The Problem with First-World Problems

By Carrie Jones, LCSW

As a counselor at the Community Center Shanghai, I frequently begin sessions by asking children to share with me their “sunshines” and their “clouds.” What I am really asking of them is to share with me the best and worst thing that has happened to them since I spoke with them last.  Responses are as unique as the children I see.  Sunshines are often accomplishments, such as winning an award or taking part in a fun event. Clouds include things like learning a good friend is moving away, the loss of a pet, or a conflict with a friend or family member.  Imagine my surprise when a child recently told me his cloud was that his family would soon be taking a vacation to Thailand.  Not demonstrating particularly good counseling or listening skills, I quickly jumped in and said, “Did you mean this vacation is your sunshine?”  He went on to assure me that this was very much a cloud, in that he would rather stay home and play like a “normal” kid during at least one school break instead of being whisked off on yet another international vacation.

Later, reflecting back on that session and what the child had told me, I couldn’t help but think of both teen and adult clients who also struggled with what they themselves classified as “first-world problems,” and the guilt and embarrassment they obviously felt in even mentioning such seemingly “trivial” matters.   Like children’s sunshines and clouds, these first-world problems vary from client to client, but frequently include such things as challenges dealing with an ayi or driver, frustration about not being able to find a favorite ingredient or product, image or self-esteem issues, travel burnout similar to what the little boy expressed to me, or for students, academic pressure or anxiety about getting into a desired (usually top-notch) university.

When adult clients voice these concerns to me, it is almost always in a sheepish manner, with some degree of reluctance, and often even a sense of shame that they are complaining about such “petty matters.”  In fact, they have often been given the message from family and friends back in their home countries that instead of complaining about such trifling matters, they should just enjoy the luxury and lavishness that is associated with expat life. For my younger clients, I see many teens who obviously have been educated about both the pros and cons of being a third culture kid. In general, I can’t advocate enough for this kind of education, but I’ve also come to recognize if not done with the right degree of sensitivity, it can leave these kids feeling like their problems pale in comparison to “real world struggles.” 

On one hand, I admire both teens and adults for recognizing and feeling grateful that the issues they are facing are different than the day-to-day existence level struggles many people all over the world face.  However, it also saddens me that this very lesson sometimes leaves them feeling too silly to voice their concerns when they are having difficulty coping. No one should be made to feel as though his or her feelings and experiences aren’t real or valid. While it is true that generally the problems global citizens in Shanghai face are far removed from basic survival needs or struggles, they are still complex issues, worthy of provoking all kinds of stress, anxiety, and emotional responses that call for attention.   Expats living in Shanghai are usually far removed from their natural support networks, as well as the comforts, conveniences, and basic familiarity of home. Often at least one parent is working a demanding job, which is both exhausting and time consuming, and this has an effect on the emotional well-being of the entire family.  Expat children, teens, and adults alike feel the pressure to “live up” to extremely high standards and expectations.

The good news is that if you find yourself facing first-world problems, there are often first-class solutions.  Children and adults should be open and honest about what they are feeling and experiencing.  While we may have left behind family and friends when moving to Shanghai, it is important to remember that community exists here and that many expats are experiencing the same sorts of issues.  As a community, we gain strength when we share with, lean on, learn from, and support each other.  Whether you choose to talk to a friend, a family member, or a professional counselor, don’t hesitate to reach out for support. While it is important to keep things in perspective, don’t automatically minimize or trivialize your feelings-or the feelings of those around you.  Regardless of how big or small a problem may appear, it is important and healthy to allow yourself to experience these emotions, free from judgement, and then work towards a constructive way of coping.

No matter where we may live, or what our status may be, life is always going to bring us both sunshine and clouds, and these experiences will prompt a variety of emotional responses both positive and negative.  No matter how minor or inconsequential these experiences may seem however, it is important we celebrate the sunshine moments and give proper care and attention to the cloudy ones, without experiencing or assigning feelings of guilt or shame.  By doing so, hopefully we can find ourselves enjoying more sunshine in our lives and enjoy the gift of sharing this with others.

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