Have you ever had to deal with someone who seems to think they're better than you or that the world owes them? Uh-oh! That's entitlement rearing its ugly head. Here are five ways to protect yourself and avoid conflict by setting boundaries, being consistent, and showing compassion.
Lately, for whatever reason, I’ve been hearing a lot about entitled people.
Earlier this week, a journalist emailed me and told me they were working on a piece on sleep. They requested detailed answers to a bunch of questions. They didn't ask whether I had time to answer them, nor did they say "please" or "thank you." They just expected my answers by the end of the day.
The next day, I heard from a coworker she'd waited three hours for a client who stood her up. This was after the client had demanded to meet in person, even though everyone else was doing virtual appointments. Then, for a whole afternoon, he continually texted that he was running late ... before finally no-showing because the appointment turned out to be inconvenient for him.
Entitlement is a person's belief that they are inherently deserving of privileges or special treatment.
Finally, I’ve been lending an ear to professor friends who are in the midst of a semesterly ritual—dealing with students who haggle for grades. One friend said that a Freshman attended her virtual office hours and said, “You gave me a B on my paper. I don’t get Bs. I need you to change this to an A.”
What do all these people have in common? Entitlement.
Entitlement is a person's belief that they are inherently deserving of privileges or special treatment. Some people wear their entitlement like a crown—they’re rude, demanding, contemptuous, and they get resentful, not just disappointed, when things don’t go exactly their way. But sometimes it’s more subtle—all you’re left with is a gut feeling that you’re being manipulated.
4 signs that a person is acting entitled
Not sure if you’re facing a reasonable request or an entitled demand? Don’t let an entitled person gaslight you into thinking that you’re the one way out of left field. Look for these four signs.
1. They think they're better than you
Let’s start with the big one. Entitled individuals genuinely think they're better or more important than others. Making a request at someone else’s expense, with no sense that their request might be inappropriate, definitely qualifies as entitled.
2. They hold double standards for themselves and others
Entitled people think nothing of inconveniencing others. They'll do things like canceling at the last minute, no-showing appointments, or requiring lots of others people’s time and effort to get a task done.
Entitled people think nothing of inconveniencing others.
But turn the tables and it’s a different story. Entitled people accept favors without returning them. They freeload. They feel aggrieved when asked to do something, particularly if it’s not going to get them anything in return.
3. They have a hard time playing fairly because fairness implies equality
Entitled people have difficulty compromising, negotiating, following rules, waiting their turn, or taking one for the team. They don’t apologize.
4. They have a tendency to manipulate and control others
They think manipulation and controlling behavior will get them what they want. When it doesn't, they quickly get threatening and hostile. With people they perceive to be below them, like service workers or customer support, they’re rude and go out of their way to show that they’re dominant and superior. And this includes throwing tantrums and leaving deliberate messes in their wake when they don’t get what they wanted.
Entitled people are actually unhappy
It might be a surprise to discover that entitled people are just as miserable as they make everyone else.
In a very creative study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers found that for entitled people, doing boring tasks is even less fun than for most people. Although we all have to do boring tasks sometimes, because entitled people feel dull tasks are beneath them, they hate doing them. Ironically, their perception of time slows so it feels like the task drags on forever.
Even more important is that entitled people have more conflict with other people. A study by researchers from the University of Michigan showed why. The answer lies in the types of goals they set for themselves. Entitled people set what the researchers called self-image goals, meaning their aim is to have others respect and admire them. (Notice I didn’t say like them—that’s different.) When they get the admiration and respect they crave (whether it’s deserved or not), they drink it up like someone in a desert who found a glass of water. It feeds a grandiose view of themselves that actually covers up a fragile core of insecurity.
Mix together deep seated insecurity, an inflated view of their own importance, and valuing admiration, and it’s a recipe for a thin skin: entitled people are notoriously hypersensitive and will let loose hostility and punishment towards anyone who doesn’t work to prop up their fragile self-image.
Compassionate people want to contribute; entitled people want to win and to be admired for it.
But hostility and punishment aren’t good ways to get people to admire or respect you. Instead, those behaviors alienate and isolate. According to the University of Michigan study, it’s a strategy that backfires—it makes sure that entitled people have chronic relationship problems.
By contrast, non-entitled people set what’s called compassionate goals, meaning they want to make a difference in the world, support others, and feel close to those they love. In short, compassionate people want to contribute; entitled people want to win, and to be admired for it.
But here’s the secret: it's only when you realize life isn't a contest that you actually win.
5 ways to deal with an entitled person
It’s a challenge to be friends, co-workers, or partners with an entitled person—a relationship is supposed to be equal. But entitled people see themselves as superior tand will always put their agenda first. How to stop the madness? Try these five tips.
1. Use wish fulfillment to set limits
An entitled person will hold all sorts of expectations—a friend may expect you to babysit on a moment’s notice, a grown child may expect to inherit enough that she doesn’t have to bother saving for retirement, or a student expects a better grade just because they’re used to getting As.
Leave the expectation lying there. You don’t have to fulfill it.
These expectations will be dropped in your lap, but here’s the thing—you don’t have to pick them up. Leave the expectation lying there. You don’t have to fulfill it. Make it clear that you can’t or won’t fulfill the expectation, but do so without blame or criticism.
A great way to do this is through “wish fulfillment,” which sounds something like this:
I wish I could be on standby to see you this afternoon, but I have other clients who already have appointments with me. Next time, please check in with me a few days in advance and I’ll try my best to get you on the schedule.
Here's another example.
I wish I could just give you an A, but the rules of the University and my ethical code as a professor would not allow it. I’d be happy to provide some feedback on this paper so that next time you can be better prepared.
Say you wish you could fulfill the request, and then politely make it clear that you can’t. Sometimes just acknowledging that you heard the entitled person’s demand can ease the tension.
2. Treat everyone equally
If you’ve ever been in preschool, you probably remember your teacher using the phrase, “You get what you get and you don’t get upset.”
Do the equivalent to stave off entitled kids, employees, or students. Don’t bend the rules or make exceptions for one entitled person if you can’t do the same for everyone.
Why? Because making exceptions feeds into the idea that the entitled person is special and superior. Plus, it has the side effect of making others feel resentful. Just like in preschool, everyone will feel more secure if you run a tight, egalitarian ship.
3. Feel a little compassion for them
Yes, entitled people can make your blood boil. But underneath it all, there’s that raging sense of inadequacy. It doesn’t mean they can treat you like dirt, but it can be helpful to remember their lives and relationships—however they may look on the outside—are pretty miserable.
By politely sticking to your boundaries and treating everyone equally, you may be helping by modeling good behavior.
It’s not your job to change their personality, but by politely sticking to your boundaries and treating everyone equally, you may actually be helping by modeling good behavior.
4. Be inclusive, even of entitled people
On a more positive note, we may be able to more directly help entitled people feel less inadequate and behave in a more prosocial way.
One study found that when people felt ostracized or excluded from social experiences they were more likely to feel entitled and be dishonest.
If people are feeling shunned, they try to make up for it by making themselves feel more important.
This makes sense—if people are feeling shunned, their pride and sense of self is hurt, and they try to make up for it by making themselves feel more important. The rest of us may be able to help by simply being kind and inclusive in social settings, as long as it’s not damaging to ourselves or others. This might give people we see as entitled a chance to show that they’re capable of playing fair when they’re not feeling threatened.
5. Remember there’s only so much you can do
It’s a cliché, but it’s true—people can only change themselves. You can try to help them (and protect yourself) by setting limits, being egalitarian, and feeling compassion, but ultimately, you can’t change them. Do your best to steer clear. It’s one of the few times in life where being punished with the silent treatment might actually be a blessing.
To wrap up, as Malcolm Forbes famously said, “You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.” So tip your waiter generously, smile and ask how your barista’s day was, and give up your seat to the elderly lady on the subway.
The aim of treating others with respect and kindness isn't to be better than the entitled people—that misses the point. Instead, it’s to make everyone’s day a little better, which, ironically, is exactly how to gain true admirers.