Who’s in Charge Here? Rethinking Locus of Control

Last week in class I read about locus of control (either internal or external) being a cultural construct.

For those who are already confused: locus of control refers to beliefs regarding who has the power to shape a person’s destiny.

If you believe that you have the power, then you have an internal local of control. If you believe that your destiny is determined by outside forces, then you have an external locus of control.

Western cultures prefer the internal locus of control.

In fact, you probably got a warm fuzzy when you read “If you believe that you have the power…” It just felt so right!

(The other one sounds so depressing, right?)

And you only have to open your eyes a little to see how this worldview saturates Western culture. Self-help books, life coaches, Tony Robbins, Roar. Perhaps the most extreme example of our collective effort to control everything is the Law of Attraction: the belief that you can create the future just by thinking about it.

And because the internal locus of control is culturally congruent, it is associated with emotional well-being and success in life. In fact, if your therapist detects that you have a strong external locus of control, she just might interpret that as a “thought distortion” and write all about it in her note.

The role of locus of control in Western thinking about mental health is even more powerful. The use of talk therapy was a medium for healing relies on the premise that the power to change and become well is inside you. It’s the therapists job to help you find and use that power.

(I do want to make a note here that Americans seem to be the biggest cheerleader of this type of thinking. We approach the internal locus of control with puppy-dog enthusiasm. But the mainstream culture is also hopelessly unaware of privilege. You don’t find oppressed groups thinking this way. Check out this post– “When “Life-Hacking is Really White Privilege” on medium.com)

But other cultures don’t see the world that way.

Some favor the external locus of control where life happens to you. It’s your job to keep doing what you’re supposed to and accept life on life’s terms.

In Buddhism, the external locus of control takes on a spiritual aspect. The purpose of practice is to come to peace with life and find liberation by stepping out of the fight. Life won’t get better if you’re a Buddhist, but you’ll get better at living it. Compare that to Christianity with its suggestion that if you make an internal change, the circumstances of your life will improve.

I’d always fancied myself as someone who had a balanced the internal and external.

Then last fall I was beginning to get anxious about what would come next. Very anxious. I was planning, and flow-charting, and …. yes, I visualized. I did that.

Then one of my friends remarked that I sure did seem to be making myself crazy and should I just let things unfold as they would? (I don’t remember exactly what she said; I was very focused on myself at that moment.)

I realized that she was right.

Around the same time I was getting anxious about a visa extension that I had applied for. I was talking about it a lot at work. Ugyen, my Bhutanese colleague, said, “Don’t worry. It’s Bhutan. Everything works out in Bhutan.”

The visa was approved the next day.

I decided to do a life experiment.

I would adopt the external locus of control for the remainder of my time in Bhutan. I would continue to fulfill my commitments (and fulfill them well), and I would follow up on any opportunities that came my way. I would spend my time and energy on projects that felt right and good to me because they felt right and good. Not because they were a means to an end.

And guess what happened?

I began to cultivate a calm state of mind about my professional future. I felt free of the unknowable future, and I was present. I felt happier and more fully engaged in my work. And opportunity came to me.

Perhaps it’s not a thought distortion after all.


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Further reading

The Great Culture Debate: Clearly Not a Blank and White Issue by Yvette Otterman

Culture Matters: The Peace Corps Cross-Cultural Workbook, p. 143-148 is about locus of control




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