You’ve got a friend who you like very much, but also can make you quite anxious and unhappy. It feels to you that you can never make this person quite satisfied enough. Let’s say you offer to meet her at a certain time, and you’re a couple of minutes late. Within that short time frame, you receive a demanding text asking where you are, and when you’re going to arrive. Although you’re usually a punctual person, on this occasion, you were delayed due to circumstances completely outside of your control. Now that you’re there, you feel a nagging sense of having done something wrong. Throughout the rest of your time together, that feeling stays with you and takes the edge off the pleasure of being with your friend. As you think back on other occasions, you recall similarly feeling that you haven’t been nice enough because something feels “off.” After each of these interactions, you vow to yourself that the next time things will go completely perfectly and your friend will feel nothing but 100% satisfied.
What is it about such difficult people that leads you to keep aiming to please? Their constant demands for special treatment cause you to question and doubt yourself. In deciding why this happens, you have 3 options: (1) It’s something about them; (2) It’s something about you; (3) It’s something about how the two of you interact. Toward this last point, you and the difficult people in your life have a relationship that may stretch back weeks, months, or even decades. You generally feel that you’re living up to other people’s expectations about you, but with this person you always feel you’re coming up short. This leaves you to ponder options 1 and 3 as the cause of these constant tensions.
The feeling that you’ve never good enough around certain people may relate to the concept of entitlement. According to University of Florida’s Liz Redford and Kate Ratliff (2017), “Entitled people have an inﬂated sense of self-importance and pervasive expectations to receive special treatment without reciprocating (p. 1). As compared to “deservingness,” which are outcomes that justly reflect equity between yourself and others, entitlement is an attitude that the benefits you get are ones you only think you deserve. People who are highly entitled can therefore make you think you always owe them something when in fact you don’t. Therefore, the possibility that it’s the difficult person entirely, not you, who makes you feel you’ve failed, could reflect what the University of Florida authors feel is a stable, global, and pervasive tendency.
The highly entitled’s self-enhancing values, Redford and Ratliff believe, can lead them to be particularly likely to seek retribution in the case of other people who violate social norms. They may seek overly harsh penalties for criminal offenders in order to restore what they perceive to be proper justice. Additionally, because the entitled believe themselves to be right at all times, they cannot put themselves in the place of others who misbehave. They have no patience when it comes to wrongdoing. Returning to your friend who gives you a hard time about your own failings to live up to her expectations, she wouldn’t understand your predicament and therefore would make you feel at fault. If, on the other hand, it was she who was late, she’d readily come up with an explanation that gets her off the hook such as blaming someone else.
The Florida researchers carried out a series of studies on the relationship between entitlement and the seeking of retribution for crimes. Participants completed an online measure of entitlement in which they rated themselves on questions such as “People like me deserve an extra break now and then,” and “I honestly feel I’m more deserving than others” (p. 3). They also rated themselves on the “self-enhancing values” of power and achievement, indicating the extent to which they see these as life-guiding principles. The outcome variables in these studies included attitudes toward crime; namely whether crime threatens the individual’s sense of social hierarchies, whether after a crime it is important to restore power, and finally, how much the individuals sought retribution after a crime.
The overall findings supported a theoretical model in which entitlement was positively related to belief in self-enhancing values. Further, entitled people were more likely to “align their justice beliefs to protect the power and status they value and believe to be threatened by crime.” They seek and preserve “high status for the self by keeping norm violators in place” (p. 14). It’s clear, then, that the people who make you feel you’ve done something wrong believe that you need to be taken down a notch or two. They need people to feel that they’ve committed some type of violation so that they can continue to feel superior.
Let’s return, then, to the question of whether it’s them, you, or the interaction that makes you feel you’ve wronged the entitled and self-enhancing person. Because such individuals radiate the view that they are more deserving than everyone else, they can easily lead you to fall for this belief too. If you have the slightest degree of self-doubts and insecurity, you will be highly sensitive to feedback suggesting that you’ve failed in some way. People who have a robust sense of self are better prepared to fend off the negative vibes they receive from these difficult people. In fact, if the University of Florida study’s findings are correct, this means that it takes an entitled and self-enhancing person to be able to get along with others who have similar dispositions and values. The fact that you are led to doubt yourself when around such people would, according to this logic, make you the one who’s better adjusted.
In the long run, being somewhat humble and willing to accept blame becomes a favorable attribute that will get you through more of life’s tough situations and the tough people you encounter along the way The next time a friend, lover, or coworker causes you to feel inordinately apologetic, resist the urge to engage in self-blame. You can still have good relationships with them, but if you don’t, you’ll know why.