Part Six: Yes, You ARE Entitled … to your Own Unhappiness
To those who made her acquaintance, Brenda had everything going for her. A twentysomething young woman armed with an Ivy-league degree, a huge network of successful friends, and a well-off New England family who made every effort to support her, she was gifted with the sort of opportunity potential early in her life that others spend whole lifetimes working toward. And yet, as with so many of my patients, she came to me voicing an immense sadness and depression weighing on her heart. “I grew up being told by my parents that I was destined for greatness—that I could do anything,” she lamented to me. “They doled out all of these compliments without giving me any tools to make it happen for myself. Now, three years out of college, I’m stuck in a mindless corporate sales job.” Her thesis was, I’m better than this—and her parents were the people to blame. I felt for Brenda, but not because I agreed with her analysis. Far from it, in fact: Upon hearing her story, I knew that if she wanted to evolve past these negative feelings and patterns of thinking, she and I would need to do some serious work together to convince her of the exact opposite. Brenda’s entitlement had caused her to become a classic Self-Saboteur, behaving in a way that sabotaged her own potential. Over the next few months, we worked toward a single goal: For her to take responsibility for her own life—and her own happiness.
In high school, Brenda had been an exceptional student and subsequently graduated magna cum laude from a prestigious university with a degree in business. But as her friends began locking down high-paying jobs, she found herself floundering. Brenda’s difficulty in initially establishing a career path was simple: She was not sure what she wanted to do. If she had attributed this fact as the core reason for the lack of runaway success that her friends were experiencing, then her solution would have been just as simple: Take steps to find where your interests may lie, and pursue them. However, Brenda attributed her lack of post-grad career to forces outside of herself, which were equally outside of her control. The reasons she gave? Her friends were luckier than she was, and her parents’ constant coddling and advice-giving had led to her incompetence in the real-world.
The simple definition of “entitlement” is the belief that you have the right to something—or that you are inherently deserving of special privilege. Brenda believed that her expensive degree and wealthy upbringing entitled her to a certain kind of lifestyle post-college… and in my office, she was now faced with the full reality of her extreme narcissistic injury—a blow to her self-esteem—in her transition from top of her class to the bottom of the heap in the working world. Brenda’s entitlement originated with her parents’ doting comments given throughout her upbringing. Coming from a family of high achievers and being surrounded by equally successful friends only added to her belief that things would come easy. When she entered the real world, first as a waitress for a high-end restaurant, she was confronted with the fact that the world didn’t owe her a thing, and it had thrown her into a deep depression. And in the months before she came to see me, Brenda had been sabotaging her chances for a bright future by placing the blame firmly on others.
While Brenda’s depression made me feel sad for her, I felt equally energized by the opportunity to help her take control of her life for the first time ever. As an eternal optimist, I know that when a doctor focuses their entire energy on healing their patients, life-changing results will follow. That’s why I am so intent upon doing whatever it takes for those who come to see me, and that’s what I wanted to offer Brenda.
We began treatment with antidepressant medication and intensive psychotherapy, and I initially provided emotional support for her to develop an open, safe, and empathetic therapeutic relationship. We then transitioned to a deeper therapy, where Brenda began to explore the unconscious origins of her conflicts. Through our work together, she began to accept that nothing was guaranteed in life—and that you have to work for what you want.
Together, we walked through the ways in which Brenda’s entitlement had led her to become a Self-Saboteur of her own future: As we know from previous blogs in this series, there are myriad ways in which people unknowingly sabotage their lives, and for Brenda, these ways centered around both repertoires of behavior and narratives she played in her head. Repertoires of behavior are ways we act which are comfortable and familiar, learned over the years, but which may worsen our prospects in the present. Because Brenda had grown up with two parents who openly idealized her at every opportunity, she’d developed entitlement-driven behaviors in adulthood that felt easy and comfortable, but which did not make life very easy for her at all. Brenda also played out certain narratives in her head. Because she grew up believing that she was an enormously talented, bright, and confident woman, she was very sensitive to harsh comments made by others. She took their remarks very personally, believing that they were tearing apart her very character. This was a narrative that was not based in reality, but based in a privileged past, where such comments would never be uttered unless they were intended to be destructive. Together, Brenda and I shifted her narratives in a way that they became less personalized and more realistic, and she learned that often, when people are short with us or tell us something negative, their behavior is less a reflection of us than a reflection of them and what they might be going through. In other words, “it’s not personal; it has to do with them in the context of their own life struggles and personalities.”
Over time, Brenda was able to give up her feelings of entitlement and to not feel so wounded when others treated her badly. She settled on a career path in marketing, obtained an entry-level position in a start-up that was entering a period of rapid growth, and she worked hard to impress those above her with her creativity and ingenuity. As of this writing, she is satisfied with her work life, has been growing more romantically involved with a seemingly solid young man, and is considering applying to MBA programs with a focus on marketing.
Begin to Heal
Perhaps there is someone in your life—you, a child, other family member, or a friend—who suffers from feelings of entitlement and who refuses to take responsibility for their life. How is that working out? If you are really honest with yourself, you may have a streak of entitlement within you as well. How is this attitude working out for you? How does it relate to feelings of self-esteem and self-respect?
As Ayn Rand once noted, “You can avoid reality, but you cannot avoid the consequences of avoiding reality.” In psychotherapy, as portrayed in the story of Brenda, one is forced to confront reality, both within the unconscious mind and in family and work life. The decisions made and actions taken by you will determine your outcome in life. Only by taking full responsibility will you be able to grow as a person and fully experience the richness that life has to offer.