First World Problems? Why We Should Sometimes Embrace Trivial Tribulations

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When someone starts crying in your presence, what’s your first reaction?
I’ll hazard a guess it’s to kindly ask what’s wrong. But is that really the kindest thing to do? Because often what we are actually doing by asking this is trying to ascertain whether their tears or upset is justified. We immediately make a judgement and we tailor our responses accordingly.Subconsciously the crier knows this is what we are doing. I bet you’ve had a moment of tears when someone asked what’s wrong and you said “it’s really nothing, I’ll be fine!”. Usually that’s because you know that although the thing isn’t nothing to you, it might sound like nothing to the person asking the question and so we are too embarrassed to divulge the true root cause.

It’s worth baring in mind that feelings come in waves, and to just be there for the wave, knowing that it will pass shortly, no matter how intense, is all you really need to do in this situation. You don’t actually need to know what the person is crying about and we should try not to make this our primary priority when faced with a crying friend, colleague, family member or stranger. In fact, we should tell them that they don’t have to tell us what’s on their mind, but that we will sit with them for as long as they need.

Why do we feel so guilty about being upset? I think the popularisation of the phrase, “it’s a First World problem” has something to do with it.

First World problems have been conceptualised as trivial issues that perhaps should be left unexpressed. First World problems are usually met with a reaction that goes something like, “get over it, there are people starving in the world.” Indeed, it is regularly suggested that society is experiencing a narcissism epidemic – with 90s kids leading the accused pack. According to society’s beloved little boxes, if you’re a 90s kid, you no doubt strut about with an outrageous  sense of entitlement (but you are fantastic with technology)and are clearly going to buy that lip gloss Kim K raves about on Twitter. Of course while on Twitter you’ll be paying little attention to any trending topic that relates to real First World problems, such is your superficial self-involvement. But the truth is not that people are ignoring these things because they care more about makeup that they do about humans. The truth is you can’t ignore the facts of the world as we are all bombarded with information, from every detail in the Syrian refugee crisis to painstaking facts about natural disasters –  its impossible to not be aware, and it’s also impossible not to still become overwhelmed by our own responsibilities and problems at times. That’s what being a human is. It doesn’t make you unfeeling or unkind if you can’t focus on Third World problems at all times of your existence.

It can be upsetting when someone says, “that’s a First World problem” because it is condescending – it’s essentially saying that the issue or problem is meaningless. The person on the receiving end is often left feeling foolish or guilty about expressing a concern because they have been caring more about their own trivial issues that the incredible needs and problems of the “real” people in the “real” world. One of the most damaging things we can do is to invalidate feelings or emotions, whatever they may be, judging someone’s issues or concerns and labelling them “First World problems” is doing just that – essentially, it’s claiming that unless you’re starving or living in war torn conditions, you should not express concerns. Even if the situation revolves around a minor issue, like a dress that’s too tight, or a train that arrived late, it is enough of an issue for that person to mention if. When did discussing our concerns mean that we could only do it if they were deemed “serious”? And when did we all get so confident in policing the serious problems in the world.

And What are Third World Problems anyway? I know what you’re thinking. That sounds dreadful. We all know what Third World problems are – starvation, wars, freezing temperatures and inadequate homes, drought and human riots violations as the norm.

The reality is that the “First World problems” concept also makes a huge assumption that only the wealthy and privileged experience trivial problems or irritations. Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole, who divides his time between Brooklyn and Lagos, objected to this one-dimensional view and composed  series of tweets about the flaws of using the term. He wrote: “I don’t like this expression ‘First World problems’. It is false and it is condescending. Yes, Nigerians struggle with floods or infant mortality. But these same Nigerians also deal with mundane and seemingly luxurious hassles. Connectivity issues in your BlackBerry, cost of car repair, how to sync your iPad, what brand of noodles to buy : Third World problems. All the silly stuff of life doesn’t disappear just because you’re black and live in a poor country. Here’s a First World problem: the inability to see that others are as fully complex and as keen on technology and pleasure as you are.”

Whilst considering all of this, I’ve increasing become incredibly uncomfortable with relegating trivial matters as ‘First World problems’ as I now realise I’ve been very guilty of dismissing the very real and horrendous reality of the problems that millions of  First World residents face on a daily basis. After all, we have millions of children and families in the first world who don’t have enough resources for food, shelter, warmth. There are people in the Third World who live a richer life than people in the First World. This one dimension view of First World problems doesn’t include for the homelessness and poverty within our First World communities.  I try not to revert to stereotypes generally so in future I’m going to try not to succumb to them in this area.

And I’ve been very guilty of using this phrase and thinking within these confines. As recently as three days ago I was talking to a friend and complaining that I had to wait a couple of weeks for a flight home I had been trying to a arrange. Instinctively I said, “but it’s fine because that’s a First World problem.” While writing this post, I’ve been reflecting on why I felt the need to justify my minor discontent. My conclusion is that I’m mortified by the idea of being judged as superficial. This led me to question when, exactly, passing comments about everyday annoyances had become socially unacceptable.

It is cathartic and rewarding experiences to express what we find annoying and it’s not advisable to forfeit our right to discuss distress or upset if the end result is connection to another human and feeling better. It’s not only giving us a change to recover from the irritation or hurt but also giving someone else the chance to be of service, which fulfils them too.

understanding our emotions and feeling empathy for others and ourselves is entirely a good thing and anything that assists us in self-reflection and working through our worries should be promoted. Indeed, diligently acknowledging little things as they occur can prevent major issues caused by marathons of bottling up feelings.

The phrase “First World problem” has encouraged us to only feel able to discuss severe problems but Listening with compassion as a friend voices a concern, even a superficial or trivial one is about respecting your friends emotional growth. And that sort of respect for others is needed desperately in every corner of our world.