Luxury Problems? Compared to What?


People who have been exposed to the world of AA & other 12-step programs will be familiar with these phrases. Let’s focus on the first one first. Frequently, someone who is relatively new to recovery will start talking about how they need to deal with jobs, relationships, or other life issues, and will be told “those are luxury problems.”

This is usually not intended as harshness or a put down, although it can come off that way. What it means is that a person is dealing with a better class of issues compared to the old days of being preoccupied with where the next drink (or drug, or trick, or extra-large pizza) could be found– or how to avoid/tolerate withdrawal symptoms, the cops, the dealer they ripped off– you get the picture.

Once we move away from the problem of how to survive addiction, we move into a better class of problems. One person may be worried about how to pay rent.  A slightly better class of money problems would be trying to save for retirement. Another even more luxurious problem may be how to diversify a portfolio to minimize tax exposure and volatility in overseas markets.  The point that I take from this is that everyone finds something to worry about.

luxury lifestyle The Ultimate Guide to the World’s Luxury Markets

I recently had a conversation with someone who was stressed about work. Hours had recently been increased, co-workers were not doing their share of work– real problems, to be sure. I was able to remind the person that the increase in hours was at their request, and also resulted in more money. And the person hadn’t been in the psych ward for a long time– was in fact moving forward on self-chosen life goals at least as competently as many of us.  But the stress level was the same.

This is a concept that interests me– I suppose a technical view would call it stress homeostasis. A person’s stress level may fluctuate, but still stay in the same general range– while the person actually is increasing personal performance. I think this is positive. We are becoming more efficient in allocating our stress resources: getting more bang for the stress buck, so to speak.

It’s important, when looking at something like this, to have relationships with people who can give meaningful feedback. It could be a friend or family member, or it could be a therapist. I have known clients whose friends and family were definitely not good sources of honest feedback. I have known people to have perfectionistic parents, teachers or coaches who inevitably saw all glasses as half empty.  And I have known clients (and friends) who easily fall into the cognitive distortion of discounting— in this case, the idea that “If I did it, it must be easy.”

A classic upside down distortion is the intelligent person who has a hard time recognizing it. The person’s world view is: “everybody’s stupid,” not, “I’m smart.” A student, for example, may be going to an Ivy League school with a full scholarship. The grades, the test scores– all are in plain view. But the person is making what some would call an upside down comparison. The person may have even completed some probability and statistics courses but unconsciously doesn’t apply the knowledge to themselves.

This is the second part– the “compared to what?” part. It’s certainly OK to have high aspirations & standards. The thing that goes wrong sometimes is not recognizing that I have decided to measure myself against an incredibly high– perhaps unrealistically high– standard. The person who’s stressing over working more hours and having bad co-workers has adopted, perhaps unconsciously, a higher standard– being able to work at a busy job with lax co-workers and somehow not be stressed. Again, it’s certainly valid to raise one’s standards– but it’s also good to enjoy that one has the luxury of raising standards. But, like the person in recovery, it’s also OK to remember when you have come up from a lower functioning level– and give yourself credit for progress.

My wish for you is that all your problems may become ever more luxurious problems– while you still give yourself credit for how far you have come.

{And for those of us living in America, it’s an entirely different menu of food for thought that poverty by our standards is pretty well off for people from many other countries, while luxury looks pretty similar wherever you go.}

(Photo credits: poverty image Orlando Sierra/Getty Images; luxury image from


About jamesmatter

Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) in private practice in San Francisco. I work with adults, adolescents, and couples, with focus on substance use and abuse and co-occurring disorders (having both a mental illness and an addiction).
This entry was posted in cognitive therapy, Emotions, existentialism, Feelings, happiness, Learning, luxury problems, mental health, Recovery, Sadness, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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