This month’s topic started as “No Such Thing as Luck”. Interesting topic, but as I started to break it down for the article, I realized that there are many people who contribute their destiny, their lot in life, to external events. We can call this luck or attribute it to religion or the universe, but in the world of psychotherapy, we call it external locus of control.
Before I fully fly my “freak flag” and “get my geek on”, let me explain what I mean by locus of control. Locus can be defined by our position, our point or place. Our locus of control is where we believe the control of our lives is located. People who have an internal locus of control believe the power that influences our lives lies within us. People with an external locus of control believe that what drives our lives is external events such as fate, external people/situations, or luck.
Neither internal or external are good nor bad. And it is important to realize that locus of control is not a binary (two) construct, but rather a spectrum. What is important is understanding where your locus of control lies and how it impacts you.
People with a strong internal locus of control believe in what current psychology terms a sense of “agency”. They believe that they have the power and control over their decisions and therefore the outcomes of their lives. “If you want it, work harder” may be the mantra of someone with a strong internal locus of control. These folks believe their success is a direct result of the work they put into something. They take complete responsibility for their actions and are often strong achievers. The downside of having a strong internal locus of control is that they also believe any perceived failure is a direct result of their wrongdoing. People with a strong internal locus of control often take all the glory or all the guilt. They are often driven individuals but give little credit to situations, serendipity, or luck.
Those with an external locus of control, however, hold the belief that outcomes are mainly outside of their control. These people tend to believe everything outside of them is a part of their success or failure. This often makes people with a strong locus of external control good teammates. However, people with a strong external locus of control may struggle with accepting personal responsibility, often giving credit or placing blame on others. This population may struggle with empowerment, truly believing they have little personal power, therefore giving their personal power to others in order to avoid responsibility. They often see things as happening “to” them which makes them more passive by nature. The upside is that they more easily go with the flow.
Much evidence has shown that locus of control is a personality trait or a learned behavior as a result of circumstance including birth order, childhood experience or modeling. Whether you have an internal or external locus of control (take the tried and true quiz here: Locus of Control Rotter Test), the key is understanding both. Realizing that your skills, talents and abilities can be used create your life while balancing the belief that God or the Universe is conspiring for your greater good may be the healthiest place to be. This position allows us to take responsibility for our lives while recognizing there is a greater plan we are not only accountable to, but co-conspirators with, something much larger than ourselves. We are not completely in control.
In the psychotherapeutic process, we explore natural locus of control. We also work to achieve a greater balance, learning to simultaneously take and release responsibility and control. This can perhaps be the dichotomy of our greatest relief and our greatest anxiety. It is the ultimate lesson in holding on and letting go. And as always, it is a process to be learned and practiced.