Whenever someone is feeling bad, one of the standard responses is “it could always be worse.” And that’s true. A teenager living in the Western world can hardly be the most miserable person on this planet, so if her mother suddenly dies, you could say that at least she still has a father. The same goes for someone who is severely depressed. Maybe he doesn’t have it all that great right now, but at least he has food. So should he even be complaining or should he realise that other people have it worse?
Relativising your problems isn’t always bad, but there is such a thing as taking it too far. It would be stupid to pretend like depression isn’t an issue just because the person suffering from it lives in the Western world, and thinking like that isn’t going to solve anything. It will only make that person feel worse, as if what they’re going through isn’t important. As if they are just attention seekers making an issue out of nothing.
The truth is that our problems are relative, but in a different way. It doesn’t matter that someone out there has it worse, because that will always be the case. No matter who you are, you will always have problems, and to you, as an individual, those will feel just as intense as the problems people experience in third world countries. That isn’t a bad thing. That’s just how humans work, and convincing yourself that your problems don’t matter isn’t the way to go. It’s unfair to yourself, because your problems are important. And they need to be resolved.
Just today I read a post from someone explaining how awful things are in Nigeria. She had about two full paragraphs of all the things Nigeria struggles with, from an incredibly high infant mortality rate to slavery and human rights, and after that, she came to a conclusion. She concluded that whenever we feel down because of one of our first world problems, we should think about Nigeria and realise how blessed we are. How lucky we are not to live out there.
But that’s rubbish. Of course we’re lucky, but that doesn’t change the fact that we can still feel sad. We won’t ever know what it’s like to live like that, and even if we did, our brains have the amazing ability to make us forget. Just think of the worst pain you ever experienced: you won’t be able to imagine it anymore, because your brain doesn’t allow you to. To marginalise your problems just because you feel like you should is like picking a fight with your brain. Your brain tries to protect you from that sort of thinking, and it’s not doing that for no reason.
This particular girl ended up talking about guilt. She felt guilty for complaining about her problems now that she knew how bad things were in Nigeria. But what’s the use of that? How will that improve anything? That sort of thinking is dangerous, because it’s what keeps people stuck in depression. It’s what holds them back from seeking help because they feel like their problems aren’t important enough. As if they’re complaining over nothing.
Ultimately, we need to realise that problems are indeed relative to the situation you’re in, but also that that in no way means that “first world problems” aren’t real problems. Depression is a serious issue, even if you do have food on your table, and the fact that LGBT-rights in Russia are abysmal doesn’t mean they aren’t an issue in the West. And yes, even a flat tire, bad customer service or the fact that you can’t buy a better TV are problems. They are your problems, and because of that, they matter. It is important to try and deal with them, to find help if that’s possible, even if you’re not yet starving to death. Because you should never compare your own problems to someone else’s. You can only compare them to your own.
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