The Entitlement Trap

EntitlementA while back I was working at our main facility when a client came in to ask if he could go to the gym with a couple other guys. The problem was that he had been rated “red,” the most restricted status at ROI, based on his behavior level. The other guys going were “green,” the least restricted status, given when they have achieved a level of trustworthiness. The rule was that a client
 had to be rated at least a “blue,” the middle status, and he had to be accompanied by a “green” to go to the gym. In an effort to make an “emotional deposit” with this red client, I agreed to make an exception one time. That was a decision that I came to regret a couple days later. That same client became indignant when another staff member stuck to the rules and did not let him go to the gym without a staff member.

The client said, “Well, Kim made an exception before and let me go” The staff member called me and put me on speaker as I reminded the client that I had made an “exception this one time” and we were now sticking to the rules as usual. Instead of becoming grateful for that one time exception, he stormed off, calling me a couple of choice words. He felt entitled to a special privilege without in any way earning it. That is when I stopped giving special privileges for any reason, as there was no emotional pay off for either the addict or for me, the one granting the exception. The unearned privilege fed into his feeling
 of entitlement, an all too common characteristic of addicts as well as society as a whole.

Like parents, we as professionals have to constantly guard against falling into the trap of entitlement like this one that had developed long before the young man came to ROI.

Entitlement: a mistaken belief.

Entitlement is a mistaken belief that the world owes you something because you are you, the special child for whom everything should go right.

Historically, people had a lot of children to have help on the farm or in the family business. The kids saw the connection between their work and the food on the table. Nobody ate if the whole family didn’t pitch in and help. They learned that things don’t go right by themselves; they had to contribute, and even then there was adversity, and so they were grateful for what they had. Today, by contrast, we seem to have children in order to serve them for the rest of our lives. Our current society is a culture of entitlement. Many of today’s parents feed into the culture of entitlement, especially in affluent families.

Every one of our beloved children is special to us from birth. However, with all these special children in the world, ours are no more special than anyone else’s children and they do not deserve special treatment just from having been born. When we give them things they haven’t earned, when we treat them so special that the rules of common decency don’t apply to them, we don’t let them grow up. The world will never treat them like mom and dad have. When we “over-special” them, we set them up for failure.


One of the ways parents foster entitlement is by giving their children money, privileges, and material things without an understanding of how those things were earned or acquired. Those who have 
the most resources often give too much to their kids and expect too little—too little effort, too little responsibility, and too little gratitude in return. The kids begin to think they have been given so much because they deserve it and it is owed to them. The fact that they have not often experienced limits also contributes to their feeling of entitlement. Moreover, affluent parents have the money and clout to help the young substance abuser escape the natural consequences of his irresponsible behavior.

As a consequence of entitlement, when an individual chooses to abuse substances and it begins to cause him problems, he does not see himself at fault. Instead, he wonders, Why is the world not satisfying me? Why are they not making it easier for me?

That behavior includes, for example, the “what’s mine
 is mine and what’s yours is mine too” behavior. Kids who have gone through their parents’ drawers and pocketbooks taking cash and items to sell for drugs are the ones who protest the loudest that their privacy has been invaded when their parents search their drawers for evidence. The passion of their indignation itself is a sign of unwarranted entitlement.

The victim mentality is the bedfellow of entitlement. Feeling hurt, acting slighted, and declaring himself treated unfairly comes from a habitual mindset of people who feel entitled. Then they seek out friends or other family members who, by failing to challenge the faulty premise of the rationalization, make them feel justified in their complaint. This pattern is especially common in cases of divorce. The child’s social network leads him to feel he is owed something to make up for not having both parents in the same household. Therefore, believing that he has been victimized, he concludes he is entitled to restitution. Challenging the faulty premise of victimization will invariably be met with emotionally charged resistance.

It doesn’t do any good to fuss at a guy for his attitude of entitlement; he will only think we are being mean to him and complains to whoever will listen that we are treating him badly. That is his pattern, and he clings to it. Instead we need to replace this pattern by fostering gratitude in any way we can.

Gratitude is the opposite of entitlement; therefore, cultivating gratitude is the main avenue out of his faulty mindset. First we model the behavior we want him to learn by expressing our own gratitude. Then we teach him to do the same. When he can express his appreciation, we ask him to express it to the appropriate person.

When we see one of our guys express appreciation for something someone did for him, we rejoice. “When he finds that gratitude feels better than entitlement, he is on the road to recovery. He begins to thank a person who did something for him as if were a gift, not his due. He helps somebody else who needs it. He makes an effort to be cheerful and friendly. He is brave enough to admit he has done something wrong. He doesn’t ask for something special for himself that the others didn’t get. He is willing to do what we ask of him: change his outlook and attitude; accept responsibility; and, do the hard work (internal and external). In these ways, his privileges and compliments become validly earned and deserved. He in turn becomes a model for other young men who come to Recovery Outfitters.”


Executive Director


  1. Rich Rebenstorf says:

    Well Said Kim! I appreciate you sharing this post. It helps me in understanding the right and wrong ways in dealing with my Grandson. I appreciate all you have done to help him and have much gratitude towards to you and your staff at Recovery Outfitters. I believe you have taught him to be grateful as well. It is very evident in the conversations we have with him on the phone how much he has grown in understanding how he should be thankful for the things and opportunities he has been given. Thank you!

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