights are granted by our Creator. Or they’re granted by a government. It then becomes the government’s responsibility to preserve the rights granted by our Creator, or grant and preserve the rights IT grants.
Now, there will be endless debate about what additional entitlements we should have, and endless debate about what additional rights are excessive. Which brings us to the second point I’d like to address. That is, when entitlements run amok. When there’s an overblown sense of entitlement.
Entitlements have their rightful place. There are rights we all should have that we haven’t earned, nor is earning them required. But in recent times, an ugly side has emerged. In this case, there’s a sense that one is entitled to more than one is rightfully entitled to.
We’ll begin with some questions.
All human beings have the right to life. But do all human beings have the right to a high quality of life?
All human beings have the right to food. But do all human beings have the right to gourmet food?
All human beings have the right to work. But do all human beings have the right to a fulfilling high paying job with benefits?
All human beings have the right to pursue happiness. But do all human beings have the right to happiness?
Entitlement Run Amok
We need another definition of entitlement that encompasses cases where it is taken too far.
The feeling that you deserve to be given something you haven’t earned. The feeling that you’re entitled to special privileges beyond basic universal rights.
So what can we agree on? We can agree that:
All human beings have some basic entitlements by virtue of being born.
Legitimate entitlements fall somewhere between no entitlements at all and too many entitlements.
An overblown sense of entitlement is a dysfunctional attitude that needs correcting.
Even though not everyone will agree as to what constitutes an overblown sense of entitlement, everyone should agree that such a point DOES exist. Not everyone agrees with how much sleep is too much – but everyone agrees that there IS an amount of sleep that’s too much. Not everyone agrees on the point at which work is excessive – but everyone agrees there’s a point at which work IS excessive.
We will never reach universal agreement as to at which point the sense of entitlement becomes overblown. But we can all agree that such a point exists. And with that agreement, we can look at some ways of combating an overblown sense of entitlement – wherever we happen to draw the line.
Should we encounter someone who displays a sense of entitlement beyond what is generally deemed normal, what should we do? How should we approach them?
1. Practice Candor
If we’re going to combat this trait in someone else, we’ll need to practice CANDOR. We’ll need to be honest and tell them their entitlement is inappropriate and harmful. This can be done with respect and with dignity and with sensitivity – but it should be done and it should be done honestly.
An overblown sense of entitlement stems from improper boundaries. A self-entitled person needs to be shown that their boundaries are out of whack and need to be adjusted accordingly. Until someone is honest with them, change is unlikely. You can be the one to tell them.
2. Practice Realism
An overblown sense of entitlement is at least partially driven by unrealistic expectations; the sense that someone is owed more than what is realistic or fair.
It’s unreasonable and unrealistic to assume that I should serve someone without any sense on their part of returning the favor or carrying their share of the load.
We may need to point out to the person in our life who seems to feel entitled that what they expect is not realistic. Expecting what is unrealistic will set them up for disappointment, frustration, and disillusionment. It needs to stop.
3. Practice Assertiveness
If we’re attempting to deal with a person who feels entitled, at some point we’re going to need to be assertive. A person with an overblown sense of entitlement is often demanding. You’ll need to be assertive in calling them out when they expect too much.
Self-entitled people have many of the same behavior patterns as bullies. A bully must be confronted and challenged, or their bullying will continue. Practice assertiveness and hold the self-entitled person to account. They need to see that their boundaries extend too far into the territory of others. They’ll need to adjust their boundaries. Assertiveness will foster it.
Combating Overblown Entitlement In Ourselves
What about OUR OWN overblown sense of entitlement? How do we combat our own tendency to feel entitled?
1. Practice Thankfulness
One of the surest ways to combat an overblown sense of self-entitlement is to practice thankfulness. We may not have all we want, but we can learn to want what we have. We can learn to be thankful for what we’ve been given.
Having an abundance no more guarantees thankfulness than having a scarcity guarantees ingratitude. We can cultivate an attitude of thankfulness even for what may seem like small things in life. A comfortable bed, a glass of clean water, caring friends, healthy and abundant food, a cup of coffee, a job, good health.
2. Practice Humility
Another way to combat a sense of self-entitlement is by practicing humility. Not false humility, but actual humility. To understand that a happy and meaningful life is a gift – even if we’ve worked hard for it.
After all, not everyone is born into a country and at a time when opportunities abound. Some never experience even a moderately blessed life, while most of us have been blessed beyond measure.
So we should be humble and accept our blessing with humility – recognizing and acknowledging that not everyone is as blessed as we are. And equally recognizing that we’re no more entitled to such blessing than anyone else.
3. Practice Contentment
A third way to combat self-entitlement is by practicing contentment.
Contentment doesn’t deny that we would like more. Contentment is an attitude of satisfaction in what we’ve been given. There will always be more we could have. There can always be less than what we DO have.
Contentment is a settled conviction that what we have is ENOUGH – even if more would be welcome. We should also recognize that contentment may involve not having what would make our lives more difficult. Even if we don’t have all the things we want, we can be thankful for the things we don’t have that we don’t want.
A Final Word
If one believes in a Creator who endows us with certain inalienable rights – then we must accept that that same Creator can withhold rights from us – and be fully justified in doing so. In that case, EVERYTHING we have is a gift and there are no entitlements. Only what the Creator deems entitlements are entitlements.
The same holds true for a government. We can argue all day about what a government OWES its citizens. Though most would agree that all governments owe their citizens the right to life itself. That all governments owe their citizens the right to protection from those who would take away their rights. That all governments owe their citizens the unhindered opportunity to pursue personal happiness, as long as it doesn’t impede the same pursuit by other citizens.
Beyond these rights, there’s little hope of universal agreement. The best we may be able to achieve is:
Universal agreement that there are basic rights that all human beings have.
That these basic rights should be granted and preserved by governments.
That beyond basic rights is a commitment to equality of opportunity.
That there will always be those who achieve more or less than others who have been given the same opportunity.
That entitlement can extend beyond what is reasonable and realistic.
That we can and should combat an overblown sense of entitlement in others.
That we can and should combat an overblown sense of entitlement in ourselves.
I was born and raised in northern Virginia near Washington, D.C. My dream as a child was to play professional baseball. I made it as far as a baseball scholarship to a Division 1 college. I’m a teacher at heart, and love to teach anything and anybody who wants to learn. I started out as a public school teacher. But within a few years, felt called to the ministry, where I spent 32 years as a pastor. I love the outdoors. I love to read. I love people. I love to learn. I try to take a long walk every day year-round. I’ve done that for more than 40 years. It’s where I do some of my best thinking. It also clears the cobwebs from my head and the nonsense that tries to take root there. My blog is Quotation Celebration, where I discuss the meaning and lessons contained within great quotes.