"Moonshadow" Offers Many Clues for Letting Go of Entitlement

Cat Stevens' song "Moonshadow" offers tips for coping with wild disappointment.

Posted Sep 16, 2016

Source: David Carillet/Shutterstock

Entitlement is a personality trait marked by exaggerated feelings of deservingness, specialness, and unrealistic expectations. In extreme cases, entitlement is also characterized by an overarching sense of superiority. 

A new literature review of over 170 academic papers by researchers at Case Western Reserve University has identified that entitlement often leads to chronic disappointment, unmet expectations, and a habitual, self-reinforced cycle of anger, distress, and malcontent.

The September 2016 paper, “Trait Entitlement: A Cognitive-Personality Source of Vulnerability to Psychological Distress,” appears in the journal Psychological Bulletin.

In a statement, Joshua Grubbs, the primary author of the paper and a recent Ph.D. graduate in psychology from Case Western Reserve, said,

“At extreme levels, entitlement is a toxic narcissistic trait, repeatedly exposing people to the risk of feeling frustrated, unhappy and disappointed with life. Often times, life, health, aging and the social world don't treat us as well as we'd like. Confronting these limitations is especially threatening to an entitled person because it violates their worldview of self-superiority.”

Another social cost of entitlement is that while reacting to perceived injustices, entitled people often direct their anger at those around them. A person with a sense of entitlement often blames others for being responsible for the fact he or she doesn't have what he or she thinks they deserve. People with entitlement issues often convince themselves of their own specialness, according to the research findings.

The new study by Grubbs and colleagues outlines a three-stage cycle of entitlement. First, entitlement creates a constant vulnerability to unmet expectations. Second, unmet expectations then lead to dissatisfaction and other volatile emotions. Third, the emotional distress of not getting what the entitled person wants requires resolution in the form of having his or her superiority and deservingness reinforced somehow.

Entitlement Creates an "Every Man for Himself" Dog-Eat-Dog World

The researchers found that some type of reassurance stemming from entitlement provides temporary relief from the distress caused by unfulfilled entitlement, but these benefits are short-lived. The mindset of entitlement pits people against each other. The long-term consequences of entitled behavior include interpersonal conflicts, deterioration of relationships, and depression.

Previous research has shown that entitlement is on the rise. The Case Western Reserve researchers point out that as a generalization, the so-called "millennials" tend to see themselves as more entitled than previous generations. The characteristics of entitlement seem to have an especially fertile breeding ground in the strong current of individualism valued by American society and culture, the researchers concluded.

Like many people living in the United States, I struggle to keep my sense of entitlement in check. I don’t like to admit it, but my sense of entitlement falls somewhere on the continuum of the entitlement spectrum.

For example, I’m not a spoiled brat. But I’m also not a Buddhist monk who has achieved nekkhamma, which is a state of non-attachment and complete freedom from “lust, craving, and desires." When it comes to mitigating any bouts of entitlement that occur in my day to day life, I use music and poetry to keep myself in check and remind myself, "I do not want what I haven't got." 

Unfortunately, the new study doesn’t offer an antidote or solution for the epidemic of entitlement that seems to have swept our country. There is no clear path or solution to help someone stop feeling a sense of entitlement. However, other studies have found that nurturing an explanatory style of humility and gratitude can serve to break the cycle of entitlement. “Yet, this may be too much to ask," Grubbs concluded. "It's often unacceptable for entitled people to consider they are not the exception to the rule."

"If I Ever Lose My Legs, I Won't Moan, and I Won't Beg"

So, what can we do—as a society and individually—to break the vicious cycle of entitlement? I don’t know the answer to this question based on empirical evidence. But, last night while I was having a dream in a deep state of REM sleep, I got a serendipitous clue. In my dream, it was a hot summer day. I was on the beach. There was sun beaming onto my face. I felt content and at peace. My eyes were closed, but I could see the light coming through my eyelids.

In a surreal moment, I woke up and realized that there really was, in fact, a bright spotlight beaming onto my face. For a millisecond I was blinded by the light and completely disoriented. It took my pupils a second to dilate. Then, I saw the huge full Harvest moon streaming light through my bedroom window. The shaft of moonlight was directly hitting my pillow. It was a magical moment. Cheesy as it is, I immediately started humming “Moonshadow” by Cat Stevens. This was one of my favorite songs growing up in the early-1970s, an era when there seemed to be less entitlement. 

As I was waiting for the water to boil this morning for coffee, I cued up “Moonshadow” and listened to the song a few times. Again, I was struck by how powerful the lyrics of this song are as a way to reframe your sense of entitlement. I decided to write a blog post about how the message of this song dovetails with Grubbs' new study. In many ways, "Moonshadow" could be considered an anti-entitlement anthem and therapeutic tool for coping with major disappointment. Especially, for our next generation. Along these lines, I just ordered Cat Stevens' Greatest Hits for my 8-year-old daughter. 

Basically, the gist of this song is that the protagonist is being followed by a moonshadow that helps him feel content and grateful for everything he has. In this psychological mindset of humble gratitude, he's able to cope with losing something he once valued, by reframing his explanatory style to find a silver lining. For example, Stevens sings, "And if I ever lose my eyes, if my colors all run dry. Yes, if I ever lose my eyes, I won't have to cry no more.”

The psychological acrobatics of reframing disappointment in a positive way—by flipping your expectations and explanatory style upside down and inside out—are tricky. Another song that offers clues on how to readjust your sense of entitlement or expectation is Dolly Parton’s brilliant, “The Grass Is Blue.”In this song, Parton has to think of ways to survive after being dumped by her partner. So, she pretends that the opposite is true of everything in her reality. Although, she’s heartbroken and devastated, she creates a parallel universe that defies logic. In this imaginary world, she is perfectly fine. For me, the genius of this song is that it presents a novel way to break the cycle of feeling malcontent by pretending that you’re actually grateful for everything in your life (even if it sucks) just the way it is. 

Parton sings, “There's snow in the tropics. There's ice on the sun. It's hot in the Arctic. And crying is fun . . .  And I'm happy now. And I'm glad we're through. And the sky is green. And the grass is blue.” The power of this song for me is in the "fake it till you make it" aspects of using your imagination to reframe your reality—which can create a self-fulfilling prophecy based on a new system of belief

Lastly, one of my all-time favorite poems, “Expect Nothing," by Alice Walker offers many clues for coping with unmet expectations. In terms of entitlement, reciting this poem is a way for me to readjust my expectations whenever I feel disappointed, bitter, or sorry for myself because things didn't turn out the way I wanted them to. Like "Moonshadow," the Walker poem emphasizes the power of nature and "nothing greater than a star" to help reassess your priorities and recognize that there are things much bigger than you in the universe. 

I know, from an academic perspective, listening to “Moonshadow” or “The Grass Is Blue” or reciting a poem haven’t been empirically proven to break the cycle of entitlement. That said, these techniques have worked for me over the years. Give it a try. Maybe using music or poetry can help you ward off the chronic disappointment associated with the three-stage cycle of entitlement recently identified by Grubbs et al. for you, too?

In closing, below is the entire Alice Walker poem and a hyperlink, if you want to print it out. I’d recommend memorizing this poem, so you can recite it like a mantra the next time you feel angry about not getting something you wanted, expected, or felt you were entitled to possess.

"Expect Nothing" by Alice Walker

Expect nothing. Live frugally
On surprise.
become a stranger
To need of pity
Or, if compassion be freely
Given out
Take only enough
Stop short of urge to plead
Then purge away the need.

Wish for nothing larger
Than your own small heart
Or greater than a star; 
Tame wild disappointment
With caress unmoved and cold
Make of it a parka
For your soul.

Discover the reason why
So tiny human midget
Exists at all
So scared unwise
But expect nothing. Live frugally
On surprise.

To read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts,

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