Beyond “First World Problems”

My job as a therapist is to hear about pain, so it always strikes me as odd when people apologize for talking about theirs. At least daily I hear, “I feel bad complaining. A lot of people have it worse.” As if we have no right to our own pain if others have more or a different kind of it.

The phrases “I should be thankful” and “first world problems” are mirages of gratitude and compassion. They glitter and look deep from afar, but when you move towards them, you find just another stretch of the desert you’ve been trying to escape. Counter-intuitively, true gratitude and compassion are discovered in the ground underneath your own pain, fear, and sadness.

What often gets dismissed with the phrase “First world problems” is actually complaining as a defense. We complain about uniquely American “inconveniences,” like a long line at Starbucks or a crashed computer, because the complaining distracts us from what really hurts. The Starbucks line thwarts our attempts at getting something warm and enlivening into us. An object-relations therapist might ask, What warm, comforting, energizing force is really missing? What is this person actually seeking? We don’t, after all, complain about waiting in line after a morning of good sex or rest or play.

Similarly, we’ll rage at a crashed computer because it disrupts our frantic work-pace. If we are working ourselves ragged, neglecting our bodies or relationships, then five minutes of down time brings our self-neglect a little too close to our awareness. In the moment of silence before the machine restarts, we have two options: To feel the terror of having built a life that is not one we truly love, or to start complaining.

Let’s have some compassion on ourselves when we choose the latter option. Of course we want to avoid deep pain. Everyone does. And we Americans have a lot of ways to do it. But when we dismiss our complaining with the catch-all phrase “First world problems,” we stay stuck in limbo between grief and gratitude, compassion and criticism.

Discovering and articulating our own pain does not detract from others. Pain is not a currency that gets divvied up then spent. You don’t have to save your complaining for “real” pain, nor are you robbing someone else of their pain if you have your own.

This is not to say timing doesn’t matter. A common problem in conversations about race, for example, is that they quickly become conversations about other forms of discrimination, with the end result that victims of racism never actually get their pain heard. If you’re in conversation with someone else about their pain and your own comes up, just gently bookmark the place where you found yours, and come back to it when you have some space.

Gratitude, the real thing and not the mirage, bursts uncontrollably from the places where we have tended to our own unique sources of pain. Today I am grateful for the expression on the face of my therapist last week. It was patient and kind. In my past I’ve gotten harsh judgement where I needed kindness and curiosity. A few years ago, when I started articulating just how devastating that judgment has been in my life, I started recognizing and being able to take in its opposite.

When we know what we’re missing and what we need, we become more attuned to all of our needs, including the ones that are regularly met. When I am too busy, scared, and confused to identify my deep pain, I usually stop paying attention to the many blessings in my life. I mindlessly consume food, barely tasting it. I snap at the person who loves me most. When I start naming those deep scary truths— suddenly I notice not only what is missing, but what is there, and what has been there all along. I become vibrantly grateful for good meals, sleep, my warm and safe home. I actually hear and take in Jack’s words of love. I notice my therapist’s kind face.

Then, because I am attuned to all my needs, met and unmet, I can actually contemplate, without getting paralyzed by guilt, what life might be like for others in this world, with their own sets of joys and pains and needs.

Maybe I’m unique in this, but I doubt it. When we take our pain seriously, we can grieve it. When we grieve, we soften enough to give to ourselves, and take in from others, what we deeply need. And and on the heels of our self-care, without any conjuring or effort from us, comes real compassion for others and deep, soul-quenching gratitude.

2 thoughts on “Beyond “First World Problems”

  1. I think you are right, people do like to push their own pains off to the side when they compare themselves to others less fortunate than themselves. Although if we do compare ourselves the phrase first world problems can put some things into perspective. so I agree with you and disagree with you. I feel Americans are often spoiled. I think people generally enjoy complaining too, but that’s because we like to feel heard and we like to be known. But then yeah, we don’t want to sound too ungrateful, after all. Perhaps we need to eradicate the word “complain” and allow ourselves the right to have feelings, not comparing ourselves to others. I think that’s what you are saying too.

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