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Why your ‘first-world problem’ is still a problem worth tackling

Is it possible to appreciate the privilege of having such luxurious considerations as self-actualisation, act on them, yet simultaneously take other steps to live a more globally just existence? It could very well be.

I hear this problematic phrase with increasing frequency these days, usually in the course of coaching conversations.

One client can’t get their point across, to rally people around their cause. Time to reconnect with their story? Nope. First-world problem – get over it! 

Another got all tangled up with living arrangements and their dream to protect the environment. Time to look at priorities? Nah, live with it. First-world problem.

Another client dreamt of a life with more balance and kindness, beyond ‘success’ and other grown-up responsibilities. Had they tackled the whole purpose-thing? 

Nope. You guessed it…

As far as this particular idiom is concerned, they can all quit their moaning and keep their heads down. First-world problems! 

It reminds me of other toxic idioms like ‘man up’, ‘grow a pair’ or ‘cheer up, it could be worse’ etc. etc.

It may well be first-world but is this helpful? 

For me, the phrase harks back to family dinner time. Maybe you got the same treatment my siblings did, whenever they left food on their plate as children? It was about the same time Michael Burke’s horrific report from Ethiopia spawned Comic Relief; mum would loom across the table from the moral high ground, pronouncing “there are starving kids in Africa…!” 

80s orange food got wasted anyway. Guilt and recrimination ensued.

Now the abundance of first-world problems feels magnified by the pandemic. With millions of us (in the UK) in lockdown for months, the lucky ones had (have?) time to ponder life’s big questions – what am I doing with my life? Maybe the things I thought important really aren’t? Yet with countless fellow humans suffering, our own existential dilemmas seem somehow trivial, indulgent or irrelevant.

It’s a situation complicated further by the usual online attention-seekers and opportunists gloating at their wins during lockdown. And well-intentioned positive-psychology types doing the same, albeit more gently with sourdough bakery how-to explainers. Then there are others, reminding us (quite rightly) that if you can just survive this pandemic – that’s enough.

Meanwhile you look on, trying to work out whether you’re morally right or wrong for feeling the way you feel – like something really is missing from your life, that something you’ve dreamed up remains out of reach.

Perhaps this is more nuanced than the grossly simplified idiom would have us believe?

Philosophers have a name for this

It’s called moral relativism. If I’ve got this correct (and there’s a good chance I haven’t), it’s that a dilemma is really only relative to your particular standpoint (not another). And no one standpoint is more privileged than another. 

So perhaps there’s no valid comparison or connection to make outside of yourself, for having the temerity to dream? Maybe you can let go of feeling bad for feeling bad?

Think about that for a moment… You have options.

What if your problem really is just yours? Making it valid and without comparison. 

Can problems be considered and tackled independently before they have consequences? 

Is it possible to appreciate the privilege of having such luxurious considerations as self-actualisation, act on them, yet simultaneously take other steps to live a more globally just existence (like charity, open-sourcing ideas etc.)?

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That all got a bit (too) existential, so let’s go back to basics

If a challenge or dilemma is causing you discomfort or suffering, if it creates tension and dissatisfaction, maybe your body is trying to tell you something – especially if it won’t stop wicking on you.

If I ask a coaching client what’s on their mind, then they tell me, book-ending it with the “ah well, first-world problems!”; I’ll pipe up:

“IYou tell me you want [some wild dream or grand plan], yet this thing comes up again (and again…), and now you’re playing it down. Clearly this does matter, what’s going on here? What are your options? Let’s get excited about what happens when we fix this.” 

Or words to that effect. I find it helps to come at this from new angles. To try to see the world in a different way. You’re allowed to reimagine the problem and other wanky coaching terms like that.

Another way to look at your first-world problems

My issue with the first-world problem idiom is it’s essentially saying you’ve no right to complain or express dissatisfaction. Just because something is happening somewhere else that you have even less control over. 

It oversimplifies the nature of existence. It also negates our complex emotional wellbeing – needs every human being shares, regardless of fortune. 

If you’re reading this in the West, fact is you’re simply lucky enough to be a step or three up Maslow’s magic pyramid. And denial of that which bothers you (which you also didn’t choose) is a recipe for an unfulfilled life, squandered privilege and ultimately mental ill-health – a struggle I know all too well. Suffering is suffering, whether you’re hungry, sick, in danger, lonely or depressed.

This state of affairs is especially limiting in green changemakers – the kind I love to coach. Because ‘first-world problem thinking’ (essentially just guilt) risks getting in the way of ripples they could send around the world. The positive consequences of them getting to grips with a problem in the so-called first-world, could solve one in the third, where poor souls presently suffer the worst of planetary meltdown and injustice. 

By all means check your privilege, as the vocal minority on Twitter are keen to remind us. Or, to express the sentiment less judgmentally, be mindful, appreciative, and generous too. But perhaps you can do all that and tackle that first-world problem in the way of making your mark. You’re adaptable and creative. You can do many things at once. 

So, isn’t that worth acting on?

I could be way off on this one, who knows? It’s not unlike me to puncture a very serious balloon with opinionated irreverence. Let me know what your position is in the comments.

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Photo by jbloom.

Chris Kenworthy | Coach

By Chris Kenworthy | Coach

I'm Chris. I'm a coach. I help green changemakers save the world. A world where people and the planet thrive.

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