Forgive Me, but You Don't Deserve It

One of my duties as a therapist is to listen for any faulty belief that could be causing unnecessary pain.  Examples of such beliefs include “Everything bad always happens to me,” “I can’t handle my feelings,” or “People will only love me if ____.”  If my client and I discover that he or she holds such an opinion, we get straight to work. Thoughts like these could use adjusting. 

We know that this kind of irrationality thrives in the dark, in negativity. Here’s a curve ball, though; it revelsin the light.  We all hold seemingly optimistic views of the world that can actually cause us perpetual pain. For example: “Everything will work out. The universe has my back.” In this piece, I’m focusing on the idea of DESERVING.  This is a pet peeve of mine. Unfortunately, it’s kind of a buzzword in the psychology industry and is also easy to spot in television ads, professional sports, and the self-help section of Barnes and Noble. “This team deserves to win.” “The life you deserve.” “I deserve to be a Size 6! Whoo-hoo!”

It’s a straight-up mindfuck.  

The word “deserve” means “to be entitled to.” To “warrant” or “have a claim to.” It belongs in a court of law, basic commerce, and Greek mythology.  If you kill someone, you deserve to go to jail.  If you pay for an item, you deserve to have it.  If you steal fire from the Gods, you deserve to be chained to a rock for all eternity.  And that is the end of deserve.

Somehow the application of this word has expanded well beyond its intended semantic scope. It’s now commonly employed to set expectations and rate self-worth!  If you work hard, you “deserve success.”  Because you’re good-looking, you “deserve expensive clothes.”  You’ve been through some crappy relationships, and now you “deserve a good man.”  

You’ve come by these ideas fairly.  Deserve is pervasive.  Open a magazine. It won’t be 15 pages before you see it. Here are two food examples:

“To make that tough job easier - you deserve M&Ms candy.”  Rationale: Because you’ve showed up at your place of employment and did your job, you deserve a sugary food? No. You deserve payment, based on your contract. 

A McDonald’s ad declares, “You deserve a break today.”  I can tell you, without reservation, if you’re eating at McDonald’s, you don’t deserve a break.  You deserve a heart attack.  (Now, that sounds harsh, of course. But THAT is the true meaning of the word deserve. It’s CAUSAL: think warrant, reward, punishment.)  A greasy hamburger earns clogged arteries; it does NOT say anything about effective time management.

To understand the inherent irrationality of deserving-type thoughts, it’s important to understand their futility. (Bear with me; I destroy because I care.)

When you believe that you’re entitled to a reward based only on your personal qualities or desires, it means that you expect the universe to be allegiant to a certain level of cosmic fairness.  Generally, the need to secure this tit-for-tat stems from discomfort: the scary stuff, like loneliness, fear, and insecurity.  “If I do this, people will be impressed. Then, they will want to be with me.” However, when you come to expect the world to function according to these rules, you find yourself surprised, hurt, and offended when it does not.  “I was nice to her; I deserved a thank you!”  “I nailed that audition; I deserved a call-back.”  “I worked late, why didn’t you make me dinner?”  Living in Hollywood, you just can’t think this way. In a town brimming with this much personal rejection, professional disappointment, and flat-out luck, the word “deserve” must be reined in, or you’re going to have to move.  U-Hauls are expensive.  Easier to change your thoughts.

Whenever a client states, “I deserve…” regarding anything but black-and-white rules, we interrupt the thought and say, “We don’t deserve that shit!”  (No reason to be so serious about these things).  The client is invited to replace it with: “I would PREFER it if...” This simple correction fosters a new mindset: I am whole.  I do not need the world to dictate my success or others to validate my worth.  It’s a small shift with profound underpinnings.  PREFER a guest star on “Criminal Minds.”  PreferDolce and Gabbana.  Hell, prefer McDonald’s! But if your stated preference fails to secure the goal, it’s simply disappointing. Not rage making.

Nothing is coming to you just because you think you deserve it.  Unless you steal from Zeus.  In which case, you’re screwed.