The “Air” of Royalty
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Much has been said about narcissists’ repugnant characteristics. They can be self-centered, vain, disrespectful, unethical, arrogant, lack empathy, and so on.
Most conspicuously, perhaps, they often possess a pervasive sense of entitlement and believe the world owes them—a notion held altogether independent of their contributions to others. If, in fact, they’ve done something seemingly generous or praiseworthy, they may expect—and may even insist on—being paid back in spades.
Not that much, however, has been written about the derivation of this core objectionable feature of their personality—why they believe other, “lesser” humans should abide by standards that, frankly, don’t apply to them.
To elucidate why certain people cling so tightly to this unearned sense of entitlement (contingent, that is, on how far out on the narcissistic continuum they’re situated), it’s crucial to explore their history. And here, we should recognize how imperative it is for all of us to generate defenses when our coping resources are limited.
When we’re young and especially vulnerable to outward events, we need to find ways of adapting to (vs. being immobilized by) circumstances we lack the ability to deal with effectively. Feeling helpless and thus afflicted with potentially disabling anxiety, we’re compelled, however unconsciously, to come up with some method of combating our emotional distress.
One of the many ways we can accomplish this feat is to conjure up a sense of entitlement. And, to give such individuals, particularly narcissists, their due, it must be admitted that at the time of perceived threat, it’s undeniably adaptive.
Writers on this subject frequently vary in their emphasis on the origins of this sense of entitlement, typically concluding that they’re not yet adequately known. That’s hardly surprising since there are so many possible causes for the phenomenon—biographical as well as biological and neurological. So no single explanation could possibly account for all instances of such dishonorable behavior.
Nonetheless, here are some explanations (though hardly justifications) for it:
This cuts two ways. First, entitled individuals may have been raised by parents who wanted to give them everything they themselves missed in growing up. So in various ways, they overindulge them and hastily intervened to prevent them from experiencing frustration—as in solving their problems or even doing their homework.
In general, they impart to them the notion that, without having to exert themselves, they can get whatever they want. Nor are they required to do anything they don’t wish to. In effect, they spoil the child, inadvertently teaching them to see themselves as not obligated to anybody or anything but rather as having the freedom to focus solely on their desires.
Secondly, though not as commonly, a person’s sense of entitlement could derive from the opposite situation. Here, contrasted to having overly accommodating parents, their caretakers were so self-absorbed and judgmental (and quite possibly narcissists themselves) that their wants and needs—and especially their feelings—were disregarded or dismissed.
Never having received the attention, understanding, or caring they craved, they adapt (possibly because they’re genetically predisposed to) by compensating for their distressing feelings of unworthiness by originating—typically in adolescence or adulthood—the counter-belief that they richly deserve what they’d previously been denied.
In extreme cases, they may believe they ought to be treated like royalty. And when they’re not, they can (over)react with self-righteous rage and cruel, vengeful behavior.
Negative evaluation from anyone to whom the child attributes authority
Any adult, or even sibling or peer, who ignored, bullied, or ridiculed them could leave them feeling anxious and inadequate—like they don’t fit in or deserve to fit in. And to placate their fragile ego, they could declare themselves better than those they saw as rejecting them.
Feeling left out, as though they didn’t belong, can be nothing short of traumatic for a child. So ameliorating their emotional pain from such perception through erecting a grandiose sense of entitlement is understandable.
True, there’s nothing admirable about this defense, but glibly censoring them for what they devised to make their lives more tolerable nonetheless warrants being viewed compassionately.
The blessing—and curse—of our time, social media can induce us to compare ourselves unfavorably to others, with the result that we conclude there must be something bad, wrong, or unacceptable about us. Once again, a potent defense against the depressive feelings that accompany such an abject mentality can lead certain individuals to cultivate an illusion that they’re so “exceptional” that others can’t recognize their inherent superiority.
Inversely related to this dynamic, we’re barraged by commercial media daily, endeavoring to convince us to buy their goods or services by emphatically repeating the message that, indubitably, we deserve what they’re offering. Being constantly exposed to these declarations can persuade us to see ourselves as entitled to whatever might gratify us, blithely ignoring (as do the ads) that such pleasure-seeking might adversely affect others.
A privileged environment
If we were raised in a locale where everyone possessed either inherited or acquired wealth or status, we might “contagiously” absorb a sense of communal superiority, especially if our parents had the means and willingness to buy us everything we wanted (like $500 golden goose sneakers).
We’d then come to expect that others would—and, indeed, should—treat us in the same preferential way. After all, we’ve come to believe that the world was our oyster, so any excavated pearl ought to belong exclusively to us.
Conversely, our environment could have been disadvantageous. We could have been the poor family on the block (or trailer park), spoken a different language, or otherwise provoked our neighbors’ negative bias. Reacting dramatically to these ego wounds, we might then self-soothe by seeing ourselves as no ugly duckling at all but a beautiful, gilt-edged swan.
Winning an award, haphazardly “lucking out” over something, being a teacher’s pet, and endless other examples of usually unearned, fortuitous good fortune might result in narcissists seeing themselves as special and better than others—and therefore entitled like no one else.
To generalize from all the above causes, it might be said that in one way or another, almost all of them derive from a person’s being afflicted with underlying feelings of insecurity. Virtually all defense mechanisms stem from the anxiety of not being good enough or sufficiently resilient to be safe enough. To at least distance themselves from the distress of such an uncomfortable self-regard, these individuals may employ the defenses of denial or dissociation. Or hold back from authentically engaging with others.
Narcissists, however, usually go to the opposite extreme. They don’t shy away from social interaction, but their superficial cordiality masks an underlying antagonism.
This is why sooner or later, they end up alienating almost everyone around them, consequently experiencing just those feelings of emptiness or loneliness they sought to avoid by striving, illicitly, to win others’ adulation and respect.
© 2022 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.