The I Deserve It Syndrome

The “I Deserve It” Syndrome

Creating reasons to spend money we don’t really have on things we don’t really want.

“You deserve a break today!”  Does that sound familiar? About 40 years ago, it was a well-known jingle for hamburgers. As I remember it, this slogan hadn’t been used as boldly in marketing before. It was catchy. It created an iron-clad rationale for spending money. And in the early days, what I call the  “I deserve it” syndrome  (IDI Syndrome),  took a firm hold on our collective psyche. It could, and still can, justify almost any spending. You deserve a break, a car, a vacation, a hot new computer, and whatever else your hard-earned dollars will buy.  

Before going on, let’s look at one of the definitions of “deserve.” To deserve, according to the Google dictionary, is “to do something or have or show qualities worthy of reward or punishment.”

Right here we can see that we either must do something to get rewarded, or not do something to avoid punishment.  One example of the IDI Syndrome is Lori’s story below.  It’s about being “good enough” to deserve something as a reward.

Lori: I wanted a new pair of skis. They were pretty expensive. But before I could even think of buying them, I had to put myself through the wringer. I mean, I had to go through the list of everything I had done right last month in order to justify buying them. The irony in all of this is that  I had the money. I’d saved up enough for the skis as well as a new outfit to go with them. But it wasn’t until I’d listed everything I had accomplished over the past 30 days, all the good deeds I’d performed with coworkers and family members, that I could justify buying them. In other words, I “deserved” what I wanted.  I feel so silly saying this, but it was like I was rewarding myself for good behavior.

Another variation of the IDI Syndrome is taxing our energy. We feel deprived when we’ve worked long and hard without a pause, looking for ways to fill up. Spending money seems attractive.

Matt: I can get caught up in the “I deserve it” mode when I’m not careful. I work for a real estate company. Sometimes I get so tired and stressed out in looking for potential buyers and sellers that I get the idea that I deserve a good meal at an expensive restaurant.  One night, staring at a $50 plate of food that I was too tired to eat, I had to ask myself: “ Am I working this hard so I can afford to spend money on spaghetti arranged like a Southwestern landscape with basil leaves for cactus? Is this really what I want?” 

Understand me; I love good food with good friends. But sometimes, I know I’ve bought the notion that a pricey meal at a trendy place is the best reward for hard work. It’s a knee-jerk response to stress. Spending my money that way and on other “treats” is one reason I end up working harder in the first place! What a vicious cycle!

Matt is right. It is a vicious cycle. This is how it goes – we:

  1.  Work hard and feel deprived of energy.
  2.  Start thinking we deserve something because we’ve worked so hard.
  3. Spend money on something to reward ourselves with what we believe will build us up for the moment.
  4. Realize that we have to work hard again to make up for our lack of money.

You might recognize a cycle here. Psychologists call it “operational conditioning.” Any behavior that’s rewarded will increase in frequency. Since working hard gets rewarded, we’ll keep doing it.


After all, we deserve a break today!

It doesn’t always have to be this way. What would it be like for you to have what you want? Or what you’d love to have? This is an altogether different perspective. In a moment, I’ll give you an antidote to this energy-sucking cycle. But first, let’s look at something else. It’s not just about money. It’s also about our health.

We often take a defensive, sometimes demanding posture toward getting what we “deserve.” We have to build up a deprivation state to justify our demands. And it’s often this very state that interferes with our enjoyment…and health.

To quote Matt further: 

Matt: When I eat at those expensive restaurants because I deserve it, I’m often too tired to relish what I’m eating. And, what’s more, I usually overeat because I feel so depleted I think it will give me more energy. Eating this way I’ve gained 15 pounds over the past ten months!

So, if you are willing to take the words “I deserve it” out of your vocabulary, and develop a new perspective on  life, try this:

  1. Imagine that there’s a fire in your home.  Your family and any pets get out safely, and you have ten minutes to grab some possessions.  What do you take? Make a list of the essentials.  What you must have. How many items would you grab?  For me, it would be my two Martin guitars and some pictures of my family, as well as some art objects. But clothes? Computers? No.  What would it be for you?
  2. Now, on that same piece of paper, make a list of what you authentically and really want to have or do within the next five years. Make it be no more than five items. What do you come up with?
  3. Keep that piece of paper with those two lists in front of you where you can see them for the next 30 days.
  4. What begins to happen to your need to deprive yourself? Make no mistake, it is a need that your brain has been rewarded to create. Every time you begin to work so long and hard that you get even the slightest bit of deprivation going, look at that piece of paper and say the following to yourself: I have a choice right now. What is more important to me: a reward because I’ve worked hard, or enjoying what I already have (first list) and going for what I truly want in life (second list)?

You are “de-conditioning” your brain. You are teaching it to forgo deprivation in order to direct you toward goals worth having and a life worth living.


Wishing you all my best,

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