a problem with “first world problems”

Something has always rubbed me the wrong way with the phrase “first world problems” and I could never explain why.  Now, I think the answer lies in understanding complaints, critique and shaming others to be humble, whether you truly are or not.

It’s only human to get frustrated at the little things in life.  Yet there’s a stigma against venting and complaining – especially in the first world.  We’re coming at this all wrong.  Complaints and human empathy don’t live on the same plane and should be treated appropriately.
Complaining feels good sometimes.  Venting, ahh.  Or sometimes it’s merely an observation being stated – a conversation starter.  Life’s annoyances are what connect us all.   The weather is horrible today.  Let’s make fun of it together.  Not every conversation needs to be a sunny one.  Often we bond more as humans over negative frustrations than the happy facade we put up.  Small grievances can evolve into deeper, productive dialogues, if the parties are on board.  At first though, these little mentions are not a big deal.  If treated trivially, it’ll pass, and you’ll be fine.
At the other extreme, being on the receiving end of complaints can be rough.  We all know that person who does nothing but complain, and it’s a downer.  And this is where you can be the better person.  Embrace trivial venting, but don’t steamroll others.  If you plan on bringing up the same issue repeatedly, turn it into constructive critique rather than an unfounded complaint.
Then there’s the character that complains for the sake of complaining.  Being a repeated behavior and without any solutions behind them, these complaints are not constructive.  They are self-inflicted as well.  For example, being busy when they had absolute control over their workload.  Improving a situation completely in their hands, yet they are taking a passive role, as if to have a reason to complain.  Of course there is a major distinction between this and signs of depression or self-harm, which should be treated appropriately.
In general, complaining of the annoying kind is rough because there are no solutions behind it.  By contrast, venting with the goal of improvement is helpful – reaching positives by acknowledging negatives.  It is rooted in reflection and helps others self-reflect.  It’s important to recognize both.  One is pure emotion.   The other plants a seed for a positive outcome.
Forcing positivity by burying genuine criticism buries the potential for improvement.  Immediately it’s a fake sort of positivity, with a hidden tension that should be released.  Our culture is obsessed with staying positive (e.g. work perks, work playgrounds, years of Yes, getting to Yes, “Yes and,” etc), and this subject deserves its own time.  For now though – criticism is required for a better society, and a constant happy state in lieu of genuine concern is disloyal.
In a nutshell, there is a good and bad way to “complain.”  As a society, we should get better at detecting both and calling them out.  Right now, there’s a bias towards no complaining at all.
Or even worse, something trendy now is vocally complaining, and then immediately belittling your complaint.  Some use this to seem self-deprecating or humble.  “First world problems” is a phrase that’s getting sloppily thrown around.
Granted, you might realize it’s unnecessary as soon as it comes out of your mouth – or didn’t mean to say it out loud.  Yes, it’s a personal check.  Sometimes it’s absolutely hilarious.  Yes, it can be great internal motivation.  Reminding yourself to have perspective in this world is noble.  But 1) this quick remark needs to be grounded in true internal reflection.  And mostly 2), when you say it out loud it’s a form of positivity you are shaming others to be a part of.
Let’s touch on the first – what is “true internal reflection?”  It means it shouldn’t just take a vocal sentiment to confirm your humility.  Realizing your life is privileged or feeling deep empathy for others is a mindset one cultivates through personal experiences.  It’s more likely to lead to action that directly influences the people you’re thinking about.  It’s not just a tool to wield to seem cultured or down-to-earth.  In fact, this backfires and immediately feels inauthentic.  It’s not empty thoughts to make yourself feel good.  Everyday we selfishly stay in our silo and ignore the third world, so why should you all of a sudden be praised for rhetorically thinking outside your bubble?  It comes off as checking something off a list.
Let’s say it’s authentic though.  Granted, it’s a nice gesture to include everyone around the world in your emotions.  But remember, you can be motivated by other people’s struggles and respect their experience without combining it with yours.  Different struggles can’t be equated.  We each have our own set of conditions and experiences that shape us.  Keep them separate and learn from them.  Don’t fabricate your emotions based on experiences you could never imagine.  Empathy doesn’t just mean trying to feel someone else’s pain.  It’s also respecting the fact that you can’t.  Moreover, constantly including everyone else’s context is not only impossible and unnatural, but it’s unproductive and won’t actually help you or them in the long run.  This is a case where staying focused rather than getting distracted by “nice sentiments” in fact helps the whole world turn.
Most bothersome about the “first world problems” phrase however is what it imposes on people who hear it.  (You could argue that the listeners should just brush it off but this passes responsibility. )  It puts an unnecessary burden on them to check themselves too, otherwise they risk seeming entitled or privileged.  But the personal check needs to happen on everyone’s own time.  This is yet another form of forced positivity.  Feeling grateful needs to come from within, not from others shaming into it.
One argument floating around (1) (2) (3) is that “first world problems” generalizes the third world into a sad pool of sad people leading sad lives every single day.  And it’s true – throwing all developing nations into one bucket is sloppy and condescending.  Fact is, we’re all human with a spectrum of unique, culturally-different problems.  Some days are better than others.  It’s all part of human existence.  But it seems we have more fleeting thoughts about the problems of the third world than respecting their beautiful contributions made to the world.  This needs to at least be a first step to meaningfully lending a helping hand.

So to recap, being frustrated is a common human emotion, so you can spare a minute frustrated over email, stubbing your toe, or needing to take the stairs instead of the elevator.   Embracing what “frustrated” feels like allows you to truly appreciate the good times.  Releasing frustration rather than forcing yourself to be happy is a first step to effective self-reflection.  Tune into the difference between innocent frustration, overbearing complaining, and genuine critique though.  Critique is good for society and is the ultimate form of loyalty.  And practice true empathy internally rather than vocalizing it and making others play along.

In the end, does a small frustration merit this kind of analysis?  Probably not.  So maybe refrain from giving it a worldly weight.
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