Ways of responding

My friend and I were talking about how to respond to events like the election or other adverse events in life where you don’t get what you want. She suggested that there were a few categories of responses, which we labeled as follows:

  • Helpless: Shrug your shoulders and say “That’s just the way the world works”.
  • Entitled: Get angry at the world or others for not conforming to your desires. “Why can’t I have what I want?”
  • Empowered: Realize that it’s up to you to change to get what you want

Another way of framing these responses in terms of mindset regarding change was:

  • Helpless: don’t attempt any change and accept that you don’t get what you want – you are unworthy and don’t deserve it.
  • Entitled: attempt to change others to get what you want – the world owes you what you want because you’re a good or worthy or hard-working or morally upstanding person.
  • Empowered: attempt to change yourself to get what you want – there is no such thing as “deserving” or “owing” – what can you do to start shifting the world to one in which you get what you want?

As usual, I’ll note that this discussion of empowerment depends on having basic needs met of food, shelter, safety, financial stability, etc. Without those basic needs met, there is no opportunity to move out of survival mode.

I liked the framework to help me categorize how others are reacting to the world. In particular, once we talked about this framework, I could see these sorts of reactions everywhere, including in myself.

In my own experience, I have experienced all three mindsets. I have tended towards the entitled mindset throughout my life due to growing up as a privileged kid who generally got what I wanted, and feeling that I deserved things like going to MIT, getting whatever job I wanted, etc. In my professional career, I have often tended towards the helpless mindset, where I didn’t feel like I had the ability to change anything in the companies I worked at, and instead gossiped and complained that “they” weren’t listening to me. But I’m trying to move towards a more empowered mindset, where I focus on what actions I can take to make a difference in the world.

The entitled mindset is the most interesting to me these days in light of the election. The Trump campaign was an amalgam of rich people saying “We’re rich, so we deserve whatever we want, and it doesn’t matter who gets hurt” and working-class people saying “We worked hard, so we deserve the American dream” (even though the world has changed and good factory manufacturing jobs are being automated away). In fact, the campaign slogan of “Make American Great Again” has entitlement built in – there is no consideration of whether America was great, or deserves to be great again – it assumes that America is entitled to be great, no matter what.

One challenge with the entitled position is that somebody who feels entitled doesn’t care about other people getting hurt in their pursuit of what they want. They “deserve” or are “owed” a certain result, and anybody who stands in the way of that result is an obstacle that is only there to be removed (or abused until they remove themselves). It reminds me of this story of a woman yelling at a fast food clerk because she got ketchup and didn’t want it. Instead of giving the clerk a chance to fix the problem, she started yelling at the clerk and wanted everybody to get fired because she hadn’t gotten what she wanted. I feel that the entitled mindset encourages this disparity between one’s own needs and the needs of others, and leads to a lack of compassion.

Another challenge with the entitled position is that it sets up a culture of blame – it is always somebody else’s fault. The politics of blame have been much on my mind due to the election, but it goes well beyond that. When somebody doesn’t get a promotion at work, do they ask why and figure out what they can do differently next time to improve their chances? Or do they start muttering about “politics” and gossiping about how the other person did unsavory things to get promoted?

The challenge with blaming other people is that it puts you back into the helpless mindset, where it feels like you can’t do anything about your situation. The hidden assumption of entitlement is that you are helpless to do anything to fix the situation, so you are dependent on others to fix it for you. The difference between the helpless and entitled mindsets is that the helpless doesn’t think they deserve a better situation (or has given up), and the entitled does, but in both cases, they are not taking action themselves to change their situation – they are waiting for others to fix the situation for them.

Obviously, I have been advocating for the empowered mindset this past year, where you can only change yourself if you want to have the world change. And as I suggested in turning the page post, part of our challenge with the Trump administration will be to take an empowered mindset of taking real action to ensure we get the America we want (at the very least calling our representatives/Senators), rather than shrugging our shoulders with a helpless mindset, or blaming others (swing voters, racists, fake news) with an entitled mindset.

Having this framework is helpful for me in identifying the assumptions I and others are making about how to interact with the world. Let me know if you find it similarly helpful!

P.S. As an aside that I couldn’t fit into the narrative of this post, I also think there is an interesting mapping of these mindsets to the Kübler-Ross stages of grief:

  • Entitled: Denial, Anger, Bargaining (all variations on “the world can’t be like this, and I need the world to change”)
  • Helpless: Depression (“I give up”)
  • Empowered: Acceptance (“Okay, this bad thing happened, and I’m going to move on and figure out what to do next”)

P.P.S. Another aside is that I think there may also be a mapping to childhood development stages. In Alain de Botton’s book The Pursuit of Love, he points out that we come into this world as babies and are the focus of our parents’ total attention. We expect that and become entitled to feeling that we are deserving of having others do everything for us (which some people then expect in their romantic relationships). Then as we grow older into teenagers and young adults, we can feel helpless because we are not the center of anybody’s attention and we don’t feel we can do anything ourselves – we are at the whim of an uncaring world. Hopefully, we can eventually move beyond that to taking control of our own lives and becoming empowered.

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