Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Praise your part in your MS

Photo (c) Aaron Askanase (yes, this is my daughter!)

I think there are many lessons to be learned from the work of Carol Dweck, a professor of Social psychology at Stanford. Her work on the effects of praise on children have influenced my thinking (and my parenting).

She divides praise (and criticism) into two categories: person/trait praise and process praise. In person praise, the child is praised for a trait such as, "wow, you did the puzzle, you must be very smart!". In process praise, the child is praised for their effort, "wow, you worked really hard to finish that puzzle!". What she found is that children who receive process based praise were more likely to work harder, seek greater challenges, and overcome adversity better. The children who received trait based praise became more easily frustrated, and were more likely to seek simpler challenges in which they could succeed more easily.

In my opinion, the most important part is that the kids who were praised for something within their control worked harder. When I praise my daughter for effort, she knows that to succeed she just needs to work harder. If I praise her for being smart, she has no idea how to be smarter. In fact, there is no way to be smarter, so I haven't given her any tools or hints on how to succeed. Dweck points out that children who are praised for being smart (or any trait) often feel dumb if they fail at a task. The trait based praise leads kids into a dead-end: they are judging themselves on a standard over which they have no control.

These standards can be used for how we describe MS. It can either be a trait, something that is fixed, over which we have no power. Or it can be a process, one in which we have a great deal of influence.

It's very important to conceptualize MS in a way that includes our own influence on the course of the disease. I often think of MS as a condition of my life. It's not a disease that is afflicting me, but rather an aspect of who I am. Just like I wear glasses, I have MS. For my bad eyesight, I know that I can wear glasses or do eye exercises to help me improve. For my MS, I know that there are things I can do to make it worse and things to make it better. And those things are firmly in my control.

When I evaluate my MS, I don't measure it according to how many times I felt symptoms or how bad they were. Rather, I measure it according to what I did to effect the condition: did I do my exercises? Did I eat right? Did I take my drugs? Did I sleep enough? Have I meditated? I know that all of those things are in my power, so that's what I focus on. I know that there will be setbacks or problems with my body, but if I look at MS in a process way, I will always be able to find a way to continue doing everything in my power to make myself healthy.