Every time I’ve heard this phrase lately, its thrown me off a bit and I’ve heard it with enough frequency that I decided to look into it. The history of the phrase on the internet brings up a range of memes of varying levels of funniness, such as the one below; its not my favorite but illustrates the point:
But the way I’ve been hearing it used has a different effect than comedy. Here’s how it goes down for me: I’ll be listening to someone tell me about something troublesome in their life, typically not a majorly life changing problem but not as frivolous as the one depicted above, and then the person gives a flip of the hand, a laugh, and utters “first world problems” in a dismissing tone.
For me the energy of the conversation abruptly shifts: there I was intently listening and eager to support, when all of the sudden the topic is belittled and what’s left is a lingering sense of guilt. Its as if the message is that we shouldn’t be talking about such things when there are people in the world who are exposed to horrible disease or don’t have access to fresh water. Yes, these are important problems, and many “first world problems” are much, much easier to bear….does this mean we shouldn’t talk about problems unless they have life-threatening consequences?
I think it is the residual feeling of guilt and shame that bothers me the most because its uncomfortable and, more importantly, its not based on reality. In reality, everyone has their own set of problems related to the context in which they live and must reflect on said problems in order to find remedies.
My guess is that people use the dismissing phrase when they start to feel like they are being some form of petty whiner and want to lighten things up. Again, this is probably fueled by the myth of their problems not being important enough by comparison to get any airtime.
It could also be that people use the phrase when they feel like they are crossing the line into victimhood, where people complain endlessly instead of taking accountability or putting effort into finding personal power. This is, of course, not a healthy place to be in and a difficult place to be witness to.
My suggestion (to myself and others) is to use the phrase as an opportunity to delve into gratitude instead of getting sucked into guilt. Not just gratitude that my own problems leave me better off than people in third world countries, but also gratitude for the intangible things that enrich my life: that I have a friend to talk to (and complain with), that I have the freedom to reflect and share my opinions, that the air is blowing and the green grass is growing.