We hear a lot about the “entitlement mentality” in politics and government.
But probing deeper, what does a sense of entitlement actually mean?
To be entitled to something means to feel or believe that you deserve it. A sense of entitlement can be valid. For example, you pay money for a television, computer or car. You’re entitled to have that car work as advertised and promised. You sign a contract with a real estate agent or a home builder. You’re entitled to have that contract honored. Someone gives you their word they will do something. Whether that word is legally binding, you’re morally entitled to expect them to keep their word, and it’s psychologically valid to feel that way.
“Entitlement mentality” in the unhealthy, irrational or neurotic sense is different. A person with the unhealthy entitlement mentality feels entitled to things which he or she did not earn, and therefore does not deserve.
The unhealthy entitlement mentality often plays out with money or property, especially in families or personal relationships. “You have something. I don’t have it. I need it. Therefore, you should give at least some of it to me.”
The overriding premise here is, “I need it, therefore you should give it to me.” It’s the very same thing we hear in politics or government. “So-and-so has more money than he needs. Someone else has less money than he needs. Therefore, so-and-so must give someone some of that money. It’s only fair.”
But what about the fact that the money or property belongs to whomever owns it? Can that right be wished away? If it can be wished away in some cases, but not in others, by what standard are we to decide?
In politics, it’s a legal and property issue; ultimately, it’s an issue of individual rights. In families and personal relationships, the themes are the same but there are not usually legal implications. Rather than tax collectors we have guilt collectors. Guilt collectors are people in your personal circle or family who will say (or imply), “I need. You have. Therefore you must give.” Whether the issue is money, property, time or attention, it always boils down to the same thing: “I need. You have. Therefore, you must give.”
Just because you need something does not automatically make it my obligation to give you what you do not have. Why should I give up something just because you don’t have it? By the same logic, once you have it, then you should give it back to me, since I no longer have it.
And just because you say you need it, do you really need it? Will you immediately die without it? Or will you merely be unhappy, frustrated or disappointed without it?
Is the fact that you need something due to any negligence on your part? Did you squander or blow your money, which is why you no longer have any? If it is, then won’t my giving you something reward or reinforce that negligence? And won’t this create a situation where you will become dependent on my help? Aren’t I hurting you by making you dependent on me?
These are the questions that guilt collectors in families – not unlike tax collectors (or their bosses, politicians) in government – count on you never to consider or ask. Asking these questions will get you a lot of hostility and name-calling from guilt collectors (and their advocates). They will do everything possible to lay the guilt on even more. But emotions cannot be used to obliterate facts, and the refusal to ask legitimate questions will not render logic impotent.
Helping is not automatically and always wrong. But it’s not automatically and always right, either. Your choice to help someone you care about or value, or even a stranger towards whom you feel some compassion, should not be mindless. It’s reasonable to know WHAT you’re helping someone with, before you provide that help. And it’s reasonable to assume that you’re not obliged to help anyone, not unless it’s of your own free will, and without irrational guilt heaped upon you.
The entitlement mentality takes reason and thought out of your decision to help another, financially or otherwise. By claiming, “I need, you have, and you therefore owe me,” the person tries to “guilt” you into feeling or thinking that you owe something you do not owe.
This even applies to parents of grown children. When you have a child, you sign up for 18 years (or so) of care, to get them into adulthood. You do not sign up to care for them into their 20s, 30s, or 50s, as I see and hear of more and more parents in today’s world doing. Once again, helping or bestowing generosity towards people who are neither negligent nor irresponsible is not automatically wrong; but it’s not an obligation, either.
Psychotherapists are trained in graduate school to be “ethics-neutral.” But this is the stuff of everyday life with which many, many people struggle. It’s wrong to evade these issues. It’s far healthier, mature and enlightening to face them head-on. If more people did, maybe the world would not be the mess it so clearly is today.
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