One of the most difficult aspects of alcoholism to address, which we all – in my experience – must confront, is our sense of entitlement. Entitlement is a buzzword, these days, often applied to what very privileged people believe their privilege ought to afford them. But entitlement has a far more familiar place in each of our hearts, I think. We are quick to point it out in others, and slow to see it in ourselves.
My sense of entitlement crops up in terms of what I feel I deserve. Entitlement need not come from privilege. We often feel – perhaps justly – that we are entitled to what we’ve earned. What we’ve bought. What we’ve built. I am literally entitled to my home: my name is on the title. I often feel entitled to being seen as an expert in my field: I’ve studied hard, worked hard, and published a great deal. I feel I’ve earned it.
But entitlement crops up in strangely toxic ways that are often very subtle, unrelated to traditional concepts. We are acting with entitlement when we expect people to see us as we want to be seen, rather than as we present ourselves. We are acting with entitlement when we expect people to treat us with honor when we’re unknown in a new venue. When being treated civilly isn’t enough: we need respect and deference.
It manifests in extremely simple ways: walking three abreast on a narrow path, when others need to pass. Speaking loudly in a quiet place. Stepping in front of a line because “I just have one question.” Entitlement expresses itself in not waiting my turn. In feeling justified in taking the fruits of others’ labor. In feeling that I made a bad deal, and therefore deserve to renegotiate.
Entitlement can cast itself against society, the world, one’s god, or anything else. I don’t deserve to be an alcoholic. I don’t deserve to have to clean my home. I don’t deserve to have people question my expertise. I don’t deserve to suffer because I’m different. I don’t deserve to be judged on my results but on my potential. I am special. The rules don’t apply to me as long as I can get away with breaking them. I deserve to be advanced and promoted without investing my own efforts and funds.
Someone I once knew told me, “If you break the rules, and you don’t get caught, and no one gets hurt, then you win.” But I don’t get to decide when others are hurt. Because I will minimize others’ harm in my mind to justify my entitlement to step in front of them. We humans are not good judges of when we’ve harmed others. We are dishonest about it, and we are un-empathetic about it. This is why we need ethical research oversight.
But there’s no ethical oversight for me, sitting in my home, feeling unjustly burdened by the world. At least, there wasn’t. Not while I drank. Some people find that oversight in a god. Some in philosophy like humanism. Some claim science provides it: I’ve seen and read too many ethical atrocities in science to believe that. I can find no evidence that training in science leads humans to be decent to one another, to cast off entitlement.
Personal entitlement is often completely divorced from societal privilege. And in addressing how we act towards others with entitlement – simply believing we deserve or can justify being put ahead of someone else – is one of the most difficult asks of sobriety. But understanding my place in the world is paramount to my recovery.
The rules apply to me. My satisfaction is not more important than another’s. I do not get to decide when other people should feel harmed. I do not get to decide when other people should feel outraged. I don’t get to minimize other people’s emotional processes. I need to seek counsel before deciding I’m not in the wrong. I am as capable of wrongdoing as anyone else, and as likely to engage in it.
I am human. I am an alcoholic. And I am in recovery. My recovery is about more than abstinence. In fact, abstinence is the least, and simplest, part of my recovery. My recovery is about being a person who does not need to obliterate my disgraces. And to do that, I need to confront them. I often feel entitled. And in some rare cases, I actually am entitled. But I have no ground to act it.
When I am offended, it is almost always because something inside of me is being prodded that I don’t like to have to look at. I am not entitled to have my offense redressed. I am not entitled to have others change their behavior for me. Nor are you entitled to change mine to suit you. But maybe if we operate from a basic level of decency, we find a way to coexist without jockeying for entitled position.