How to Be Resilient With An Internal Locus of Control

Can You Change Your Locus of Control?

This is the final part of my series on locus of control. In this installment, I’m going to consolidate the lessons from the previous posts in this series and discuss how you can apply what we've learned to your life. As discussed in my first post in this series, everyone has a natural predisposition that causes them to lean more toward an external or internal locus of control most of the time. However, if you are predisposed to an external locus of control, that does not mean you hold that belief in all areas of your life, nor does that mean you can’t change it.

I want to take a moment here to clarify something. Just because someone exhibits an external locus of control does not make them a bad or a weak person. In fact, there are some drawbacks to having an internal locus of control that make an external locus of control an advantage in certain situations.

Your beliefs are strongly influenced by the people with whom you spend the most time, particularly your parents. If one or both of your parents had a strongly internal locus of control, there’s a very good chance you lean that way as well. Just as events have no inherent meaning other than what we assign to them, your locus of control is not inherently good or bad. It is simply a filter that colors the way you view and interpret the world and your ability to change it.

Most people just don’t consciously think about their beliefs, let alone realize they can choose whether to accept or reject them. The good news is, you can choose your beliefs. So, regardless where you fall on the locus of control spectrum, if you want to shift your beliefs toward a more internal locus of control, you can! It’s just a matter of deciding to do it, and then taking steps to make it happen. It is not a quick fix, but the benefits for your quality of life can be profound.

While you may not be able to directly control many things that happen in your life, you do have direct control over how you respond to those things. In reality, your response to the circumstances, people and events in your life has a much larger impact on the quality of your life than the events themselves. When I use the word respond, I’m not just talking about what you physically do, either. Your beliefs about the events and circumstances in your life and the way you talk to yourself about them are part of your response, and you have control over them as well.

Easier said than done

I realize I make this change in perspective sound simple, and that’s because it is. But that does not mean it’s easy. Our society tends to use those words interchangeably but, in reality, they are quite different. Simple just means not complicated, whereas easy means something is not difficult or doesn’t require a lot of effort. It’s understandable why those words have become conflated. Things that are not complicated often are easy, but now always. Digging a hole in the ground by hand for a new swimming pool is very simple, but it’s far from easy. The same is true for trying to shift toward a more internal locus of control. But just because something isn’t easy doesn’t mean it’s not worth the effort.

Listed below is a series of habits and skills that will help you to develop a more internal locus of control. The list can, at first blush, appear overwhelming. I caution you not to interpret them to mean you have to do everything before you will start seeing benefits. Even if you just pick one thing on the list and practice it consistently, your locus of control will start to shift. In time, after you notice a change in your thought patterns, pick another one and start weaving it into your life. As you do, you’ll notice that it gets easier. While the things on this list are different habits, many of them utilize the same underlying skills. So, by learning how to do one, you will by default make subsequent changes easier.

Finally, since everyone has different needs and desires, and falls at a different spot on the locus of control spectrum, there is no one-size-fits all solution. Consequently, this list likely includes skills which you either do not need or already possess. Just take what you need or what you think can help you in the near term, and either ignore the rest or set it aside until you are ready for more.

Practices to develop an internal locus of control

  • Don’t try to control your environment, circumstances or what other people do. Focus on controlling what you can control, which is your thoughts and actions. Ultimately, your actions will likely influence your circumstances and the behavior of others, but that should not be your focus. Getting upset about or dwelling on things outside your control is not only unproductive and stressful, it distracts you and diverts energy you could use to resolve the situation.
  • Have a bias for making small, perhaps even seemingly insignificant choices that give you instantaneous or at least quick feedback. Your goal in the beginning is to shorten the cycle between your choices or actions and the results they produce. Doing so will quickly provide you with a little feeling of control. Continue to build on it to increase your confidence.
  • ​Whenever possible, consciously make choices that demonstrate to yourself your sense of control over your life, and tie those choices to the broader effect they have on the direction and “results” of your life.
  • ​Take responsibility for everything that happens in your life, good or bad. Doing so helps you to shift your perspective from a victim mentality to a more proactive one. When you take responsibility for an outcome, it naturally leads you to think about what you could have done that may have resulted in a more favorable result. Once you’ve done that, you can decide to do something different next time. If your new idea doesn’t work either, that’s ok as long as you take responsibility and think about what you can do differently the next time. By taking this approach, you build several skills at once that will help you in other areas of your life: being proactive, taking responsibility, and problem solving.
  • ​Work on developing your decision-making and problem-solving skills. As those skills improve, your ability to make better choices and come up with solutions that lead to more favorable outcomes will improve. When that happens, your confidence will increase, naturally shifting your perception more toward an internal locus of control.
  • ​Identify other people who have an internal locus of control and model them. Ideally, these should be people you know, but the most important thing is to find someone to model. Watch how they behave in situations that would upset or frustrate you and learn from them. If possible, ask them to walk you through their thought process after the triggering event happened. I have personally found this practice to be invaluable, as it opens your mind to perspectives and ideas you may never have considered.
  • ​If you have a particular situation that happens repeatedly where you overreact or react in a way that you would like to change, create an implementation intention about how you want to react in the future. I’ve discussed the concept of implementation intentions in another post, and you can check it out here.

There's more to the story

The practices I’ve described above are, generally, proactive habits that involve planning or developing skills that will help you in a future situation. The other side of this coin is to be able to notice when you are thinking or reacting in a particular way, and then respond appropriately. As I said before, while doing so may be simple, it is definitely not easy.

Having the awareness to notice what you are thinking and how you are reacting to the events in your life is one of the benefits of mindfulness. Developing your mindfulness will help you to recognize situations where you are placing blame or responsibility for your circumstances on other people or things. Armed with that awareness, you can respond in a way that is in alignment with your values and the kind of person you want to become, which will help you shift toward a more internal locus of control.

A Note About Mindfulness

I would like to point out that I use the words react and respond differently. That is intentional. A reaction is your instinctive, automatic behavior triggered by some initiating event. It happens with virtually no conscious thought. That event could be anything from a comment by another person, to a car in traffic, to unexpected weather, or even a thought inside your own head. A response, on the other hand, is a conscious decision to act or think in a certain way. A response and reaction are both triggered by the same initiating event, but a response takes the circumstances, context, your values and your goals into consideration to determine what action is most appropriate for the situation.

I know what you’re thinking. “Are you telling me that I have to stop and think about everything I do before I do it? That's not practical and, more importantly, I don’t want to turn into some robot who never shows emotions.”

You are not a robot

Let me assure you, that is not what I’m saying. First of all, you’re right, it’s not practical to stop and consciously think about everything you do before you do it, nor is it necessary. Remember, we’re only talking about trying to address situations where you react in a way that you would like to change. If you can learn to do that even once or twice a week at first, you will start building your mindfulness “muscle”. Once you’ve taken that first step, you can move on to more challenging things.

As for showing emotion, being mindful does not mean you don't show emotion. In fact, once you start developing mindfulness, people in your lives may start noticing the exact opposite. When you’re mindful, you are, by definition, more present in your life, rather than distracted by gadgets or thinking about what you’re going to do tomorrow while you’re having a conversation with your friend. And when you’re more present, you can’t help but be more in tune with and emotionally connected to the people around you. When that happens, you’ll be more empathetic and show more emotion about the things they share with you.

The second reason you won’t be an emotionless robot is because choosing to respond does not mean that you have to choose to be calm and reasoned all the time. Sometimes, after considering the circumstances, you’ll decide the the appropriate response for the situation is to get really mad, and that’ perfectly ok.

Another reason is that you’re not perfect, and that’s ok. Neither am I, nor is anyone else on the planet. There are going to be times where you don’t notice that you’re reacting until it’s too late (if at all). Mindfulness is a journey that you never finish. You will always have some days where you do better than others. The goal is simply to show gradual improvement over time. If you do, you will see benefits in your relationships, health, stress level and productivity. I’m not going to go into the topic of mindfulness any further here, as I’ve covered it in other posts. You can check them out here if you want to learn more.

Can This Simple Skill Make You Less Impulsive?

The Remarkably Power Way to Tame An Elephant

How to Exploit The Power of The Frequency Illusion

How to Get Motivated With Implementation Intentions

Mindful ways to develop an internal locus of control

Listed below are the habits you should start building into your daily life. By targeting your mindfulness to develop these habits, you will gradually start to develop a more internal locus of control.

  • First and foremost, understand that everything you do is a choice, including the things you believe. Even avoiding or failing to make a choice is a choice in itself; a choice to do nothing and let others dictate the outcome for you.
  • When you notice yourself getting upset or reacting to something, don’t focus on what you can’t control (like the weather or the economy or the other person). Instead, get in the habit of asking yourself a few questions.
  • What feeling, specifically, am I reacting to?
  • Is my reaction going to change anything or make the situation any better for me?
  • Is my reaction going to prevent the situation from happening again?
  • Could a different response produce a better outcome?
  • ​Once you’ve answered these questions, redirect your thoughts to what aspects of the situation you can control, and try to identify things you can do that will actually help improve the situation, either now or in the future.
  • ​When you find yourself getting triggered by another person, remember that they cannot make you think or feel anything. Only you get to decide that for yourself. If you do react to them, it only happens because you gave them the power to control you.
  • ​Learn to notice how you talk to yourself in general, but particularly in situations where you are uncomfortable or unhappy. What kinds of things do you say to yourself? Are you using the language of someone with an internal locus of control or external? Rather than react, think of the situation in terms of the kind of person you aspire to be, and then consciously decide how to respond to yourself.
  • ​Finally, and very importantly, you should make note of (and take pride in) situations where you are able to influence an outcome, whether it was something you planned or not. When you advance toward your goal in spite of obstacles or people who seem intent on derailing you, it reinforces your belief that you truly are in control of what happens in your life. It also builds confidence.

Benefits of having an internal locus of control

In addition to the many benefits I’ve discussed in my previous posts in this series, people with an internal locus of control also tend to be more goal oriented, striving to accomplish challenging things. They are generally more engaged in their work, regardless of their profession, since they view their efforts as making a difference. And since they believe their efforts matter, they spend time doing things that will develop their knowledge and skills, so that their efforts can have an even greater impact. Research has also shown that, everything else being equal, people with an internal locus of control perform better in school, achieve more in their careers, and are more satisfied with their chosen professions.

But there's a catch

I want to be careful not to create the misconception that having an internal locus is a completely free lunch (i.e. there’s no downside) because that’s simply not true. The benefits, in my opinion, far outweigh the costs. However, there are drawbacks that must be recognized, which I will discuss here briefly. Not everyone with an internal locus of control displays all or even some of these personality traits. But if you do, the further you are toward the internal end of the spectrum, the more pronounced the characteristic is likely to be.

Since people with an internal locus of control are goal oriented, they tend to prioritize taking action to achieve their goals. That focus on your goals means you may not always fully consider how your actions affect other people, which can lead to frustration, disengagement or even resentment. In today’s hyper-connected world, collaboration has become not only much easier but virtually essential. And that means, unless you’re a hermit, you rely on other people to get stuff done. This unfortunate characteristic of ‘internals' can have a negative effect on your relationships and, ultimately, your success if you don’t learn how to manage it.

Another potential drawback of having a strong internal locus of control is that, since you believe you are able to make things happen, you want to exert control in as many areas of your life as possible. As a result, people may consider you a “control freak”. While you may have very good intentions, often genuinely trying to “help” other people, that help may not always be appreciated or wanted.

If you have a strong internal locus of control and exhibit these behaviors, it’s in your best interest to make sure you pay attention to the feelings of people around you. Otherwise you run the risk of damaging relationships and losing the support of people whom you depend on to accomplish your goals.

In the end, we all want to feel like we matter, both to the people we care about and to the world in general. When you have an internal locus of control, it helps you to realize that your actions do matter; that you’re not just drifting through time at the mercy of fate, and that you get to decide the mark you will leave on the world.

I hope you found this series on locus of control informative and helpful. I’d love to hear what you think of this post or the series in general. Let me know by leaving a comment below.

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