At around the third grade, when we’re approximately the age of 8 or 9, we develop our true first understanding of ‘responsibility’.
We begin to notice that there’s a direct link between our experiences and our actions. For example, we start to ‘get’ that our performance at school shows up in our grades, teachers treat us based upon our behavior, and our stomach ache is directly proportionate to the amount of candy we’ve consumed.
That makes sense – it seems around that time there’s a shift in how our parents treat us as well as teachers. We can’t get away with whining as much, we receive a short list of chores we must carry out, and no one cares if we ‘over did it’ at Halloween. We’re not babies anymore, we’re little people who “should start acting like it.”
And while all of us share approximately the same time period of development, that in no way means we share the same amount of development. Through a fairly exhaustive study of children and responsibility done (primarily) in the 70’s, we’ve come to understand that personal responsibility isn’t a toggle switch. Like almost everything in nature (especially as it pertains to the human mind), there’s a sliding scale of how much personal responsibility we’re willing to feel. It’s actually called the Responsibility Scale, and it measures our Locus of Control.
What is Locus of Control?
It’s a theory which refers to how much we believe we control the events in our lives. (“Locus” just means “place” or “location.”) We can either have an “internal” locus of control (which means we believe we control our lives), or we can have an “external” locus of control (which means we believe the environment, other people or an invisible force – such as a higher power or ‘the universe’ – control our decisions and lives).
Now, obviously any polarization on this scale is an unreality. If we believe we are 100% in control of our lives, our decisions and the things we experience we’re actually being highly delusional. The only way this could be true is if we were “an island,” and have no association with anything that could influence us. If you’ve ever tripped on a rock, then you know that sometimes the environment will have an impact on you. (Yeah, you could say the person was being absent minded, but if the rock wasn’t there they wouldn’t have tripped on it regardless of their attention to detail.) On the flip side, if you believe you are 100% at the mercy of external forces you are equally in a delusional place.
While both of these extremes have their own set of pitfalls, we’re going to focus on the dangers inherit to an imbalanced external locus of control, and (as promised) especially as it pertains to “outsourcing” your identity.
First of all, there are clear connections between how you were raised and which locus of control you favor. If you were raised by a family that faces hard times but doesn’t pull themselves out of it, they will most likely teach you that you are at the mercy of your environment. A lot of people come from single parent households, and these also have a tendency to teach an external locus, usually due to anger they feel for the absent spouse/parent.
When there’s lots of blame in a house, there’s lots of foisting responsibility onto others. If you grew up in a blame-rich environment, you’re far more likely to adopt this habit and see the world through this lens.
So, what’s so bad about having an external locus of control?
The worst result of this mentality is to live a life that is uncomfortable, unhealthy or downright painful and sincerely believe you have no power to change it. Your belief becomes reality, and you continue your life path all the way to its conclusion: running out the clock having waited on outside forces to make it better.
When we believe we have no impact on our environment, it’s easy to believe there’s no reason to authentically and thoughtfully choose your beliefs, values and identity. It’s not as if you’ll be using your identity to make anything happen. Self-expression is really a waste of time in a world apathetic to your existence. And, in fact, since you’re on the receiving end of fate, doesn’t it make far more sense to adopt a set of criteria that has been designed by someone else, someone that actually has impact?
There’s no doubt about it – it’s not easy to realign your locus of control. There’s some pretty deep, powerful wiring in your mind that has decided this is the best way of dealing with life. Remember – everything you believe makes sense to you, including this. Fortunately, you can use your mind to change your mind… and it’s a matter of tackling the wiring, itself.
Here are 5 strategies for realigning your locus of control:
5. You associate more pain with the idea of taking responsibility for your life than you do with not taking control of your life. So, reverse that.
Understand the pain that comes with letting your life happen to you. Consider the time you waste not getting what you want, not expressing who you are, and not letting the world benefit from your ‘song’. REALLY let yourself feel the pain and agony of a wasted life. Picture yourself on your death bed, regretting your choices and everything you didn’t do that you wanted to. At the same time, REALLY picture what a pleasure it is to be your own person, to know you have the power to change situations that aren’t right for you, and all of the exciting and wonderful adventures you can have taking control of your life. Heck, you can even start small – when you’re uncomfortable in a chair, do you wait for the chair to change to accommodate you, or do you shift positions to solve the problem? Associate everything in your life with that same principle -waiting for the world to change your life circumstances is like waiting for the chair to shift underneath you. Instead, take the more pleasurable action of making your world ergonomic to who you are. Make shifts and changes until you’re living the life you want… and regret nothing on your death bed. Remember:
When you look back on your life, you’ll regret the things you didn’t do more than the ones you did. - H. Jackson Brown, Jr.
4. Rewire your mind through the use of language.
The most powerful thing you can do is change your self-talk. Phrases like “I can’t…” and “I have no option…” are absolutely killing you. The more you think them and, worse!, the more you say them out loud the more you dig yourself into an external locus rut. Catch yourself every time you use the words “I can’t” and alter them to “It may be difficult, but there’s always a way.” When you think/speak the phrase “I have no option…” change it to “I may not like my options, but I will…” DO NOT ALLOW YOURSELF TO SAY “I can’t…” Remove it from your vocabulary.
3. Question your assumptions. Keep questioning them until they become ridiculous.
In this case, your assumption is that you have no power or control. Ask yourself the simple question, “Can I be absolutely sure that’s true?” If you answer with, “Yes,” then ask yourself again, “Can I be absolutely sure that’s true?” Why are you so certain? Is it based upon empirical evidence that has never once been discredited? Have you NEVER been able to control your environment? What about the above example of shifting your body in a chair to be more comfortable? Has that NEVER happened? If that can happen, then clearly in at least one context you have had both power and control. If it’s possible in one context, isn’t it possible in more contexts? What about all contexts? Can you be absolutely certain it’s not?
Use your mind to change your mind. Your brain is not particularly comfortable with the idea that it’s on the receiving end of a capricious world, but it doesn’t know what else to believe at this point. Give it an excuse to believe something different – pin it down so that it must admit… yeah, maybe I do have power and control. Your brain will take to the thought that it is powerful.
It won’t stick with just one session of questioning, however. It might like the idea, but it’s still fighting against a lifetime of programming and wiring, which will encourage it to go back to its old strategies. So, you’ll have to keep questioning your assumptions. Repeatedly. In fact, I’d recommend:
Write down this question, “Can I be absolutely certain I don’t have the power to control my life?” and plant it in various places in your life: on the mirror in your bathroom, somewhere conspicuous in your car, somewhere obvious where you work.
Answer, each time, with “No. I’m not absolutely certain.”
2. Replace your old belief with a new one. Namely, with the belief that your choices and identity impact your life.
Every time your choices result in a change in your life, take note! When you shift your body on a chair think, “Thank goodness I have all the power I need not to settle for discomfort.” Remind yourself daily that you are a part of the ecology – you have just as much influence on the environment as it does on you. You step on an ant, and it’s over for the little bug. To that bug, you were just the most important environmental factor it ever faced. You may think that ant had an external locus of control, but I promise you it didn’t spend its days fretting about not having choice in its life. It had purpose, mission, and until you crushed it, it was busy making that mission happen. And it got a TON of things done in its life. (Just watch any documentary on ants – they’re freaking amazing!)
Like the ant, you will not be able to control every facet of your life at all times, but that doesn’t matter. If you spend all of your moments focused on the things you CAN change you will get an unbelievable amount of things accomplished. Things YOU wanted to impact and effect, things that made YOUR world more pleasurable. And with every incremental win, integrate that as proof that you have control and power.
1. Know who you are and fall madly in love with yourself.
The higher your self-esteem and the more you realize how much of a genius you are, the more unacceptable it is to let that amazing person suffer in any way whatsoever.
Have you ever really been in love? When you love someone you HATE it when they’re sick, when they have to deal with a bad situation at work, when someone is being mean to them, etc… You’ll do anything to keep them safe and happy, to Hell with the consequences.
Now, picture feeling that way about yourself. What if you were so in love with yourself that you’d fight heaven and earth to get all of your needs met and your ambitions accomplished? How empowered and in control of your world would you be, then?
Knowing who you are also means that you’ll treat yourself with patience and understanding. You’ll cut yourself some slack in areas that aren’t natural talents, but you’ll also have high standards in the areas in which you know you naturally excel. You’ll make sure you never settle for being less than your best. Like a beloved work of art, you’ll keep yourself polished and at your peak but you won’t destroy yourself for being something you’re not.
You ARE great. It doesn’t matter who are, I believe that to the depths of my being. But you have to take responsibility for yourself, your choices, your identity and your self-knowledge. You’re worth being the best version of yourself you can possibly be. Don’t let wiring from your past lie to you any longer. Take control of your life and watch yourself flourish.
If you struggle with this AT ALL, choose one of the five strategies above to work on this week and share with us how it went.