Healthy Entitlement: How to Ask for What You Want
The concept of entitlement is thought of almost exclusively in negative terms, but psychotherapists and frequent goop contributors, Barry Michels and Phil Stutz say that many of their clients—particularly women—suffer instead from a lack of it. The authors of Coming Alive (out this August) and The Tools report that a large part of their practice involves actually encouraging their patients to feel more entitled: developing what they call “healthy entitlement,” meaning the sense that you have the right to want things. (Of course, wanting something doesn’t necessarily mean that you get it—the point here is about getting in touch with the wanting, the desire.) Their brilliant advice for cultivating healthy entitlement is essential for anyone who has a hard time owning desire—an incredibly exasperating way to live, because you’re less likely to feel heard, and less likely to get what you want—whether it’s dressing on the side, a certain bedroom wish, time off from work, or help with the laundry.
A Q&A with Barry Michels
In your experience, do men struggle with this as well, or does this seem to be a uniquely female problem?
I’ve definitely treated men who lack a strong sense of entitlement—I’m someone who’s had to work on it. That said, at least in my practice, it’s much more prevalent with women. My theory is that although our society isn’t as overtly sexist as it used to be, I think women are still socialized to serve rather than to deserve.
It’s been an education for me as a male therapist to learn how many women are sexualized and taught, from an early age, that what men want is more important than what they want. It’s not usually said in words, but it’s acted out around them, definitely in the culture and sometimes in direct experiences. It’s shocking to me, but I would say 50 to 60 percent of the women I treat have been molested or suffered from incest at some point as children. They grew up with the sense that they weren’t entitled to say no to men.
One of the reasons it’s so important for women to develop a sense of entitlement is so they pass that onto their children, both boys and girls. We need to let all children know that women don’t exist for the gratification of men.
How do you gain a sense of entitlement?
Start by asking for things you want but don’t normally ask for. If you don’t like the food at a restaurant, send it back. If you don’t like the way someone in your family is behaving, say something about it. You don’t have to raise your voice or punish them, just say, “I don’t like the way you’re behaving right now,” and walk away. You’re not doing it to get them to change, you’re doing it to get comfortable with expressing what you want.
Another classic example: If someone’s interested in you romantically, and you’ve been stringing them along because you can’t stand hurting their feelings—tell them the truth. Or if someone’s talking in the middle of a movie, ask them to pipe down. There are a million everyday things you can do to ask for what you desire.
That doesn’t sound easy for someone who’s not used to asking for what they want?
Exactly, and we want to use that to our advantage. If you’ve been disentitled your whole life, asserting what you want will feel like you’re turning into that Hollywood power broker or the obnoxious politician. That’s why you should start with small things and expect to feel selfish, imposing, arrogant, etc.
That bad feeling is what Phil and I call a “Reverse Indicator.” It’s a bad feeling that indicates that you’re changing your life in a good way. If you’ve been a pushover your entire life, asserting yourself will feel like you’re becoming obnoxious—so that bad feeling has to be labeled and acknowledged as a positive thing.
Every single day, you should be asking for things you don’t normally ask for. When you feel like you’ve done something terrible, say to yourself, “That’s good, I hit my mark today.” And if you get to the end of any given day and you haven’t felt selfish or obnoxious, tell yourself, “I messed up. I have to recommit to my homework tomorrow.”
Does that bad feeling eventually go away?
Yes, it does, just the way you can make a phobia go away by repeatedly desensitizing yourself to the thing you’re afraid of. But there’s also a tool that helps it go away, and more important, the tool develops entitlement into an enduring, inner force that you can call upon at any time. The tool works with the idea that the universe actually wants you to have a healthy sense of entitlement.
Why would the universe want us to feel entitled?
The universe always seeks balance and wholeness. Think of it this way: If you’re disentitled, you’re inevitably surrounded by people with an excessive sense of entitlement. Your kids expect you to do everything for them, your spouse feels entitled to sex on demand, your friends feel they deserve your undivided attention no matter what’s going on in your life. Think about that for a moment: You’ve unwittingly enabled these people to remain selfish.
The universe wants you to feel entitled because it’s the only way the people around you will learn to grow up and tolerate not getting what they want. People benefit not only from being given to, but from having to give back. It makes them more grateful and aware of the give-and-take that’s at the heart of every human group, from a family to a large company. Thus, by developing a healthy sense of entitlement, you encourage the people around you to become more giving, more responsible, and less selfish.
If we’re debating whether or not it’s okay to ask someone for something, how do we know if we’re expressing healthy or unhealthy entitlement?
If you’re debating that question, it’s almost certain you aren’t overly entitled. Think about it: People who have an excessive sense of entitlement never debate—they just demand what they want. But if you’re really worried about it, use the Golden Rule. Ask yourself, “If someone were asking me for what I am asking for, would I be offended by the request itself?”
On a deeper level, though, people who debate whether or not to ask for what they want are focused on the wrong thing. What they’re really trying to do is find a rulebook that will tell them what’s okay and what’s not okay to ask for. The truth is, there’s no rulebook. The issue is not what you’re asking for; it’s about what’s going on inside you. Do you feel that you have a right to ask for what you want? If that right exists securely inside you, then sometimes you’ll ask more of people than they can give, but you’ll work it out with them. The deep fear disentitled people have is that somehow they’re going to get caught asking for “too much” and that feels like some kind of primal taboo or sin. But it’s not a sin to ask for something—even if the answer is no.
Barry Michels has a BA from Harvard, a law degree from University of California, Berkeley, and an MSW from the University of Southern California. He has been in private practice as a psychotherapist since 1986. With Phil Stutz, he is the author of Coming Alive and The Tools.
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