You may have heard this. A complaint about one’s life is followed by the statement, often expressed apologetically, “Well, that’s a first world problem.”

I realize that the intention of the phrase is to provide perspective, to encourage people to count their blessings and further, to appreciate the poverty and unhealthy living conditions that are typical for people who live in poor countries.

I want to let you in on a secret that I have told no one until now. I strongly dislike that expression.

Perhaps for many of you, it helps you gain perspective, a reality check combined with a big dose of empathy.

To me, it sounds like an invalidation of one’s own thoughts and feelings and a kind of intended short cut from point A, being distressed to point B, feeling calm.

I know for me, this kind of short cut doesn’t work. I tried invalidating my feelings for years. “You shouldn’t feel, angry” I would tell myself. “You shouldn’t feel sad.” “Stop feeling guilty. You are always beating yourself up.”

By not allowing myself to feel what I felt, I found that it took me a great deal of time and energy to calm myself down. And I remember a number of years when my normal state was one of a roiling anxiety in my gut and in my brain. My twelve years of chronic neck pain happened during this period of time as did my two episodes of depression.

It also didn’t make me feel any better about other people. It wasn’t like I wasn’t a nice person or that I was not kind but it took a great deal of work. Sometimes, kindness and compassion would just flow from my being but lots of the time, it didn’t. I had to at least a little digging. And then because I was anxious, I would sometimes worry that I hadn’t done the kindness or compassion “right”.

This is the way I feel about the “first world problems” expression.  I don’t deserve to be angry, annoyed, sad, worried, anxious, etc because I live in a wealthy country.

Feelings don’t have to be deserved. Feelings just are. We have them. They happen.

Stress can make our brain misinterpret situations; it can get biased toward interpreting the world in a negative way, being on the alert to find threats to our safety such as rejection and danger. Stress and anxiety can also impair our brain’s ability to differentiate between meaningful and trivial threats.

First world life is fast-paced, over-saturated with information, competitive, and demanding. In other words, it provides genuine stress. And that stress can produce feelings that we think we “shouldn’t” have.

And aside from stress, people feel stuff. We just do.  For myself I know that if I am mindful of my distressing feelings, they lose power over me. And when I validate my patients’ parents’ stress and frustration with a basic problem such as potty training, they can stop feeling stuck and ridiculous in their feelings of powerlessness as a parent.

I live in the first world and I enjoy its benefits unlike many in my country who live in poverty and unhealthy conditions. I am no more important than people who live in the rest of the world. However, I am not less important, either. When I feel happy and calm, I find it easiest to be charitable and compassionate. Being happy is not the same as having things. However, for me, it frees time for me to exercise my good will rather than perpetually questioning the validity of my petty irritations, fears, and sadness.