Dining out with my father, I was always amazed when he would call the waiter over and send something back. It wasn’t a frequent occurrence, but if he found something that was amiss, he didn’t fret over asking for it to be addressed. There was no drama or doubt about his right to do so. He didn’t worry about being a burden, or offending, or being too demanding.
Watching the easy self-assurance with which he made this request, I was amazed. Because he was so confident and comfortable, the request was always matter of fact. There was no edgy energy attached to it. It simply wasn’t a big deal.
When we feel a healthy sense of entitlement, we can ask for what we need and want in a comfortable, easy way. Our requests are firm, but not shrill; clear, but not tense. When, however, we have stuffed down our feelings of entitlement, they are under pressure, and will pop out with some violence when given the chance.
When our entitlement is in the shadow, we may sneak the things that we want or need, without perhaps even being honest with ourselves that we are doing so. If we have been shamed for wanting or needing things, and have been given the message by our parents or culture that our needs are bad, our entitlement may be stuffed down so hard, and under so much pressure that there is a lot of energy and anger associated with them. In this case, we are likely to alternate between being meek and undemanding, with being at times shrill and overly demanding.
To go back to the restaurant scene, if we don’t feel comfortable in our entitlement to send back the overdone meat, we may be a bit combative or defensive, over-explaining or even over-stating what we found fault with. We might be nervous to send it back, and so keyed up and ready for a fight.
The stereotype of “bridezilla” strikes me as an example of wounded entitlement that has gained too much energy by being forced underground. The stereotypical bridezilla is often a young woman who may not have felt entitled to be the center of attention before, but has secretly longed to claim that. Her wedding gives her carte blanche permission to do so, and the entitlement emerges in an unbridled – and often unflattering – way.
Undoubtedly, a wounded sense of entitlement is a much more common occurrence for women and minorities in our culture. Those who have been disenfranchised by social and cultural norms are likely to find it much harder to claim what should be theirs. But entitlement is an interpersonal issue as well as a political one, and I have known people of all races and sexes to struggle with this. (Admittedly, white men generally have an easier time “recovering” from wounded entitlement.)
A client’s dream that addressed the dual nature of wounded entitlement clarified for me that this is a key theme of Cinderella stories. With her permission, here is the dream:
I am in a store with my sister. There are beautiful dresses made out of brightly colored silk. We are trying them on. My sister takes all of the most beautiful ones for herself, including one that is a brilliant turquoise. I begin feeling sad and desperate. I am getting only the ugly dresses, including one that is patchwork. My sister does not even think about whether or not she should be taking all the best dresses.
My client was consciously identified with the experience of wounded entitlement, which she is very familiar with in her waking life. Though she is in fact an only child, she has an unconscious inner “sister” who feels unquestioningly entitled. These outsized inner experiences of entitlement leave her conscious ego feeling victimized, disenfranchised, and squeezed out of the way because the ego has been disallowed the experience of entitlement.
In all Cinderella variants, there are step-sisters, and the step-sisters always feel very entitled to various material possessions. They also usually feel entitled to make the heroine do their work. The fairy tale mirrors my client’s lived experience and her dream. It is a picture of a psyche which has been prohibited from experiencing uncomplicated, healthy entitlement. Those feelings have “gone underground,” where they exert pressure on the ego, and make impossible demands of her. Make everyone happy! Do without! Always be nice! Meanwhile, the entitlement that has been disallowed builds up energy in the unconscious.
In a psyche with a Cinderella complex, the step-sisters carry that aspect of the psyche that has disproportionate and misplaced entitlement needs. The entitlement is misplaced because it is imposed on the poor beleaguered ego rather than being appropriately expressed to the outside world. Because a healthy entitlement has been blocked, the inner step-sisters keep dumping on the overworked ego, who is struggling to negotiate the inner psychic demands as well as to please those in the outer world.
There is another level on which this image of disowned entitlement in both the dream and the tale works. If we have been taught by our parents and our culture that our entitlement is selfish, lazy, rude, or unbecoming, then our experience of feeling entitled feels dangerous, ugly, and threatening. Hence, it gets pictured as reprehensible, overstated, and even grotesque. The “step-sisters” are ugly and even dangerous because the ego has allied itself with the view that entitlement of any kind is ugly and dangerous.
The task here is to integrate some of the step-sister sense of entitlement. Note that this is not the same as becoming like them, rather, we need to become a little more like them, move in that direction. In the fairy tale, Cinderella’s sneaking off to the ball in a magically acquired gown is an image of her sense of entitlement coming into conscious awareness. She hasn’t claimed it fully enough to go to the ball without subterfuge. She needs help from the inner positive mother to find her entitlement to go.
In most Cinderella stories, clothing plays a key role. Our choice of clothing of course relates to our persona, or the mask that we elect to wear. There is a clear relationship between persona and what we assert and feel entitled to in the outside world. One sure way to communicate what we aspire to is to “dress the part.”
Integrating healthy entitlement will mean allowing oneself to integrate healthy aggression as well. In some Cinderella variants, aggression is more explicit than others. In nearly all of them, the step sisters fall to some violent fate. This is an image of aggression that is being wielded on the right side of the equation. In some versions, we see the heroine being responsible for this act of violence, a more explicit image of aggression being claimed by the once weary ego.
Interestingly, what allows the heroine in all Cinderella tales the world over to claim healthy entitlement is some contact with the healing positive mother. The answer in all of the tales is for the heroine to have the correct attitude toward the unconscious. When we are too arrogant and demanding of our own unconscious, attempting to force our ego desires, then we will meet with misfortune.
In many version of the tale (including the best known one by Perrault), the climax of the tale is reached when the heroine steps forward and asks to be allowed to try on the slipper. This is an important act. She is not passive any longer. She has integrated some entitlement, and is claiming her right to be allowed to try on the slipper. The tale tells us that she laughs as she slips her foot in, so confident is she.
Literature has given us many fine examples of a similar dynamic in a male psyche, Harry Potter being a ready example. Throughout the series, Harry experience the different stages of healing a wounded sense of entitlement. At first, he is utterly disenfranchised and downtrodden, happy to live beneath the stairs. Later, he progresses to stealing, lying, sneaking and breaking every rule at Hogwarts, much to the delight of the reader. During this stage, which comprises much of the series, he tends to avoid the adults who could help him because he does not yet know that he is entitled to their help and protection. Finally, he is able to openly claiming his role as a leader. As he matures in the last few books, we see him claiming more, directly confiding in Dumbledore and others, and feeling less confused about his right to ask for and receive help.