It always strikes me as odd when people apologize to me, their therapist, for talking about their pain. At least daily I hear, “I feel bad complaining. A lot of people have it worse,” or “These are first-world problems. People in ________ (pick your country) have it so much worse.”
As if we have no right to our own pain if others have more or a different kind of it.
What’s funny is that it doesn’t matter how good or bad someone has it. I’ve heard people apologize for complaining about traffic as well as for complaining about being the victim of a violent assault. I’ve heard the phrase, “In some homeless shelters you get raped, so I shouldn’t complain about having to stay in this one” as well as “I burnt my tongue on my caramel macchiato this morning.”
The phrases “I should be thankful” and “first world problems” are mirages of gratitude and compassion. They glitter and look deep from afar, but when you move towards them, you find just another stretch of the desert you’ve been trying to escape. Counter-intuitively, true gratitude and compassion are discovered in the ground underneath your own pain, fear, and sadness. The work of therapy, at least in the early stages, is to go deeper into what is painful, rather than trying to escape it by deflecting towards others who “have it worse.”
What often gets dismissed with the phrase “First world problems” is actually complaining as a defense. We complain about uniquely American “inconveniences,” like a long line at Starbucks or a crashed computer, because the complaining distracts us from what really hurts. We don’t, after all, complain about waiting in line after a morning of good sex or rest or play. We don’t mind waiting when our lives are rich and full, when we are connected to our self and others.
Similarly, if we are working ourselves ragged, neglecting our bodies or relationships, then five minutes of downtime after a computer crash brings our self-neglect a little too close to our awareness. In the moment of silence before the machine restarts, we have two options: To feel the terror of having built a life that is not one we truly love, or to start complaining.
Let’s have some compassion on ourselves when we choose the latter option. Of course we want to avoid deep pain. Everyone does. And we Americans have a lot of ways to do it. But when we dismiss our complaining with the catch-all phrase “First world problems,” we stay stuck in limbo between grief and gratitude, compassion and criticism. The cure is not to avoid complaining, but to go deeper into the pain, to discover what is the source of pain that lies underneath our first-world complaining.
Discovering and articulating our own pain does not detract from the pain of others. Pain is not a currency that gets divvied up then spent. You don’t have to save your complaining for “real” pain, nor are you robbing someone else of their pain if you have your own. You do not lose points for complaining about the thing that’s not the real problem. That is just the first step of your discovery of the real problem.
Gratitude, the real thing and not the mirage, bursts uncontrollably from the places where we have grieved and tended to our own unique sources of pain.
When we know what we’re missing and what we need, we become more attuned to all of our needs, including the ones that are regularly met. When I am too busy, scared, and confused to identify my deep pain, I usually stop paying attention to the many blessings in my life. I mindlessly consume food, barely tasting it. I snap at the person who loves me most. When I start naming those deep scary truths— suddenly I notice not only what is missing, but what is there, and what has been there all along. I become vibrantly grateful for good meals, sleep, my warm and safe home. I actually hear and take in words of love. I notice the kindness that surrounds me.
Then, because I am attuned to all my needs, met and unmet, I can actually contemplate, without getting paralyzed by guilt, what life might be like for others in this world. Talking about my own real pain mobilizes me to help others who are in a different kind of, or maybe even more, pain than me.
Maybe I’m unique in this, but I doubt it. When we take our pain seriously, we can grieve it. When we grieve, we soften enough to give to ourselves, and take in from others, what we deeply need. And and on the heels of our self-care, without any conjuring or effort from us, comes real compassion for others and deep, soul-quenching gratitude.