• Resilient Practice

How to Shift your Locus of Control

To stay afloat on rough seas it is imperative that we address our “locus of control.”

In 1989 Emmy Werner[1], an educational psychologist published the findings of her 30+ year study following the lives of 698 children on a Hawaiian island. She saw that, despite some adverse early life events, a significant proportion of the children developed into successful adults.

A stable positive adult presence was important, but there were children who flourished without this.

The children, who thrived despite a lack of early support, demonstrated a strong sense of self-awareness.

Werner talked about this in terms of “Locus of Control”.

This term, first coined by Julian B. Rotter, in 1966, describes how much a person believes they, versus external factors, control their lives. In other words, believing in their own ability to change their life rather than being at the mercy of circumstance.

People with a strong Internal locus of control recognise that they have the power to control their own lives via their responses.

Those with a strong External locus of control have given away their power and do not accept responsibility for what happens to them in any way.

The locus of control is, in fact, a spectrum and we all sit at some point along it. Where we sit can also change depending on our current circumstances.

The study proves that people who have experienced adverse events in childhood can still be extremely resilient. A strong internal locus of control can thus make up for adverse events at any age.

Werner’s study also suggests that the closer one sits to the internal end of the spectrum, the more resilient one is.

Those who’s locus of control is more external are more likely to say, and indeed believe things like:

“There is nothing I can do about it,” “it’s not what you know it’s who you know,” “life is down to luck it doesn’t matter what I do.”

They often feel powerless or victimised. They blame others for what happens and how they feel and they seek approval from others.

To have an external locus of control is to tell yourself that you are powerless; you have no control over what happens in your life.

Giving away responsibility for our thoughts and feelings disempowers us and leaves us vulnerable and without resilience.

In contrast, those with a strong internal locus of control say and believe:

“It’s up to me,” “I control my own destiny,” “If I work hard I will achieve,” “You make your own luck.”

They think in an optimistic way, they actively look for solutions to problems, they are happier and more resilient.

They are also healthier. Researchers of the 1970 British Cohort Study[2] found those who had shown an internal locus of control at the age of ten were less likely to be overweight at age thirty, less likely to describe their health as poor, and less likely to show high levels of psychological stress.

Where we are on the “locus of control” spectrum is initially influenced by our genetic make-up, our parental role models and our early experiences.

Parents with a strong internal locus of control themselves who give the rewards they promised and provide consistent, supportive boundaries foster an internal locus in their children.

Our position on the spectrum is however not fixed. Studies have shown that our locus becomes more internal with age.

In fact, we can move along the spectrum towards the internal, if we want to.

Try this:

See where you sit on the locus of control spectrum. Follow this link to Rotter’s original questionnaire. There are 13 sets of statements. Pick the statement that resonates with you the most. If neither seems right decide which doesn’t fit and chose the other. (The link asks for a name to personalise your score but no other information or verification is required)

To move your locus of control towards the internal end of the spectrum:

1. Be aware of what you can and cannot control. Factors you cannot control are your limitations and energy spent trying to change them is wasted.

2. Recognise that you are fully in control of all of your thoughts feelings and behaviours. No one has the power to affect your emotions unless you choose to let them.

If someone is rude, they are rude.

You decide how to respond.

You can even choose whether it affects you or not.

No one has the power to make you angry, upset or confrontational unless you give it to them.

Take responsibility for all your responses.

3. Reframe negative responses. When you notice a negative response in yourself; this may be physical – a sick feeling in your stomach a tight chest or palpitations; or a thought - I’m not good enough, I have failed. Stop and take a moment to examine that response. Ask yourself:

Why has this response been triggered?

Is my response appropriate?

Is my response helpful?

Is there a different response that would be more appropriate, more useful?

4. Have a ‘Resilience Toolkit’, a host of tools and techniques that help you to live more mindfully. The ‘Our Resilience Tools’ Page on the website is a good place to start.

“ …. grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr

If you have found this article interesting and useful please share it. Thank you

[1] Werner, E. E. (1989). High-risk children in young adulthood: A longitudinal study from birth to 32 years. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 59(1):72–81. [2] Catharine R Gale 1 , G David Batty, Ian J Deary (2008). Locus of Control at Age 10 Years and Health Outcomes and Behaviors at Age 30 Years: The 1970 British Cohort Study. Psychosom Med, 70(4):397-403.

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