In this post, we’ll have a discussion on locus of control internal and external.
The evolution of the human species is perhaps the biggest representation of the David and Goliath story. When before the strongest of our species would still live in fear of other bigger and stronger predators, today, any one of us can have the same confidence and sense of security that strong man/woman could never dream of, and the reason for this is control.
The control I’m talking about is control over our lives and the environment. With increased intellectual capacity also came the ability to create the means to also control other species regardless of how dangerous they might be. The reason why we can afford to forget about death is the sense of control we have over mother nature itself.
But our interest in control goes beyond that. After we managed to gain control over mother nature, at least to a degree high enough to manage our anxiety, the next thing we looked to gain control over became fate itself. The struggle between our fate and our will has been around for a while and depending on the person there one might have an internal or external locus of control.
Locus of control internal and external
When it comes to control one can be either dominated by an internal or external locus of control. The important thing to be aware of is that whatever locus of control you have, that doesn’t mean that you’re not at least partially influenced by the other. In fact, chances are that your life is affected by a combination of both, sometimes consistently like when you apply each locus of control to different things, or in contradiction when you apply them at the same time to different things of the same kind.
What is the locus of control about?
When we talk about the locus of control, what we mean is nothing more than the source of control in our lives. To put it simply, an internal locus of control means that we are in control of our lives and destiny, while an external locus of control is one which leads you to conclude that there is some force or entity out there who happens to be responsible for your life’s results.
Internal locus of control
As described above a person with an internal locus of control thinks that their life is dependent on them and them alone. They take ownership for every outcome, whether good or bad. This is the kind of person who believes they are the masters of their destiny, and who is often known for never making excuses for anything. When late to work due to traffic, they don’t blame the traffic. They blame themselves for not getting on the road early enough. When they learn their lessons, they make for people who keep evolving, and who are able to keep going regardless of what life throws at them.
The downsides of an internal locus of control
As the saying goes, even good things in excess are bad. An internal locus of control can give you greater control and maneuverability over your own life. When you’re the source of all your problems, the only thing you have to change is yourself. As we discussed, this is good when you learn your lessons. The problem arises when you keep making the same mistakes over and over again, or when the source of your problems is external.
For the first, this internal locus of control can quickly turn into a depression, since the repeated mistakes combined with the sense that you’re responsible to them can turn into self-hatred. The second is even more dangerous since even when you do your absolute best, the problem will remain there. You’re in essence answering the wrong question/solving the wrong problem.
External locus of control
On the other side of the coin is the external locus of control. People with this view of life tend to be more helpless as they go through life. They are more likely to believe in the idea that all that matters are the gifts you’re given at birth, and as a result, downplay the importance of hard work in skill acquisition any kind of achievement. When you believe that your abilities depend on something other than yourself, and you are faced with the very common first failures of any skill-based activity, the instinct might be to give up, since if you were gifted at the particular activity you’d have picked up quickly.
You know you have an external locus of control when you have any form of superstition, or belief that something or some entity out there has the power to change your life. This includes religion, where the entity would be a deity or any belief that again, some entity has the power to set and/or change your life.
As I said before there Is hardly a person out there who has only one locus of control. The reason for this is that depending on what happens to your life, some things are dependent on you and you alone, and others come from external sources regardless of how hard you try to influence them. A well-balanced person is able to switch perspectives/approaches depending on the context and does so with accuracy. This means having a clear understanding of what kind of situation you might be in, and to go against your tendencies if needed. Meaning to be able to take responsibility when you should and to give up when something/someone else other than yourself is the one to blame for an event.
Contradictions between internal and external locus of control
One thing to pay attention to is the application of an internal locus vs an external locus perspective in contradiction. One example of that is when we take responsibility for some things in our lives and to conveniently delegate the same responsibility to something/someone else when taking responsibility is somewhat painful. The keyword is consistency.
Which one is better?
If you read the post up to this point chances are that you already know the answer. The answer to this question is neither. The reason for this is that adopting solely the inner locus of control or the external locus of control will eventually get to the wrong conclusions. Blaming yourself and act as if you can do something when you’re not the source or the solution for the problem. Also in reverse blaming something else and resort to complaining about the fairness of the world when you are the source and solution for the problem.
The locus of control idea/framework is better implemented in context. As taught in the book: The obstacle is the way by Ryan Holiday, we should hope for clarity in the problem of knowing how to distinguish the things that are within our control from the things that aren’t.
The world we live in is one in which we are encouraged to believe we have absolute control over our destiny. This is in some way a response to the previous sense of impotence. The previous feeling that God or the government decided our lives on a day to day basis. Either way we live in extremes and one thing about extremes is that they are rarely accurate. Living in one extreme or another is easy. All we have to do is to subscribe to it. What is difficult is to know when to apply one of two contradicting/opposite principles.
How to apply the internal locus of control vs the external locus of control?
Knowing when to apply which is a difficult problem, and chances are that you’ll get it wrong once in a while, but below is a tip that might help you get it right more often than not.
Knowledge as the basis of wisdom
If there is one thing that can greatly improve one’s ability to apply the internal and external locus of control appropriately is knowledge.
The real problem here is in our knowledge of what’s and what’s not possible in reality. Not knowing there is a solution for a problem, or that something you did got you in trouble can make you more prone to delegate responsibility. When you know why the problem is a problem there is less room for superstition. This can only happen when you learn what you’re supposed to learn.
In summary, both versions of the locus of control are about our choosing or not to delegate responsibility for what happens to us. Both have their own place and in order to distinguish when to apply which view/perspective is highly dependent on whether you accept that context is important, and how much you know about the problem. Ideally, you’re able to make the right decision all the time. The problem and the sad truth is that despite all efforts, one is still prone to making mistakes. We can only hope we can quickly see the mistakes for what they are and learn the lessons they teach.
It is all about knowledge and experience 😉
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