Beyond Heroes and Villains

Investigating the nature of good guys and bad guys in fiction and real life

Stop Picking on People for Their "First World Problems"

Belittling people's concerns as "first world problems" is a new form of bullying
This post is a response to Psychology of First World Problems by Tania Luna

"There's nothing worse than having to wait in line at the DMV." "There's nothing worse than being out and having your phone die." "There's nothing worse than having a short in your iPhone charger where it will only charge held in at certain angles." "There's nothing worse than putting on a sports bra fresh outta the shower." "There's nothing worse than a boring date." "There's nothing worse than getting into a bed with cold sheets."

Oh, yes, there is. Those are all actual tweets. So is "There is nothing worse than having to bury your own child." That one might put those others to shame. Much as "There's nothing worse than" grates on me as a phrase, though, I know there are many things worse than having to hear it. People speak in hyberbole. I shouldn't make a big deal out of the fact that some people use language as though something else is a really big deal.

Belittling people's concerns as "first world problems" is a trendy new form of bullying. While a website like http://first-world-problems.com has fun with the complaints without taking jabs at specific complainers and "Weird" Al Yankovic has exaggerated such vexations for his tongue-in-cheek humor, plenty of others directly mock individuals for voicing their feelings of frustration over life's inconveniences. One problem is that human beings are built to care about the things that happen in our lives. Caring about the little things may well be part of what helps the human race thrive.

Ridiculing the "first world problem" is, in fact, exaggeration of another kind. Mocking people by calling their frustrations "first world problems" is not limited to individuals who catastrophize and inflate minor annoyance, but by using the phrase regardless of whether the person is howling hysterically beause they'd ordered decaff and didn't get it or simply shrugging it off while mentioning the mere fact that the order was wrong, the ones belittling these concerns are themselves exaggerating things. They're insulting everybody. Even the ones who use the phrase more discriminately are therefore weighing in with the bullies and acting like them. Don't pick on people just because it's the trendy thing to do. Don't be a bully, and don't do the things a bully does.

Yes, people can catastrophize inconveniences unworthy of such strong emotions, and no, that's not healthy. Focus on the fact that it's not healthy and remember that a sneer does not exactly engender positive, healthy development. The human species has survival mechanisms suited for more primitive existence. The Industrial Revolution and Age of Information have not had time to evolve those away. Because we are still wired for specific stress reactions, stressors can activate primal responses like fight-or-flight. People in first world countries have greater access to mental health treatment but also show greater susceptibility to eating disorders, certain anxiety disorders, and other difficulties than people in underdeveloped countries who struggle more merely to survive. Their struggle for existence fits the survival mechanisms we've inherited. While condescension toward those who bemoan their first world problems might appear to show consideration for those who face third world problems, it really mocks us all for having inherited a set of neurological responses that need someplace to go.

Insulting people who catastrophize does not help them gain perspective and does not help them learn to cope. Insulting non-catastrophizers as though that's what they're doing belittles the mocker more than the mocked, and they don't even know it. Bullying takes many more forms than a lot of people realize. The dismissive mockers might want to show appreciation for the fact that they, themselves, get to live in societies where they have the convenience of being so disdainful. 

As filmmaker Brett Culp said when I recently brought this up on Facebook, "Pain always hurts." 

https://www.facebook.com/drtravislangley

L.C.: This is a much better articulation of what I think every time I see that hashtag.

R.D.W.: I'm with you. First world problems may not be as extreme on the scale of things, but to the person experiencing them, they're still problems, and they're still painful/frustrating.

G.L.: I tend to be grateful for my first world problems. I'd rather not be able to find the remote than be dying of dysentery cause I can't find clean water to drink.

A.G.: I say it jokingly with friends (usually my girlfriend). Not insultingly.

B.C.: Pain always hurts.

C.S.: All humans, no matter their social/economic/national situation are capable of the full range of human emotion. You have the problems you have, they cause the feelings they cause.

J.W.: Last I checked, our first world in the US has half the population on food stamps, the worst wealth gap since the 30s, the worst education, and the highest prison population. Oh, right, and we also have 300,000 children/ year at risk for sexual trafficking. 1 in 4 women have experienced an assault (not accounting for those who do not report the crime.) First world problems can be very freaking real.


Follow Dr. Langley on Facebook or Twitter (@Superherologist).

Travis Langley, Ph.D. is the author of Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight.

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