Locus of Control: Where Does Our Control Rest?

What is Locus of Control?

Do you control your life, or does the environment determine how things turn out? Most people will answer that there is a mix of the two. You get to choose what cereal you buy, the friends you have, and what temperature you set your air conditioning to. But you don’t choose your parents, the weather outside, or the behavior of others. There is no true pure external or internal Locus of Control. Internal Locus of Control refers to a person having the belief that they control their own outcomes and destiny, while External Locus of Control refers to a person who feels that outside forces determine how their circumstances turn out. It can fluctuate throughout a person’s life quite a bit. As an infant, your Locus of Control was far to the external side as you did not have the cognitive or physical ability to influence much of your life. As you age, hopefully your Locus of Control becomes more internalized, but you will never be totally free from outside influences. Like almost all concepts in psychology, Locus of Control is fluid and is not permanently set, but it will always be more internal or external.

External Locus of Control

If you have an External Locus of Control, your mood, productivity, relationships, and even your own physical health can be more impacted by the outside world as opposed to your own willpower. You may find yourself having the quality of your day or your life as a whole depending on how others are behaving. You may also be more subject to environmental factors like weather and societal issues. An experiment in realizing one’s Locus of Control has been forced on all of us in the form of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Before exploring that further, it must be said that there is no one that is not having increased anxiety and other stress due to COVID-19. Even if you are not personally impacted by the virus, the change in lifestyle we all have had to endure has been a challenge. That being said, why is the COVID-19 “new normal” tough for some of us, but outright mentally crippling to others?

There are multiple factors that determine how COVID-19 impacts a person’s mental health. One major one is Locus of Control. An External Locus of Control is makes one more vulnerable to these major societal events. You may feel that COVID-19 has taken away some of your ability to control your own life and how you interact with the world. You may notice that your relationships are more strained because of the stress you feel about COVID-19. You also may even have heightened anxiety that is causing you physical discomfort. A friend of mine has been stressed about COVID-19, particularly the isolation it has caused, and they began suffering from chronic headaches. A visit to the doctor revealed no illness or other reason for new headaches. The doctor diagnosed my friend as having chronic tension headaches caused by increased anxiety and recommended they see a counselor for stress reduction. With an External Locus of Control, your well-being is at the mercy of these external factors and it can feel impossible to overcome these forces that are pressing on you from the outside. At extreme levels, External Locus of Control can lead to learned helplessness where an individual has been taught to believe that they are incapable of improving their life.

Internal Locus of Control

An Internal Locus of Control means an individual is able to manage their moods and many aspects of their life from a place of control that comes from within their own mind. The best indicator of whether one has a strong Internal Locus of Control is to see if they make personal adjustments to environmental cues. For instance, if an external force arises like a coworker that is disagreeable and is upsetting to be around, a person with an Internal Locus of Control will automatically come up with strategies to change their own behavior or situation to either find a way to eliminate the conflict or avoid creating more. Using the example of COVID-19 and its increased stress on everyone, an Internal Locus of Control will urge as to focus on the things we have the ability to manage and improve, or at least not make worse, during a time where the outside work is very much beyond our control. That is the key point in understand why the Internal Locus of Control is healthy. It is not a standpoint that one is able to have control of every aspect of their life. Some things are simply not within our scope to manage. The power of internalized control is that we realize that the outside world will impact us to a degree but we have the tools to both keep our own affairs in order and to choose how to react to outside events that minimizes suffering and maximizes opportunity.

Most psychological traits or spectrums in psychology and counseling have pros and cons for each side. While there are some things to be aware of when one has a particularly strong Internal Locus of Control, like blaming oneself for the things they can’t control, it is overall more psychologically health than having an External Locus of Control. Adults who feel that their life is not their responsibility or outcomes of their choices depend on everything except themselves typically have high neuroticism, low self-esteem, and can be frustrating to have as romantic partners.

Moving from External to Internal

How can we move our Locus of Control from an external to an internal state? The good news is that some of it comes with time and basic development. As previously mentioned, children are not going to have an Internal Locus of Control but will eventually, just through natural maturing processes, move their Locus of Control more internally. Adults who are struggling with managing their own emotions and psychological states will need to take steps and practice to create a healthier management system of their minds. The first thing that I recommend to all clients is to constantly remind oneself that you will never have more control over anything in life except yourself. This is not to say you have total control over every aspect of your life. But, compared to other people, nature, and society, you can exercise far more control over your own actions than anything else you will ever encounter. This mental reinforcement is important to remind us that we have the ability to always control at least some of our mental state.

A second strategy may sound pessimistic, but I believe it is important. We need to remember that even in situations where we don’t see ways to make things better, we can always find a multitude of ways to make things worse. Choosing to work to avoid making things worse is a way to create an Internal Locus of Control. Often people struggling with depression can’t create a clear vision of ways to improve their mood. This is frustrating and can create a sense of helplessness. This is a symptom of the state of one’s brain while depressed. While you may have to wait for this brain state to change from time, medication, or therapeutic strategies, having an Internal Locus of Control allows you to at least find the things that you know make you feel worse and avoid them. A specific example I have often seen with depression is hygiene. Someone who is in a nearly constant state of sadness or misery will look at things that other people enjoy and feel no motivation or interest in participating. But everyone seems to be able to say that not bathing daily, brushing one’s teeth, and doing other basic hygiene tasks makes us feel worse at the end of the day. Will brushing your teeth cure depression? Unfortunately, it isn’t that easy. But not brushing your teeth will usually deepen your depression as it represents a failure of taking care of one’s self at the most basic level.

A final point about creating an Internal Locus of Control is adopting a viewpoint of personal responsibility. This is not to be confused with thinking everything is your fault as an individual. Instead, it is a state of mind that says that the most equipped person to help myself is me, and therefore it is my responsibility to care for myself the best I can. Your loved ones hopefully contribute some care as well as your counselor, doctor, friends, pets etc. However, their combined efforts will never top the ability you have, and the responsibility you have, to minimize your own suffering through exercising control over yourself.

If would like to work on creating an Internal Locus of Control and take more hold of your psychological state, please contact Life Enhancement Counseling Services today at 407-443-8862 to schedule an appointment with one of our experienced mental health counselors.


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