Each infant is born with a full-body knowing that they are entitled to nourishment, shelter, rest, and loving contact. Each baby vigorously pursues their wants with all the resources at their disposal, crying, reaching out, and turning away when they have had enough. Their caretaker’s task is to provide for those needs.
Unless they have been abused or neglected, small children are still in solid contact with their inner feelings and wants, and pursue them with their greatly expanded repertoire of words and actions. Their caretaker’s task is to provide for their needs, and also begin to teach them a reciprocal respect for others’ needs.
Both external and internal
As we grow older, we acquire a sense of our domain, the part of the world we are entitled to make choices about. We learn what we can expect to receive and what we can take for granted. Entitlement is partly a social process, guided by external feedback, and partly an internal process, guided by our sense of what we need and deserve.
Our bodies belong to us
We are entitled to complete autonomy over the insides and surfaces of our bodies. What happens inside an adult’s body is solely that person’s business. Children’s bodily autonomy should be respected as much as possible from the beginning.
- Food. As Ellyn Satter firmly states, at every age we get to choose what and how much food we eat. For children, adults control what foods are offered and when. As adults, we both procure food for ourselves, and check inside about what and how much we want to eat at each meal or snack. Different kinds and amounts of food work for different people. A large range of body sizes, from skinny to fat, are “normal” for those who have them. Food is a personal choice.
- Sensations. We each have a unique set of sensitivities and sensations as we interact with the world. Some people’s eyes see much farther into the infrared spectrum than average. Some people have migraines, intense pain that is not measurable from the outside. Some people are irritated by clothing materials, noise levels, or light levels that are comfortable for others. We get to trust our senses.
- Emotions. Our many shades of anger, sadness, joy, and fear are physiological messages about our environment, both past and present. We get to feel how we feel.
- Desires. Our desires and aversions are internal pointers to what works well for us. Our dreams are ours to nurture. We get to want what we want.
- Safety. Our bodies belong to us. No one should harm us. No one should touch us in any way without our explicit consent.
Even these basic entitlements to bodily autonomy are subject to challenge and debate. We police people’s food choices and feelings. We cast doubt on people’s senses. We blame victims and support rape culture instead of holding rapists accountable and teaching consent.
Entitlement depends on circumstances
People’s entitlement to a domain outside their bodies vary widely. Some people struggle to guard a few possessions while experiencing homelessness. Some people control large estates. Some people have jobs with very little control over conditions and hours. Some people control vast businesses where they dictate the lives of many others.
Everyone’s views of entitlement are distorted by the funhouse mirror of varying feedback received from others. A child of narcissistic parents is punished for having any wants or needs at all, and learns to shrink back at the first hint of judgment. An internal voice says, “Not allowed to want that! Needs are bad! You’re too much!”
People with more privilege (one or more of: cis straight white able-bodied Christian male citizen) are socialized to expect more space, more credibility, more tolerance, more favors, more authority, and more success than average. From this stance of wider entitlement, someone with less privilege claiming basic bodily autonomy and respect looks like “too much entitlement.”
Flexible, changing balance
Healthy entitlement firmly claims bodily autonomy. When our wants and needs affect other people, we monitor those effects and negotiate a flexible, changing balance with other people’s healthy entitlement. We expect to get what we want some of the time, but not all the time. We expect our wants and needs to be treated with respect, even when they are not met.
For example, we all share a need to get from one place to another safely, and we want to get there on time. Too much entitlement says, “I’m in a hurry, so I will drive at reckless speeds, and run lights that are turning red. Cyclists and pedestrians should just keep out of my way.” Healthy entitlement says, “Everyone has an equal right to the road, so I will drive courteously, stay aware of all road users, and move forward assertively when it is my turn.”
Widen the scope
Sometimes when people’s needs are in conflict, it can help to widen the scope of the problem. How would it be possible for everyone to get what they need? Where can additional resources and support be brought in? In the case of transportation, planning for an extra five minutes of travel time takes a lot of the pressure off and allows for more courteous driving.
Sometimes, needs are in conflict and there is no clear path toward resolution. We can sit with the problem and wait for a new insight or some other change to open a new path in the situation.
Our needs are not always the most important, nor the least important. It would be comforting to have a fixed answer to, “What am I entitled to?” We want to avoid the shame of overstepping our bounds, and yet we become trapped in constricted misery when we deny our entitlement to our own experience and bodies.
Healthy entitlement includes both body-centered certainty, and ongoing questioning as we interact with others. Sometimes we feel outraged when someone denies an entitlement we took for granted. Sometimes we feel deep relief when someone supports an entitlement we did not know we had. For example, someone who is used to speaking at length in meetings might be startled and offended by being asked to step back. Someone who is used to being silenced might feel a sense of physical expansion when invited to speak.
Healthy entitlement is catching
When we associate with people who treat themselves and others with consistent respect, we learn to claim our own domains respectfully. Since most of us are immersed in racist, patriarchal, oppressive cultures, we also have to consciously study anti-racism, feminism, intersectionality, and other forms of equity to thoughtfully question our unexamined privileges.
- Ellyn Satter’s book Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family is full of wise, kind advice for adults trying to improve their eating competence.
- Learning about oppression and equity is a long, gradual process. Here is a starting point about intersectionality, a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe the experiences of Black women as a complex intersection of racism and sexism.