Ever come across the term ‘locus of control’? It basically refers to how much influence you believe you have over the decisions and events that shape your life; in other words, who is in the driving seat of your life – are you the driver or is it Fate and other people (or God, the universe, blind chance etc)?
The answer to this question is less straightforward than it might seem at first, because how in control of our lives we feel can vary depending on the situation at hand and even on our energy levels and general health. But overall, all of us tend to fall somewhere along a spectrum from an internal locus of control (‘I am in charge of my destiny; it’s all down to me’) to an external locus of control (‘there’s nothing I can do to change my life; it’s in the hands of others’).
Why is locus of control important?
Locus of control is important because it affects how resilient and adaptable we are when life gets difficult; it affects our ability to get things done and to persist through difficult times. It can affect our physical health and emotional wellbeing and make us more or less likely to make simple changes that could be beneficial to us and to our relationships and the world we live in.
Internal locus of control
People whose locus of control is mostly internal tend to feel confident in their abilities; they tend to be more resilient when life throws a curveball and more adaptable to change. They tend to set goals for themselves and see life as a series of opportunities which, even if they’ve not created the opportunities for themselves, are there to be grasped or worked for. When things go wrong, they tend to take responsibility for their part in it rather than blame others or outside factors.
External locus of control
People whose locus of control is mostly external tend to think that they have few or no choices over how their life pans out; they tend to have higher levels of low mood and self-doubt and see life as a lottery or as a game where other players are in control. They tend to downplay or dismiss their own effectiveness and autonomy and their ability to influence outcomes. When things go wrong, they may see it as inevitable or blame others rather than take responsibility for their part in it.
On the flip side though…
Reading those two paragraphs, you’d be forgiven for thinking ‘internal = good: external = bad’, but it’s not that simple! Like all human attributes, both the internal and external locus of control have a downside and upside. How so?
Suppose you’re someone who believes your destiny is all in your own hands and that life is quite literally ‘what you make it’. But then something comes along that’s completely out of your control (like the pandemic, for example) and all of a sudden, you’re at the mercy of other people or decisions over which you have no influence. What then? How do you cope in that situation of powerlessness and frustration? The downside of a strong internal locus of control may mean difficulty in accepting that there are some things that can’t be changed. That can lead to low mood, depression and stress.
In that same situation of a raging pandemic, the person who tends to view life as being out of their control, and who is accustomed to that being the case, might actually fare better emotionally because they’re more able to let go of any need to control or change the situation; they are more accepting of it. The psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote in his book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ that in any set of circumstances, even one beyond your power to change, you still have the freedom to change your attitude towards it. The upside of a strong external locus of control may make it easier to accept the reality of a powerless situation without necessarily believing that the situation is a good one.
Locus of control and you
In what areas of your life do you feel that you’re in control of what happens to you? On the spectrum of internal (I make all the decisions, I’m in control) to external (other people and/or Fate are in control), where would you place yourself in these different areas?
- What about the way your body looks and feels? The types of food you eat, the weight you gain or lose, when or where you exercise? Who or what is in control of this?
- What about at work? What your salary is, what responsibilities you take on, how your annual appraisal will rate your performance? Who or what is in control of this?
- What about your sense of fulfilment in life? Who you spend time with, the activities you enjoy, the values you hold? Who or what is in control of this?
Balance in all things
In reality, very few people reside full time at one end or the other of the locus of control spectrum, and trying to do so wouldn’t be the wise or healthy way to live. The key is to recognise where you tend to sit on the spectrum and decide whether or not that’s a helpful place for you to be:
- Are you utterly convinced that it was your actions that led to a bad situation (strongly internal) or could the responsibility or blame be shared with others (balanced)?
- Are you so uninvolved in decisions affecting your life that opportunities pass you by (strongly external) or could you start asserting your needs and taking responsibility for your own life (balanced)?
If you’d like support to change your place on the locus of control spectrum and gain the skills you need, please contact me to book an appointment.
P.s, there’s more on recognising the boundary between ‘what is within my control and what isn’t’ in my blog post Taking Back Control.