When Your Locus is Out of Control


Locus of control is a state of mind where we place our belief in how the outcomes of our lives internally or externally. Looking for someone else to make us happy is external locus of control, and a recipe for disaster. Looking inward for control over our lives and destiny is preferable, but must be a chosen road.

I decided to write this article based on my experiences with this problem that keep a person trapped looking for something they cannot have, and that can ruin lives. This can be a very tricky subject to approach with people, as some may interpret what I am saying as that I condone abandoning their loved ones who hold them back. My answer is simple, can you work around those people? If not, would you not condone jumping off a sinking ship if there were no hope of salvaging it? Are those people you are clinging to so dependent on you that they cannot go on with their lives? Are you so dependent on them that you cannot do the same?

Locus of control is a phrase that, until recently, I had never heard. My Psychiatrist, when speaking to me about my anxiety over not being able to rely on relatives for emotional support, stated that my locus of control was outside myself and that I needed to pull it in. I looked at him blankly, not having heard the term before. I determined to look it up the phrase on the Internet when I returned home.

When I did, I found a concept I had not before considered.

Definition of locus of control:

Locus of control is the degree to which people believe that they have control over the outcome of events in their lives, as opposed to external forces beyond their control.1

I was floored. This definition describes in just a few simple words the entire focus of my almost thirty years of attending psychotherapy!

Having an external locus of control means that one looks to outside forces to make us feel happy and content. We look to our relatives, friends and work to satisfy our needs for acceptance and love. The problem is this is a dead-end street if one focuses totally on the other person. We are all interrelated as humans, however to allow the actions of another to determine how we feel about ourselves is to set ourselves up for failure. It is neither fruitful nor fair to expect someone else to make us feel content. The hard truth is that no one can make us happy if we are not happy within ourselves.

Having an internal locus of control means one looks inside for acceptance and love. In this way, a person focuses on one’s own strengths and abilities working toward goals independently of the actions of others. While it is true that we will make mistakes, if we focus on our own abilities and accept the fact that we will fail. We can then refocus our efforts, and change course without the need to depend on the behaviors and attitudes of other people in our lives.  Putting the power in our hands instead of the hands of others puts us in the driver’s seat and eliminates the anxiety and pain of depending on others.

What are the benefits of an internal locus of control?

  • A sense of control over the events of one’s life and destiny
  • More likely to actively look for solutions to the problems one is facing
  • More likely see and to create positive outcomes in the future
  • Less likely to feel like a victim of circumstance

It is important to mention at this point that it is not the circumstances we find ourselves in or the people we find ourselves attached to that make us unhappy, rather it is our response to these things that do.  A cage is only a cage if you think of it as such. What if one thinks of that same cage as a safe place instead of a hindrance? Some see being in a wheelchair as a hindrance, a burden they are glad they do not have to endure. To me, my wheelchair is a tool. It is not a burden, it is an assistance. If one maintains an internal locus of control, we can look at the circumstances we find ourselves in and find ways to either leave the cage, or to make the best of our circumstances. In this way, we feel place ourselves firmly in control.

In the session where I had first heard this phrase, I had been complaining because I was very stressed over a relative’s drinking, fearing it would keep me from reaching my aspirations. It was hard to realize that my Psychiatrist was correct. What happened to me did not depend on what this relative did. My happiness, I realized, is based on my own ability to move on with my life, it does not depend on the behaviors, attitudes or sobriety of someone else.

I know this sounds simple, and perhaps I am oversimplifying it. However, having an internal locus of control takes a lot of practice and soul searching. It means letting go of an illusion we have believed all our lives, letting go of the notion that others can make us happy. Ultimately, it means letting go of any belief that we might, in some small way, be able to control the actions of others, and that control would make us happy.

A wonderful thing comes from turning one’s locus of control inward, solutions you have never seen before suddenly become clear. Answers to questions that have plagued us become crystalized and more easily seen when our emotional need to make the other person make us happy evaporates. Here again, I can give an example from my own life. I have wanted to earn a PhD in Psychology for many years. As you may know, I live with a severe mental disability and cannot live alone. The people I live with are not emotionally stable, and I found myself rolling about in a morass of emotions. I both wanted to go to college and complete my degree, while simultaneously trying to find happiness through the actions of my loved ones. Once my psychiatrist pointed out to me that my locus of control had shifted to outside, and that I was basing my happiness on the actions of these unstable relatives, I could then sit back and take a long, hard look at my situation. To my relief, I found that I did not have to depend on these folks to earn my PhD, I simply needed to work around them. I could have my cake and eat it to, one might say. While living with them, so that I could have my physical needs met, I could go ahead and attend college and earn that PhD. I am now on my way to that goal. However, I must constantly pull mine back into myself. If I spend too much time looking about at the actions of others, and reacting to those actions, I find myself anxious and feeling trapped. When I pull back and examine what is going on closer, I come to understand that my life is NOT dependent on what these other folks in my life do. I love them, but because I am an adult, my happiness does not depend on what they do or say.

Locus of Control. Three little words with an enormous meaning. Take a good, hard, and honest look at what is making you feel happy. If your find yourself focusing on anyone other than yourself, then it is time to take stock and consider pulling that control inward.

You will never regret doing so.

“I am NOT a product of my circumstances, I AM a product of my decisions.” Stephen Covey










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