Is it really a first-world problem?


One time, I was playing a creativity game with a group of of friends. I remarked that I was battling the the competitive stress of the moment, to which one guy quipped, “First-world problem!”

Oh, how we laughed!

But also, this came at a time we were questioning privilege in our modern, tech-infused society, and whether we have a right to quantify our struggles when people in other parts of the world can’t even afford to eat.

I’ll be the first to admit I make comments like that myself. Touching on someone’s first-world guilt is a great way to win a quip war. But I also wonder if it might be unhealthy to be so quick to call out first-world problems.

I see friends experience genuine distress as a result of certain events in their lives, but just because we “live in the first world”, it doesn’t make their distress any less genuine. It doesn’t make the things they’re dealing with less real.

And yet, I also see them experience genuine shame about feeling the way they do because they’re going through those stresses instead of, say, starving.

Example 1: A friend realised he was gay early in his life, but he grew up at a time where it wasn’t okay to come out. He tried living as a straight guy, and ended up hurting people (which he carries a lot of guilt for). What’s more, he endured family members whose own mental health issues made them toxic influences in his life. As a result, he’s lived most of his adulthood struggling with debilitating depression and anxiety. We discussed this at the pub, then he glanced at our tab-funded pints, mused about being a privileged white male, then ended our conversation with, ”Oh well, first-world problems.”

Example 2: A friend found herself in a job that cut her off at every turn. She would get an instruction one day, a contradictory instruction another day, and report to a (indirect) boss who never showed remorse for unleashing verbal abuse upon her and her colleagues. On the surface, it looked like your garden variety “job is crap, boss is a jerk” scenario, but after months of this, I watched her mood and self-confidence erode. She had few opportunities to demonstrate her capability at work, while her environment would reinforce that it was her own fault. But she kept her chin up. It would’ve been easy to miss the toll this had on her, had we not been friends for so long. And yet, she’d often punctuate our conversations with, “But other people have bigger problems than this. At least I’m not starving.”


Just stahp it, guys.

Your brain doesn’t care whether you make fifty bucks an hour or five cents. All it knows is that it’s under attack by something, and if you dismiss the problem out of first-world guilt, instead of appreciating it and solving it, you’re going to be dealing with it for a long time. Which is so bad.

There are limits, of course. You’d be taking the piss if you got in a snit because the brunch café didn’t spread your organic mashed avo all the way to the edge of your artisan sourdough toast. But even with a passing consideration for others, you can make a decent guess at where along the spectrum your problem sits between starving and poorly mashed avo.

However—and this is where that relativity comes in—if the society you live in is such that you’ll face severe consequences if you’re caught eating unspread avo, then stressing the fuck out is probably an appropriate response.

The size of your problem is relative to your experience, relative to context, relative to the consequences, relative to everything else you’re dealing with at the same time.

I’m not arguing against recognising when you’ve got it better than someone else. It’s good to appreciate your privilege. But this quote sticks out at me:

Empathy for others is a very good thing, except when it becomes so heavy a burden that we end up feeling no empathy at all. (source)

I wonder if those of us who are quick to call out “first-world problems” are maybe projecting some first-world problems of our own.

I wonder, in our eagerness to deride others for how they acknowledge and express their stress over a ‘small’ problem, are we ignoring our own small problem of controlling the urge to make smartarse comments?

In our enthusiasm for taking the moral high ground, are we making the real problem—the implied and underlying lack of empathy—worse?

This post is a note to self to be a little more compassionate about the "first-world problems" of others. And if you could use the reminder, think of it as a note to you too. Let’s be kinder together 👭

Update 14/09/2022: Edited for readability.