Are we shaming ourselves with ‘First World Problems’?

The term ‘first world problems’ (hereafter referred to as FWP) entered public consciousness over the past decade as a way to minimize complaints seen as trivial compared to those encountered by people in developing countries. In my experience, people seem to use this term to minimize their stressors in an attempt to gain some perspective, generate gratitude, or decrease stress. On the surface, this is admirable. However, here’s the problem (at least as far as I have seen): it doesn’t work! Or, perhaps is works for everyday trivial things, but not the big stuff.

We cannot erase our stressors with a misguided attempt at gratitude.


First of all, this kind of thinking creates divisions between ‘us’ and ‘them’, and creates prejudicial misconceptions about how people in developing countries live. However, I digress. That is a topic for another day.

What I really want to talk about is how we seem to use the concept of FWP as an instrument of shame. In my practice, I encounter many people who tell me about something deeply distressing, only to follow it up by shaming themselves for feeling stressed about something that is perceived to be a FWP.

It’s as if we’ve decided that if we have a roof over our heads and food to eat, we’re not allowed to feel distressed.


But, here’s the thing: suffering is part of the human experience. Whether you live in extreme poverty in a war torn country or in a million-dollar home in Canada, you are not immune to stress and suffering. Nobody escapes it. And shaming yourself for feeling the way you feel simply serves to further entrench the suffering. What we resist, persists.

Sure, perhaps your stressors look somewhat different compared to someone in another country (although, I would argue that some stressors, like grief, are universal). But, of course they do! Stress and suffering is contextual.

But, here’s the key point. The part of your brain that generates a stress reaction cannot tell the difference between stress related to a work deadline and stress related to food insecurity. In fact, that part of your brain reacts with a stress response before your higher brain even assigns a reason to the stress.

To the stress centre of the brain, stress is stress!


So, what am I suggesting? Recognize the privileges that you have, and allow them to support a sense of gratitude and a motivation to create more equity and equality in our world. Gratitude is wonderful for mental health. And if using the term FWP is helpful for you in some situations, then carry on! Sometimes, it’s simply used for humour.

However, remember that gratitude and stress are not mutually exclusive and gratitude is not an escape route from the common human experience of stress and suffering.


Instead, try to validate and accept your stress as a common human experience. A self-compassion practice is a great way to do this. You might find that allowing yourself to simply feel what you feel and recognize that it makes you a normal, feeling human being might actually allow you to move through the distress more easily.

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Nicole Caines