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The Caveat of our locus of control

The Caveat of our locus of control

In leadership courses one talks about the difference between those with an internal locus of control as opposed to an external locus of control.   One’s locus of control is the perceived source of one’s outcomes in life.

An internal locus of control is embodied in slogan’s like “just do it”. Our North American culture epitomizes that potential within people who believe “desire + effort = guaranteed success”. The lack of results is a result of inadequate effort and/or belief.  When something good occurs we look to our internal locus of control – we worked for it, we deserved it or we ‘attracted’ it courtesy of those visualizations and affirmations we repeated daily.

Meanwhile those with an external locus of control believe that outcomes are a result of fate, or luck.  Perhaps the answer is in the stars, and one’s horoscope is checked to explain results.  Despite having had the desire and exerting effort the results allude us, remaining as difficult to grasp as one’s own shadow. Consequently when something bad happens we are viewed as inadequate in a world that is internally referenced.  We should just ‘get over it’, pull up our boot straps and ‘carry on’.

The challenge with an internal  locus of control is that it is a very me centered philosophy.  It isn’t  bad or wrong it just has limits.  The problem with an external locus of control is that it also has limits and creates apathy.  After years of life of trying to accomplish xyz and being beaten up, by myself and others, for not accomplishing xyz I’ve realized that we need a balanced locus of control.  We can do what we can do, and when we can’t impact that which is beyond our control, it is healthier to know when to walk away, applauding ourselves for what we could do and moving on.

If you are successful the internal locus of control is a wonderful perspective, but on those days when life takes a down turn and we loose our job,  our relationships flounder, or health issues surface unexpectedly – then the internal locus of control  looses some ground.   Neither my son nor I wanted the cancer diagnosis that came at the age of 21.   However the woe is me of an external locus of control doesn’t put you on the path to recovery, few people want to spend time with a pessimist or a drama queen. Nor does the path of apathy create results.  Pacing is pivotal, to stay on track without feeling overwhelmed.

Many movies reiterate the mentality of “I can do it”.  Hollywood blockbusters abound. There is a whole coaching and personal growth movement with numerous speakers from coast to coast that want you to believe that if you just do the right stuff, think the right stuff – you too can have XYZ  I”m not going to discredit them as I believe that too – but I do believe there is a caveat in there as well. It is this caveat that is rarely mentioned, as it undermines book sales.   XYZ may not arrive as XYZ it may arrive as xyz, xzz, vyz, or xvz,  Variations on a theme perhaps but it doesn’t make it more or less right or wrong.   Can we accept the alternative without beating ourselves up for not having  XYZ.

“ we live in a world that in a strange way discounts itself. If we’re unhappy, unemployed, or broke, we’re encouraged to see the issue as a personal problem and we’re supposed to solve it by focusing on whatever it is about us that might be causing the problem. But there might not be anything about us that’s leaving us unemployed or broke. The problem might be, to use a technical term, structural. – meaning that what feels like a personal shortcoming is actually the result of social or economic conditions, circumstances that you won’t be able to change no matter how much you might change yourself  . . . .   it helps to be aware of these factors, because if you’re not, you can start blaming yourself for a lack of connection [or anything else] when the problem doesn’t have anything to do with you. “

When I read this in Emily White’s book Count me in – the penny dropped.   This is where the shortcomings of those that try to have an internal locus of control and those that keep trying to fix something that can’t be fixed feel as if they are spinning their wheels.  It can be depressing.  Some things – okay many things – are beyond control and cannot be altered.   I’ve spent twenty years exhausted trying to shift a relationship dynamic that won’t budge as I’m only a small portion of the equation and lack sufficient weight to tip the scales in my direction.

Mother Teresa  has a quote – It struck a chord whenI first saw it on a framed print in a friends home back in 1991.  From an article written by Harriet Heyman Mother Teresa states “prayer without action is no prayer at all – You have to do your work as if everything depends on you, then leave the rest to God.”

I like this quote as it balances the intrinsic and extrinsic aspects of our locus of control.  Yes honour the intrinsic- do what you can do.  In my life – I work on gaining the clarity as to what can I impact and to put my energy there and to have compassion for myself and others when results fall short of aspirations as a result of external influences.  Hence relinquishing that driven ‘at all cost’ and surrendering recognizing that there are aspects at play that are far larger than ourselves.



Count me in White, E.  (2015) . Count me in. Toronto, ON: McLelland & Steward.

Harriet Heyman, (July 1980,)  Life Magazine
Philip B. Kunhardt Jr. Managing Editor