Working on "First World problems" (and why it's okay to do so!)

One of the first concepts I remember learning about in an academic psych setting was Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. If you've taken any psychology courses, you may be nodding along with familiarity. This theory emerged in the 1940's by Abraham Maslow, an American psychologist who hypothesized that basic needs must be met before higher-order change can occur. In many of our frames of reference, these "basic needs" may be less about actual survival and more about human comforts, feeling emotionally safe, and day-to-day happiness. The privilege of living in a first world country affords most of us this luxury, but I would argue that these needs are still important to address, and that Maslow's hierarchy can still apply when dealing with our oft sheepish "first world problems."  

The concept follows the shape of a pyramid, with the idea that the broad, bottom level represents our most basic Biological and Physiological Needs. We must have food, shelter, sex, sleep. And if we don't, this may naturally take shape as our primary focus.

The next level of the pyramid, from the bottom up, addresses our Safety Needs - Are we living in a safe environment? Are we able to go throughout the day free of fear, whether that fear be perceived or actual? Anxiety-symptom sufferers and my people who have endured trauma, you may have some stuff going on in this level that interferes with your day-to-day.

Maslow then includes Love and Belongingness. He hypothesized that once we have achieved the more basic needs, we are able to focus on building friendships, romantic relationships, and most importantly, trust. 

Next comes the Esteem Needs...NYC workaholics, raise your hands! "Esteem needs" include things like achievement, prestige, respect from self, and more often, respect from others. This is the "Am I good enough for ____?" category. 

Maslow hypothesized that only once these needs have been met can a person move on to the highest level of the pyramid: Self-Actualization. This includes seeking and achieving personal growth and a deeper understanding of ourselves. Feeling fulfilled and happy with our own sense of self, despite perceived flaws. Engaging in creativity with no end game. Reaching our fullest potential, not for others, but for ourselves. 

Maslow also hypothesized that only 1 in 100 people ever reach self-actualization, primarily due to the fact that our society places a higher reward on receiving esteem from others and achieving relationship success than it does on the journey to reach our own highest potential.

Heavy, right? Society places a higher reward on pleasing others than pleasing ourselves. If your boss has ever given you flack for leaving work early for therapy appointments, this is a nice little example of this impact! I love this theory because it invites us to consider what's really at the top: finding ourselves. Not our job title or our social circle. 

And, as previously mentioned, this theory ties to so much of the "small stuff" that comes up in weekly therapy, and utilizing this concept as a framework for change can be a powerful tool. Take, for instance, a person who lives with difficult roommates. This person may feel emotionally unsafe at home due to constant passive-aggressive communication styles, and the air may be tense the moment he or she opens the door after a long day at work. How likely is it that this person will then be able to settle into a nice little evening of creativity and introspection? I often see clients writing these things off as "first world problems," but these are the basic needs that are not being met in my "first world" interpretation of Maslow's theory. They cannot and should not always be cast aside in pursuit of some greater happiness due to being "petty issues" if they are causing prolonged and daily dissatisfaction. 

Another interpretation that I take from this theory is that these categories don't always have to be linear! Of course we can find authentic and rewarding friendships and then lose our safety, through enduring trauma or some other unexpected event. We can also work on ourselves, and continue to work on building trust, even if we have lost our partner somewhere along the way. And hey...As we should! This theory is not suggesting that you must find love before you can find yourself. Rather, it's the idea that you may need to work on your own concept of what love is, how to share it and receive it in a capacity that works for you, before reaching your own personal fulfillment.

Hopefully considering the fact that, according to Maslow, reaching "the top" is actually not at all about a job, a wedding, a paycheck, or any other predefined concept of "making it," you may be able to shake some of these notions loose and live your life. The order of your journey may be a bit fluid because life is a bit fluid. Just don't ignore those little things that nag away at your happiness. They are bothering you that much for a reason.

Through my first world interpretation of Maslow, I encourage you to unabashedly go take care of your "first world problems" in order to achieve higher-order change. Consider the importance of getting your basic needs met, if they aren't already. Create comfort, create safety, and mend that recent squabble with your siblings. Nourish your body with food that is not fast. Connect with old friends and trust in new ones. Take the time to work through past traumas.

Put yourself at the top of your own pyramid - and please, no apologies for doing so.