The pattern began back in childhood. I had an endless assortment of household chores—set the table, do the dishes, dust, vacuum, and clean the bathroom while my brother only emptied the trash once a week. I once asked to alternate chores, only to be silenced and shamed. In my childhood world, some people were privileged, others subordinated.
In childhood, our parents exercise control over most of our lives. But as adults we gain greater control, unless we carry a dysfunctional childhood pattern into adulthood. For years I found myself ceding control to dysfunctional relationships in my work and personal life, unconsciously subordinating myself to others until I realized the power of locus of control.
One of our basic human needs is a sense of control, to know that we have a choice, that our actions make a difference. For decades, psychologists have studied this concept as locus of control (LOC). The more internal our LOC, the more we believe our own efforts determine what happens in our lives; the more external our LOC, the more we feel our lives are controlled by outside forces (chance or powerful others) (Levenson, 1973; Rotter, 1966).
Research has linked external LOC with poor mental and physical health, passivity, anxiety, depression, and learned helplessness; and internal LOC with greater happiness, health, success, and the ability to cope with challenges (Burger, 1984; Hahn, 2000; Kobasa, 1979; Peterson, 1979; Peterson & Stunkard, 1989). In recent years, unfortunately, external LOC has been on the rise (Twenge, Zhang, & Im, 2004). Fraught with instability and economic inequality, our culture often makes us feel that external forces control our fate.
What about you? Do you feel trapped by externals, dominated by others’ demands, caught up in an endless round of mindless, menial tasks—with your own needs and dreams pushed aside?
If you’ve been trapped in external LOC, remember that you do have a choice. As Viktor Frankl realized, even in the darkest circumstances, we can find strength by recognizing this fact (Frankl, 1997).
- Instead of slogging on in frustration and resentment, raising your blood pressure while remaining stuck, you can ask “What can I do about it?” and look for alternatives.
- Or you can ask for what you need and see what happens. Perhaps your request will only expose an unhealthy relationship. But it may be met with compassion and understanding, opening the way to positive change.
You have a choice.
Burger, J. M (1984). Desire for control, locus of control, and proneness to depression. Journal of Personality, 52, 71-88.
Frankl, V. (1997). Man’s Search for Meaning. New York, NY: Washington Square.
Hahn, S. E. (2000). The effects of locus of control on daily exposure, coping and reactivity to work interpersonal stressors: A diary study. Personality and Individual Differences, 29, 729-748.
Kobasa, S. K. (1979). Stressful life events, personality, and health: An inquiry into hardiness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37, 1-11.
Peterson, C. (1979). Uncontrollability and self-blame in depression: Investigation of the paradox in a college population. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 88, 62-624.
Peterson, C. & Stunkard, A. J. (1989). Personal control and health promotion. Social Science & Medicine, 28, 819-828.
Twenge, J. M., Zhang, L., & Im, C. (2004). It’s beyond my control: A cross-temporal meta-analysis of increasing externality in locus of control, 1960-2002. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 8, 308-319.
Diane Dreher is a best-selling author, personal coach, and professor at Santa Clara University. Her latest book is Your Personal Renaissance: 12 Steps to Finding Your Life’s True Calling.
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