Entitlement, Anger, and Emotion Reciprocity

4 min read
Craig Adderley / Pexels

Source: Craig Adderley / Pexels

Entitlement has two meanings, one straightforward, the other convoluted. The first meaning of entitlement is societal, referring to legal and moral rights that all people share equally. The problematic meaning is psychological and interpersonal:

“My right to have something is superior to your right not to give it to me.”

Obviously, the two meanings of entitlement militate against each other, causing much psychological distress and social conflict.

In 2008, I named this post Anger in the Age of Entitlement. The point I was trying to make is that, on an interpersonal level, anger and entitlement are inextricably linked. If you’re angry, you perceive threats to some presumed entitlement, and if you’re entitled, you’re bound to be angry, as the rest of the world will resist your sense of entitlement.

Insofar as anger is a defender of rights, the more rights you perceive yourself to have, the more frequently you’ll get angry. Sometimes, the anger manifests in angry outbursts; more often, it takes a subdued form of prolonged, if not chronic, resentment.

If I were to name this post today, I’d probably call it Anger in the Age of Ultra-Entitlement. Historically, people felt entitled to think and say whatever they liked and to do anything that did not impinge on the rights of others. In less than a decade, we’ve expanded the sense of entitlement to control what other people think and say out loud.

“If I don’t like the way you think or what you say, you have no right to think or say it.”

Intolerance of differences, combined with entitlement, creates a victim identity. The entitled feel perpetually offended, if not oppressed, by each other.

Entitlement, Inflated Ego, Self-deception

Entitlement inflates the ego to unrealistic levels, where it is highly vulnerable to the disconfirming impressions of others. It requires a certain amount of impression management and self-deception to maintain. It’s fed through confirmation bias but remains highly vulnerable to disconfirming feedback from others. It becomes fragile. It feels defensive when being aggressive and attacked when attacking.

In my clinical experience, entitlement expands (along with defensive anger) to hide a deeper sense of unworthiness. For example, clients with a sense of entitlement rarely feel loved. Despite feeling entitled to be loved, they feel unworthy of it. If you don’t feel worthy of love, you can’t believe someone loves you, not the real you. There’s no way we can feel genuinely worthy of love while feeling entitled to devalue or assume rights that are superior to those of loved ones.


Authors who suggest an antidote to entitlement typically cite its opposite, humility. Although it’s better for us psychologically, humility in our present age is commonly and inaccurately construed as low self-esteem. The difference between the virtue of humility and the symptom of low self-esteem is this: With the latter, we’re not as good as other people, while the former recognizes that we’re no better than others.

Humility is a hard sell at a time when people perceive the need to feel morally, intellectually, or emotionally superior. A more palatable antidote is the principle of emotion reciprocity, which holds that we will likely get back what we put out. If we want to be respected, we must be respectful. If we want fairness, we must be fair. If we want appreciation, we must be appreciative. If we want compassion, we must be compassionate. If we want to be loved, we must be loving. On an interpersonal level, we’re entitled to receive those emotional rewards to the extent we give them.

Emotion reciprocity has ample empirical support, which tells us nothing more than the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you) and its more ancient versions, most famously by Confucius in the 5th century B.C. The principle has been around for thousands of years, but it’s never too late to learn it, and it’s never been more urgent to practice it.

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