Do you attribute control of your successes and failures to yourself or to some fated force outside of your purview? Whether it is your weight, your emotions, your spouse, your children, your paycheck--if you continually find yourself feeling angry, resentful or upset by the events in your life, reflect on who you blame for life’s ups and downs. How a person internalizes a particular point of view about control speaks volumes about their ability to live with a sense of wellbeing and contentment.
In personality psychology, locus of control defines how much a person believes that they are ultimately responsibility for their successes and failures. The word “locus” is Latin for “location”–essentially either a person feels the location of their control over life is either internal (rests within themselves) or external (rests with fates outside of their control). The concept was clarified by Julian B. Rotter in the 1950’s. He demonstrated that locus of control is on a continuum, some people are highly external, some highly internal, and some fall somewhere in the middle. Since the 1950’s this research has been brilliantly expanded by Carol Dweck with her theory of success as based on a “Fixed” or “Growth” mindset.
People who have a high internal locus of control believe that effort, hard work, learning from setbacks, soliciting feedback, eventually lead to success. People who have a high external locus of control attribute success to sources outside of their immediate control, i.e. luck, other individuals, environmental factors, accidental chance. If you have a high external locus of control, you do not see how your own actions or lack of action may be at the root of how you generally feel about your life.
People with a high external locus of control continually blame environmental factors for their hardships. For example, if they perform poorly at work, people with a high external locus of control are more likely to blame their boss, while those with a high internal locus of control may blame their own efforts and abilities.
If you have a high external locus of control you may continually find yourself experiencing the same set of negative consequences over and over again; this may occur interpersonally, professionally, emotionally and even in terms of your physical health. If your philosophy about control is outside of your conscious awareness then you are essentially a slave to it, repeating the same negative dynamics again and again, all the while feeling at the mercy of circumstance.
Over time, repeatedly reenacting the same problematic patterns of behavior causes a self-fulfilling prophesy to manifest. A person comes to believe that they truly cannot impact their own future; thereby sealing their fate as nothing more than a cog in a wheel that goes nowhere.
If you grew up with parents who continually emphasized effort and personal responsibility, you may have an easier time with life’s ups and downs. On the other hand, if your parental models continually blamed external factors for their difficulty or if you genuinely struggled with events outside of your control (socioeconomic status, trauma, abuse, war or social unrest) you may be prone to having a high external locus of control.
Locus of control has been extensively researched and is a significant factor in pro-health behaviors, emotional stability, relational satisfaction and professional accomplishment. Having a high external locus of control may make some more prone to depression, alcoholism and obesity.
It is important for your future contentment to consider how you approach setbacks, what is your attributional style? Answer these questions to find out.
1. Do you believe positive events in your life are mainly due to luck or chance?
2. When you hit a setback or fail at something do you blame others?
3. When you are upset do you feel like your emotions are out of your control?
4. When you have an argument with a friend/romantic partner do you repeatedly tell yourself what they did wrong?
5. When you hit a roadblock or challenge (interpersonally or professionally) do you tend to give up, i.e. want to break up or switch job assignments?
Answering yes to all of these questions suggests you have a high external locus of control, answering yes to a few suggests you externalize in some situations. Altering whatever tendency you have toward externalizing control will have a significant impact on your self-perception and your ability to get what you want in life.
Work to change to a more internalized locus of control. Whenever you find yourself upset or stuck over a relationship, work event, family event, notice if you are feeling that you are at the mercy of others and blaming them for your hardships or negative feelings. Even if your blame is warranted, wallowing in it is not going to help you achieve your goals or make you feel any better.
Resist self-pity—instead, focus on the problem that is within your control. Of course, you cannot control the actions and reactions of others. Remember though, you do control whether or not you surround yourself with toxic partners, impossible jobs. You also control how much effort you put into your professional pursuits, psychological wellbeing, physical and emotional health.
Self-determination is a remedy for feeling perpetually, and passively, victimized. You , alone, choose which way you wish to control your life.
Jill P. Weber, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and author of Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy—Why Women Settle for One-Sided Relationships. Click here to follow Jill on Facebook or here to follow Jill on Twitter @DrJillWeber