Comparing Cases of Multiple Sclerosis Leads to a Logical Fallacy

Benjamin Hofmeister avatar

by Benjamin Hofmeister |

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relative privation | Multiple Sclerosis News Today | illustration of stethoscope with the words

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If you weren’t aware (I wasn’t), last Friday, June 17, was National Eat Your Vegetables Day. The day wasn’t created to tout any special diet per se, but to increase awareness of the benefits of vegetables in a healthy diet. If you were already aware of those benefits, then at the very least, it raises your awareness that there really is a day for everything.

Growing up, my parents made certain I was aware that eating my vegetables was not only a good idea, but also benefited my health. When I protested, they would offer words of encouragement like “They’re good for you,” “You’ll grow up big and strong,” or “You’ll live longer” — which, now that I think about it, may have actually been a thinly veiled threat.

My parents rarely used it, but one of the more common phrases that parents use to get kids to eat their vegetables, consume a disliked food, or finish all their dinner is the one that invokes “starving kids” in some far-off place. You know the one: “You have to finish your dinner because of starving kids in _____.” The name of the faraway land varied, but the message was the same. Someone, somewhere has it worse than you, so your complaints are not valid.

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primary progressive MS | Multiple Sclerosis News Today | A stock photo of a long road with a white arrow pointing toward the horizon.

The Journey Toward My Primary Progressive MS Diagnosis

Multiple sclerosis (MS) and each individual’s experience with it are so variable that it would seem ridiculous to compare symptoms, but people, myself included, do it.

We expect that kind of comparison from people without MS. They all seem to know someone with multiple sclerosis who is better off or more able, or they tell us not to complain because they know someone worse off. Those of us with MS, or another disability, tend to do it, too.

There are several types identified, but even within the same type, my MS isn’t your MS and vice versa. I know that, and I still have to remind myself, almost daily, not to compare my situation with someone else’s and base what I say or how I feel on whether I think I have it better or worse.

My multiple sclerosis is the primary progressive type and has been aggressive, but I didn’t wake up in a wheelchair one day. There were steps — or a lack thereof (ouch! I just hurt my own feelings) — along the way, and with each step I based my actions on comparisons. For example, I can’t complain about my limp because others walk with a cane. I shouldn’t complain about my cane because others have to use a rollator. I should keep quiet about my rollator and be glad I don’t need a wheelchair. And so on.

Conversely, I sometimes think that my meager accomplishments pale in comparison or aren’t worth mentioning to people who I perceive are “better off.”

I touched on this briefly in my last column, so I did a little research and found out that this is a logical fallacy — specifically, the fallacy of relative privation. It essentially says that you can’t dismiss a problem because you perceive that another problem is more or less important.

Do you do this? I know I do — both ways, in fact. I feel like I shouldn’t feel bad about things when I think someone has it worse, or feel good about things if I think someone has it better. I think this could be a part of why those of us with chronic diseases often just say, “I’m fine.”

Yes, yours truly routinely falls into this logic trap. As if multiple sclerosis didn’t have enough problems of its own, I can always find another one. I daresay I’m not the only one who does this, and I doubt it’s the only trap I’ll run — well, wheel myself — into.

Watch for my future columns to learn from my experiences and chime in with a comment to share some of your own.


Note: Multiple Sclerosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Multiple Sclerosis News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to multiple sclerosis.

Comments

Peter Novak avatar

Peter Novak

Wow! You hit the nail on the head, Mr. Hofmeister! I am 66 years old, retired the end of January, and diagnosed with PPMS a year ago. I received my first full infusion dose of Ocrevus last month. I have neck, shoulder, arm, hand, and leg weakness, tingling, numbness, and sporadic pain all on the right side of my body (in addition to all the other fun stuff associated with MS.) But, I can still walk most of the time without the aid of a cane. And I still push mow my own yard (although it does take three times as long now) and also manage to accomplish other upkeep duties around the home. All that being said is the very reason why I can totally relate to your article. I know that I am so much better off than other people and should not complain. When asked how I am doing I usually say, "I'm good, thanks." What's the point in complaining... right? Thank you for your article, sir. I wish you all the best!

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Benjamin Hofmeister avatar

Benjamin Hofmeister

You're so welcome Peter! I'm glad it resonated. Yes, do what you can, while you can. I wish someone had told me that at the beginning and that I'd been willing to listen.

Thanks for reading,

Ben

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Susie avatar

Susie

This is a great post, full of brilliant observations. I hadn't heard the term 'relative privation' - but this encapsulates so much of my inner wrangling about it all! Thanks for writing it,

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Benjamin Hofmeister avatar

Benjamin Hofmeister

Thanks Susie,

It was a new term for me too. I knew I couldn't be the only one who wrangled feelings over it. I'm thrilled that it spoke to you.

Ben

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Molly avatar

Molly

I too have PPMS
I am also scheduled for my third Ocrevus infusion in August. I’m 66 years old, walk with a cane when out, vacuum, clean tubs etc. my sister says to get a house cleaner, but I feel that if I can still function it’s helping me with stretching bending exercise. That day may come, but not here now.;-) I feel that I should do it if I’m able. It frustrates me that PPMS IS NOT TALKED ABOUT OFTEN ENOUGH ON THESE WEBSITES.
CHEERS!

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Benjamin Hofmeister avatar

Benjamin Hofmeister

Hi Molly,

I wish someone with your attitude had told me at the time of my diagnosis to do everything I could do for as long as I could do it. Within reason, of course.

Keep reading, I promise to talk about PPMS until you get tired of it. ;-)

Ben

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Leanne Broughton avatar

Leanne Broughton

I have often said to my children 'there is always someone worse off than you'. I said this not refering to MS. But it is true, we are always comparing our situation. Does it help us empathize, take our mind off ourselves. I have also learned a lot about MS and what I may experience in the future by discussing and comparing.

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Benjamin Hofmeister avatar

Benjamin Hofmeister

Hi Leanne! I think comparing does help us empathize. I'll even go so far as saying I hope the more able bodied compare themselves to me and are grateful for the abilities they have. (I'd prefer it if they kept it to themselves lol) What I don't want from myself, or others is the thought that their issues aren't valid because they perceive someone else's as better or worse.

Great comment,

Ben

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Heather avatar

Heather

Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. I have been challenged by my MS the most over the last fifteen years. I believe the disease showed itself first in 1978 but who knew? In my case the biggest change has been with my decline in walking and giving up driving. I tend to draw comparisons all the time to others with MS and those without. People in my age group enjoying retirement. Why are they doing so much better? Why can't I hike, ski and get on the floor to play with my grandchildren? After leading an active life and now using crutches and a wheelchair I would give anything to just take a walk around the block. Acceptance and gratitude is what keeps me grounded and focused on my personal MS story. I look forward to reading your articles in the future.

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Benjamin Hofmeister avatar

Benjamin Hofmeister

Thanks Heather! I still compare and even though I suppose it's all relatve, I do see things in terms of better, or worse than my own situation. I'm just determined to not let it negate how I feel. I really like how you said, "grounded and focused on my personal MS story". I think I'll endeavor to do that too.

Ben

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Tom Anderson avatar

Tom Anderson

I don’t know what to make of comparisons. I try to stay aware of how I am and what is changing. Comparing to others isn’t going to change my outcome unless, perhaps, they are doing something I can learn about. Yes too, we are all different but we are also all the same. Even as far as the “subtypes” of MS which were categories created in the early 90’s to help Betaseron get approved. Before that we all just basically had MS. Prof. Gavin Giovannoni from Barts U in London (and others) go as far as describing one illness which creates nerve damage, and inflammation being only a bodily reaction to the process which some will have (RRMS people) and some will not (PPMS people). The disease is the same, the outcome is still the same. But it is one disease for everyone with neurodegeneration happening to all regardless of inflammation episodes.

How am I? I’m “doing OK” after 35 years. Not as well as I would have liked, or believed I was going to be, but things could be much worse, for now.

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Benjamin Hofmeister avatar

Benjamin Hofmeister

Thanks for reading Tom!

I don't think comparisons are necessarily a bad thing, just that basing my feelings on whether I think my situation, or outcome is better or worse, can be.

Like I opined in another reply, I don't mind if people look at my outcome and are grateful for their own. I'd prefer them to be tactful about it, but if someone who relies on a cane sees me in a wheelchair and is grateful that their lesions are in different places, their disease course is different than mine, etc, I'm ok with that. They should be grateful, but they should never feel that their own disability is not worthy of consideration.

Ben

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Tom Anderson avatar

Tom Anderson

Hello again Ben-
My first comparison was in a support group back in ’94. I wasn’t that bad yet, but it was good to know where things could go. Then the 1st DMT came out and I thought problems were solved! I am sure plenty of people do the “comparison bit”, but if you are honest with yourself you still have to admit you can not predict what will happen. It’s the uncertainty that screwed the most with me. My female cousin (same grandparents) was diagnosed a few years after me (both of us “RRMS”). Her husband always asked about Betaseron, but she never started a DMT and went with steroids & hospitalizations. She keeps pretty much to herself about things. But I do always compare. Thirty years later and we are about the same. Me- 23 years Betaseron, her- nothing. You read up on it now and realize your hopes were never scientifically realized, although “comparison-wise”, I seem to have done better with it than others on that DMT (which is now called a “crab” drug). But would I have been like my cousin anyway, no matter what I did, and avoided 23 years of shots and testing? That’s an interesting comparison. Being on a DMT made me feel I was doing the right thing. Maybe it was all for not (?)

I enjoy reading a few of these places and adding my two cents, primarily to add some science to the mix. And I’m a former psychologist too, so your topic fits. Nice article; nice chatting with you :-).

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Benjamin Hofmeister avatar

Benjamin Hofmeister

And I’m a former psychologist too, so your topic fits. Nice article; nice chatting with you :-).

The pleasure is all mine sir! Look for a future column where I plan on making a point about MS by referring to a question on the MMPI that helped earn me a special session with a psychologist at Ft. Bragg.

Ben

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