As we head into a new year, many of you are setting new goals and figuring out how to live differently. However, in order to do that it’s important to understand the crucial role of control in your life.
Do you think you have control over your life, or do you often feel that circumstances (or some other external forces) dictate what happens in your life?
Moreover, are you the driving force in making things happen in your life or do you often feel like things are happening to you?
The Psychological Principle of Locus of Control
The answer to the above question refers to the psychological principle of locus of control. Identified in 1966 by Julian Rotter, this theory reflects the extent to which you feel empowered, and able, to make changes in your life. It also refers to what, or whom, is responsible for consequences you encounter. This sense of control exists on a continuum between a strong internal location (which may sound like, “I am in total control”) to a strong external location of control (“Forces beyond me dictate what happens in my life”). In the former, the locus (location) is internal, and in the latter the location of control is external.
You may have identified times in your own life where you, or someone else, have been stuck in one kind of orientation over the other. Many of us think that always being able to have an internal locus of control is best (and research points to its benefits, particularly at work) BUT that’s not always realistic.
What Locus of Control Has to Do with Everyday Life & Goals
Contrary to popular belief, being one or the other isn’t necessarily all good or all bad. The truth is that we need a bit of both (internal and external locus of control) to realistically exist in the world. We have responsibility for our own choices and actions, AND we are subjected to certain events and circumstances that are largely beyond our control. For example, voting is one way we exercise our agency and control. We vote for policies, and people, with our best interest in mind (internal). However, the greater populace might disagree with our opinion, leading to a majority vote against a policy you’re in favor of (external). While you’ve exercised your own agency, another force beyond you has dictated a different outcome which will impact your life.
When you think about goal setting and achievements, it is important to consider both internal (you) and external (not you) forces that may impact how you attempt to reach a goal (like a New Year’s resolution).
These ideas around control also relate to many people’s sense of destiny, faith, and thoughts on religion and spirituality. Given that, there may be a lot to unpack here on an individual level.
One thing to consider is whether you feel as if you’re at either extreme end of the spectrum.
Do you feel pressure to make every choice alone and without support?
If so, that could cause a lot of stress! To gain some balance you will likely benefit from a sounding board and safe space to find support. “Rugged individualism” can increase anxiety and stress. It can also disconnect you from the kind of social support you need to be psychologically healthier. Not to mention, sometimes you get better outcomes through collaborative problem solving.
Do you feel like you’re constantly at the whim of your circumstances and feel disempowered in life?
If so, it might be helpful to re-examine what spaces you find yourself in and the actual control you might have. Always asking, “Why is this happening to me?” keeps you stuck in old patterns and stunts creative problem-solving. Finding the power and control that you presently have ensures you can move forward towards your goals successfully. Take a deep breath. Take a more honest look at whether you actually have zero control, or if it just feels that way in the moment.
As I often say to clients, “control the controllables” and work to accept the rest. No matter who we are we do have some choice over what happens in our lives (but not in moments of crisis or emergency). We also have to accept that some things are just beyond our immediate control sometimes. We can learn to move with compassion for ourselves in those moments. And then find ways to cope and look for opportunities to use more personal agency moving forward.
As you run into challenges working on a new personal goal take a moment to check in and ask yourself, “Where is my locus of control right now?” . From there assess what adjustments can be made to get to your best compromise or outcome. Taking that extra beat to ask the question will help you figure out the right next steps for you.
Would you like support in reaching your personal goals or resolutions? Reach out today to get started with therapy.