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What is an "Internal Locus of Control" and How do You Get One?

When disappointments befall you, what do you think? Do you mutter, “Of course, it’s just my luck.”

Or, “Nothing ever works out for me.”

Or maybe, “It’s just too hard, it’s hopeless.”

OR, do you pause, and think, “Let me call my old boss for some advice.”

Or, “If I get in a quick run, I will feel better.”

Or, “I’m going to meditate for a bit.” The first examples show external locus of control, and the second show an internal locus of control. This mindset can make all the difference in the quality of your life. In general, an internal locus of control has been shown to be associated with resilience and it’s what you want to aim for.

Let’s break it down. This concept focuses on how a person attributes what controls her life. When she is successful, why does she think she is successful? Is it because of random outside circumstances, all beyond her control? Does she think she is randomly lucky, or her boss just likes her? That would suggest the person has an external locus of control. Whatever happens to her, she attributes to the outer world; to fate, to luck, etc. On the other hand, when she is successful, does she think it is because she worked extra hard, or built strong relationships, or aced that project? That would suggest this person has an internal locus of control, and she attributes her circumstances to her own actions, for which she takes ownership and responsibility. (read more about it here:

Locus of control is considered to be an inborn personality trait. Still, locus of control can be shaped by the environment and by interaction with others. Being raised to take responsibility and action in your life will most likely help you develop more of an internal locus. Conversely, if your parents model victimization, or excused you from accountability, this could push you more toward the external locus.

Let me share an example of internal locus, and how it can help in stressful times. I have been on a long road seeking publication for my memoir. I used to think that writing my book was the hard part. Ha ha ha. It turned out that it takes a solid foundation from which to launch a book, a foundation which I did not have. For the past year, I have laboring to build this “platform.” I worked on the following: setting up a website, starting and writing this blog, securing an agent, writing and rewriting a book proposal, getting head shots, securing and preparing speaking engagements, and building a social media presence. Prior to this year, I knew nothing about any of these steps. I have taught myself and sought advice along the way. As part of this path, I have also had to swat away repeated rejections, and keep moving forward, despite multiple disappointments.

There is a mindset I have brought to this process that has protected me. I have a vision of my goal (sharing stories about resilience to help others cope with life). I believe strongly in the goal and I will not be dissuaded. I keep my chin up when disappointed. Because I stay positive, I attract support. Friends and total strangers have gathered around me, advising and helping when they can. And when I am disappointed, I lift up my head and say, “What can I do about it?” I can’t control what others think, and if they chose to publish my work. But, I can control the quality of my work. And I can control if I am putting my ideas out for people to see. I can keep speaking and writing. I can follow up with helpful people. I can be pleasant to work with. I can just… keep at it. Along the way, I can take of myself, exercising, socializing, and replenishing my energy.

Even if it may be an inborn characteristic, I think it is possible to move from an external locus to an internal locus of control. It isn't easy, because mindsets are hard to shift. I invite you to pay attention to your inner thoughts about your life. Inside your head, do the whispers say, “Let’s keep moving toward the goal. What’s next? What can I do to make things happen?” If so, then good for you. You most likely have an internal locus.

Perhaps, on the other hand, your head whispers, “Let’s see what happens. I hope it turns out OK. Maybe my luck will change.” If your thoughts about your own life tend to be passive, you may have an external locus. But I say to you, internal-locus-person-that-I-am, there is something you can do about it! Pay attention to your inner voice, and work on changing it. Start by asking yourself, “what can I do about it?” Even if your only answer is to eat a good meal and get some shut-eye, engage in your self-care and keep going. You can slowly start to build a new cognitive mind-set, asking yourself gently and repeatedly, “what can I do?” and then following up on your ideas. This is a cognitive habit that can be learned, with patience, diligence, and self-compassion. Perhaps you will need a good therapist to help you get there. But again, therapy is something that you can do to help yourself, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

One more point: just in case all you internal locus people are feeling too comfortable, there can be a dark side to the internal locus too. Sometimes, people believe they have more control than they actually have. Even if you are exceptionally self-disciplined and action-oriented, much in life is beyond our control. I am clear on this. For starters, I can’t control other people. (If I could, I would definitely have gotten my husband to put away his own laundry by now). Internal locus people can take on unearned blame and responsibility. They believe they can make their mother more loving or force their child to work harder in school. They might even think they can avoid all illnesses by engaging in vigorous self -care. But the body is the body and aging happens. You can run marathons and eat kale all you want, sooner or later your body will begin to fail you. Despite our efforts, there is so much in life that lies beyond our control.

So, for my internal-locus readers, I invite you to recognize the limits of your powers. You cannot change other people. You can only work on yourself, what you say, and how you act. The universe is broad and does not bend to our will. And for my external-locus readers, I invite you to repeatedly ask yourself “what can I do?” with a kind voice. Focus on the behaviors, large and small, which you can do to propel you toward your goals. And once you get there, celebrate! You did it!

Lise Deguire's multiple award-winning memoir, Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience from a Burn Survivor, is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Newtown Book Shop and The Commonplace Reader.

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