Who Is In Control?

Do you find yourself frequently saying something like the following:

“He ruined a whole year of my life”

“She makes my job a nightmare”

“If they were here everything would be better”

“If I had a my dream job everything would be perfect”

“I am plagued with back luck”

“Awful things always happen to me”

“I could have been successful if it weren’t for all of the bad things that happened to me”

“I would have had the life I wanted if it weren’t for him”

Then most likely you are someone who leans heavily toward having an external locus of control. What does this mean? People who attribute their success or failure to outside influences or believe that their outcomes or actions are based on others have an external locus of control (Zimbardo, 1985). While we are all capable of thinking this way at times, it is those who think this way primarily that can find themselves feeling constantly victimized, stagnant, and helpless when facing opportunities to grow and move forward with their personal and professional goals.  No one person, no amount of people, and no circumstance, or set of circumstances can control our lives. Viewing the world from this angle can only keep a person feeling disempowered and unable to make changes in their lives without someone else being involved or without some perfect circumstance first developing. Who wants to wait around for those?

Developing a more active internal locus of control can be empowering and highly growth promoting. When we are not blaming outside influences and are instead in touch with reviewing our own accountability for a situation, we are free to problem solve, think creatively, and enact positive changes as well as take action as soon as resolutions are realized. I bet you didn’t know instant gratification could be that accessible!  Let’s take a look at all of this in an example:

After being married for 15 years, Jake’s divorce becomes finalized just as he is being laid off from his union job which he has been working for the same amount of time as his marriage. Jake had always wanted kids but didn’t get to start a family while in his marriage. Jake had also always dreamed of being very successful at a job where he could make enough money to buy a second home on a beach like his parents had before they divorced.  With an external locus of control Jake begins to insist that he is cursed, and reports to others that bad things are destined to happen to him for the rest of his life, they always have, and they always will. Jake blames his ex wife for a life without children. He blames his divorce for being unable to ever have a beach home now that he is swimming in debt and not to mention, jobless.  Jake then becomes depressed, hopeless, and victimized by his circumstances. Jake maybe takes any job he can find, rents a nearby apartment, and spends some nights at bars talking to unhealthy dating prospects. Does Jake feel like things could get better? Not likely. Does Jake feel like he can still reach his personal and professional goals some day? Not likely.

What if Jake enacts an internal locus of control? After experiencing a healthy period of grief over the loss and transition in his life, Jake may become inspired by having a “clean slate” with which he can begin his next chapter in life. Without children to stay near, Jake may rent a small apartment in a beach town and work two jobs. Without a partner or a mortgage to help support, Jake can try different career paths and pursue entry level positions in fields he was always interested in. Jake can even start his own business. Jake can also consider adopting or fostering children or becoming a mentor to young kids.  Jake may also realize that it is not unrealistic for a 40 year old man to still have his own children someday and may be able to take some pressure off of himself for “finding the next one.” Jake has a number of opportunities for growth and positive change that can begin as soon as he is ready to start them.  Does he believe he can still reach his personal and professional goals someday? Maybe he feels as though he can and will now, more than ever.

Of course, nothing is all bad just as nothing is all good. There are protective qualities of honing in on an external locus of control for gaining perspective and avoiding taking on so much responsibility for a circumstance that you irrationally beat yourself up for the outcome. For instance, maybe a conference you were in charge of running experienced a number of hang ups that were the fault of many factors that were shared responsibilities of a group effort; believing it was your individual failing alone would not be rational or healthy.  Or, being part of a care team for an ill loved one who ended up passing on could not be the “fault” of you alone, as the passing was likely due to a great number of factors, out of the control of any one individual.  There are times where having an external locus of control is preferable.

The answer then, is striking a balance between the two, and remembering to ask yourself to identify what locus of control you have adopted when perceiving an outcome or situation. We don’t want to give any one person or circumstance so much power that we are immobilized from growth and unable to achieve our goals. Bad things will always happen and we will always have people in our lives that affect us negatively but thankfully, we are the ones in control of preventing those experiences from stopping us in our tracks. It is our responsibility to empower ourselves to think rationally and creatively so we can keep moving forward in our lives. No one else is going to do it for us, no perfect situation is going to make it happen, and thank goodness for that, who better to run our lives than ourselves?