How much control do you have over your life, and how much is it controlled by other powers?
It’s an intriguing question with no definitive answer. While theories exist regarding our self-determination and free will (or lack thereof), the debate is nowhere near settled.
What is more important in the context of this article is how you view your ability to control the outcomes of your life. It turns out, this individually held view affects how we think and behave more than we might imagine.
The term psychologists use to describe this view is your locus of control. The term ‘locus’ means position or place, and with regards to control, it can be described as internal or external.
An internal locus of control means you place the power – and the burden of responsibility – firmly in your own hands. An external locus of control is the opposite, with power and responsibility belonging to outside forces.
Here are a couple of examples to help you understand:
Example 1: Brian wins a promotion at work.
If Brian has an internal locus of control, he is likely to attribute this outcome to his hard work ethic, stellar performance, and engaging personality.
If Brian has an external locus of control, he is likely to attribute this outcome to luck, good timing, and a lack of alternative candidates.
Example 2: Susan fails her driving test.
If Susan has an internal locus of control, she is likely to attribute this outcome to her lack of competence, her nerves, and her choice of time slot for the test.
If Susan has an external locus of control, she is likely to attribute this outcome to the bad weather, other careless drivers on the road at that time, and the examiner having a bad day.
So Which Is Better?
There is no one answer to this question. Firstly, it is important to note that your locus of control is not either internal or external; it falls along a spectrum between the two.
You may lean more heavily toward an internal position, but this doesn’t preclude you from believing some things are outside of your control. Similarly, you might sit further toward the external end of the scale, but you can still understand how certain things are your responsibility.
What’s more, they both have their pros and cons…
Someone with an internal locus of control can be more driven and motivated to work hard and achieve success because they believe they have the power to affect positive change in their lives.
They are more likely to be proactive in all areas of life, including in relationships, where they might, for example, be the one to make the first gesture of reconciliation where a disagreement has taken place.
On the other hand, the may also be quick to blame themselves when things do not go to plan. They can be overly self-critical and beat themselves up over their failings. What’s more, if opportunities to progress or achieve do not present themselves, they can be disappointed and believe they are wasting their potential.
Someone with an external locus of control might cope better with failure (at least in the immediate term) because they can pass the responsibility on to other factors and deflect criticism of their own performance. And when something bad does happen, they may be quicker to accept it and move on because they don’t believe they could have influenced the outcome: it happened to them, not because of them.
When working in a team, they may be more likely to dole out praise for a job well done as they appreciate the influence of external players more than they do their own.
On the other hand, their tendency to blame outside factors can also negatively affect their relationships (working, romantic, or otherwise) because they will put the burden of responsibility on anyone else but themselves. Issues will, in their mind, be caused by the other person, and they aren’t as likely to extend an olive branch because they feel they were the ones who were wronged.
Those who lean more toward the external end are also likely to give up more quickly on a task and feel less able to recover from unwelcome situations that befall them. They feel more doomed to fate than able to improve their circumstances.
There is no right or wrong way to be, but the research in this field so far suggests that those with a more internal locus of control are less prone to depression, cope better with stress, and are more satisfied in their jobs.
Finding Your Balance
To some degree, your locus of control is something you can adjust depending on the situation. It takes conscious effort to reign in your instinctual reaction, but if you are able to give rational thought to your circumstances, you can see them more clearly and ascertain what influence, if any, you have had or could have had.
Identifying and accepting the causes of events is the first aim in balancing your locus of control. Instead of listening to your initial thoughts, pause for a moment and reflect on the true reality. Does your instinct reflect the actual series of events? Or are you twisting things to fit the narrative that you typically tell yourself?
This process can feel unnatural. You are questioning yourself – and your gut – by challenging the conclusions you’ve reached. You have to remove the filter of perception and cast your eye over the true picture in front of you. It takes practice and perseverance to be able to do this successfully.
One thing that can help is to show yourself compassion. This is especially important for those who naturally have an internal locus of control; those who blame themselves for anything and everything that goes wrong.
Oddly, such people are not always so quick to berate others for supposed failings. The way they treat themselves is not indicative of how they treat others, and they can be as kind, caring, and compassionate as anyone else.
The trick for such people is, then, to imagine they are talking to themselves as a separate person and to act and speak accordingly. Instead of being hyper-critical and letting destructive thoughts take over, be sensitive to your needs and understanding of anything you would otherwise have viewed as a fault or flaw.
That’s not to say that you can’t learn from situations in which the control was very much in your hands. Sometimes the failure will be down to you, but instead of seeing this as a negative, tell yourself that, “Yes, I am fallible, but I will learn from this and grow stronger for it.”
In situations where an external locus of control is causing defeatist thoughts and behavior, one thing you can try is to look for the smallest thing YOU can do to alter your circumstances.
Again, this has to be a conscious process that challenges your learned mindset. You have to silence the thoughts that you are a helpless passenger, and remind yourself just how much control you do have over your own life. You do this by building momentum, starting with something so small as to be almost trivial.
Perhaps you make the bed, water the plants, read a positive affirmation, make your boss a cup of coffee, or clear your work inbox of unread emails. It doesn’t matter how insignificant it may seem, it just matters that you do something. Then do another thing, then another, and keep doing these small things until you find that you’ve actually done quite a lot. This acts as a reminder that you do have control over parts of your life, if you choose to exercise it.
One key tactic to balancing out an external locus of control that is bordering on unhealthy is to be active, not passive. Do as many things as you can that involve you making a choice for yourself – even if you start small and work your way up to things of more consequence.
Another important consideration to make is the story you tell yourself when good things do happen in your life. While keeping your gaze fixed firmly on reality, you should praise yourself for the influence you had over any positive outcomes. Yes, there might well be an element of luck involved, but few things are ever all down to good or bad fortune.
Conversely, when a result is less than desirable, be honest about the role you played. Without straying into a game of blame, own up to instances where you might have been at fault, rather than assuming the responsibility lies elsewhere.
It can be distressing to accept your imperfections – especially to other people – but doing so can actually strengthen relationships and improve your circumstances. Be empowered by taking ownership of your actions.
Another key aspect of your locus of control is whether you perceive something as being permanent (or long lasting) or changeable. Or, to be more accurate: stable or unstable.
You might, for instance, consider your full-grown adult height to be stable. Your waist measurement is, on the other hand, something that can change and so is considered unstable.
How much effort you put into something is unstable. The difficulty of certain tasks is stable (the New York marathon is the same 26 miles each year, although weather conditions can make it less stable).
Your rights as a citizen of your country could be seen as either stable or unstable depending on where you live.
The weather is unstable, but the changing of the seasons is, depending on where you live, a relatively stable process (though climate change is having an impact on this).
How stable something is can influence whether you believe it is inside or outside your locus of control. While some things really are stable/unstable, it can also be the case that your perception of something is what really matters. You may decide that some factor or another is stable and therefore not something you have any control over. Another person might see the same situation differently and believe they can change things.
For example, you may see catching a cold in winter as an inevitability. It happens every year and is a stable outcome because you are exposed to it on public transport and your immune system is fixed. Someone else might see their immune system as unstable, and thus something they can influence through exercise and healthy eating. They may also see their commute to work as something they can change by cycling, driving, or walking as alternative means of travel.
As you’ll see, the concept of stability ties in very closely with…
Some things are beyond our control. The sun rises and sets, the economy booms and busts, industries spring up and disappear, we get older. As an individual, we have little to no influence over these things.
Your height is not really something you can control, but your waist is. The length of a marathon is not in your hands, but how hard you train for it is. Your rights as a citizen may or may not be something you can directly influence, but your attitude towards them is.
And as for the weather and seasons… let’s say you have seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and struggle with winter where you live. You can’t control the onset of winter or the shortening of the days. But you can control where you live. You may choose to emigrate to a more equatorial country where the warmth remains year-round. Or you could spend half the year in the northern hemisphere and half in the southern (an extreme solution, perhaps, but not impossible).
You may consider ageing to be a natural aspect of life that should be accepted – that it is not controllable. On the other hand, you may decide that ageing is something you have some say over with regards to diet, exercise, or even cosmetic surgery – that it is controllable (to an extent).
So controllability, like stability, is not the same for each person. Your view might differ from those held by your friends, colleagues, or family members.
Why Should I Care?
The quick answer: whether your locus of control is more internal or external makes a tangible difference to how you approach life and the outcomes you encounter.
The long answer: by understanding when and where to shift toward either an internal or external locus of control, you can gain the benefits of both. You can be motivated and determined rather than defeatist. You can take responsibility for those things you can influence and accept those that you can’t. You can show yourself kindness when you fail, while learning lessons to try to avoid making the same mistakes twice.
The central concepts to remember are balance and realism. You have to be mentally flexible in order to take the right approach to each situation you encounter. And you have to get outside your head and face the reality of these situations, too.
The general positivity of an internal locus of control is great, but if it doesn’t have a foundation in reality, you risk those self-critical thoughts that accompany any failings. It can be mentally healthy to accept that some things are out of your control, but it can be equally as unhealthy to believe you have no influence whatsoever over your life.
Before reverting to either internal or external viewpoints, you need to ask yourself what the reality of the situation is. Don’t assume that your instinct is always correct; some things really are out of your control, but many things aren’t. Think about it, assess your options, and decide whether there is or isn’t anything you can do to influence the outcome. Then either do it, or accept what will be.