How Your Locus of Control Affects Your Psychological Well-Being

Do you know how the way in which you attribute the things that happen to you in your life affects you? In other words, the real implications of an external or internal locus of control. In this article, we'll tell you.
How Your Locus of Control Affects Your Psychological Well-Being

Last update: 12 November, 2022

Are you in charge of your life or do you believe it’s all down to chance? How you answer this question is linked to your locus of control. It’s a concept that refers to the factors or causes you use to explain what happens to you on a daily basis.

If your locus is external, you have a tendency to attribute the ‘blame’ (or responsibility ) for what happens to you to others or outside circumstances. On the other hand, if it’s internal, it means that you tend to believe that what happens to you depends on you and, therefore, it’s in your hands to change it. However, what consequences does it have on your psychological well-being? In fact, neither extreme position is good.

The locus of control

What reasons do you give for the things that happen to you in your daily life? Who or what do you believe is in control of your life? Is it you, other people, or outside circumstances? This is what the locus of control involves. It’s a mechanism that refers to what you believe controls your life.

If, as a rule, you attribute what happens to you as your responsibility, your locus of control is internal. On the other hand, if you attribute it to luck, the environment, other people, and external circumstances, it’s external. That said, in reality, no one has a 100 percent internal or external locus of control. In effect, we tend to vary it depending on the situation. But we can say that each individual veers more toward one position than the other.

The concept of the locus of control was defined in 1954 by the psychologist, Julian B. Rotter. It’s a  mechanism that’s integrated into the personality. According to a study conducted in 2020 by researchers at the Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand), it’s correlated with certain behavioral patterns. The study claims, for instance, that an external locus of control is associated with greater criminal tendencies.

man thinking
An external locus of control makes us passive agents in our lives.

Understanding the locus of control

Here’s an example to better explain the locus of control. Faced with a problem at work (“My students didn’t pay attention to me in class today”), an individual with an internal locus of control would’ve claimed that it was their own fault. Maybe they felt that they didn’t explain their lesson clearly enough or didn’t adequately prepare for it. Therefore, they ended up attributing the cause of the situation to themselves (something internal).

On the other hand, an individual with an external locus of control might say that their students weren’t particularly attentive that day or that it was nearly the end of term and they were tired. Thus, they attributed the cause of the situation to external and circumstantial factors.

To find out what type of locus of control you have, you must think about the way you tend to behave in various situations and areas (personal life, academic, work), not at specific moments.

How it affects your psychological well-being

Your locus of control, whether it’s internal or external, impacts your psychological well-being, the decisions you make, how you feel, and even your thoughts. An internal locus of control makes you more aware of your possibilities for improvement. More importantly, it helps you develop and execute plans to achieve these improvements.

On the contrary, a strong external locus of control often makes you a passive agent or a spectator of what’s happening to you. Your feelings of hope have more to do with faith than with a proactive attitude.

Generalizing, we can say that, given what you can control, an internal locus of control leads you to proactivity, while the external type veers toward passivity. However, this won’t always be the case, because there’ll be situations in which you must adopt an external locus in order not to suffer. For instance, situations that aren’t dependent on you, and in which you must work on acceptance.

“There are two primary choices in life: to accept conditions as they exist, or accept the responsibility for changing them.”

-Denis Waitley-

Learned helplessness

The issue of passivity and external locus of control can be linked to the concept of learned helplessness. Indeed, in certain situations, having an external locus of control can result in you exhibiting this kind of behavior. They’re the kinds that lead you to passivity. For instance, thinking: “There’s nothing more I can do. It’s all down to the situation. I’m giving up”.

Excess of responsibility and demand

On the other hand, if you’re extremely self-demanding and tend to think that everything depends on you, and it’s all in your hands, you run the risk of taking too much responsibility. This can make you suffer and feel overwhelmed because, obviously, you can’t handle everything, at least, not at the same time. Nor does everything depend on you.

There’s no need to be this way and it certainly won’t make you happy. You don’t need to be in control of everything, even though you might think you do (especially if you have a rigid internal locus). Another consequence of having a rigid internal locus is that you attribute to yourself everything that happens to you (and even what happens to others). This can sometimes intensify your feelings of guilt. You feel guilty because you can’t change something that you think is up to you (when, in fact, it’s not).

Balance and flexibility

In reality, neither kind is better than the other. In fact, whether you have an internal or external locus of control, you may or may not suffer and may or may not be happy. However, if you’re rigid in either role, you’re likely to suffer greatly from:

Therefore, the key is to try to find balance and flexibility. These two elements will bring you closer to a more realistic view of things and allow you to be compassionate with yourself. It’s all about trying to adapt your locus of control to each individual situation and to try and be realistic about what’s happening to you.

“Stay committed to your decisions, but stay flexible in your approach.”

-Anthony Robbins-

Woman thinking
An internal locus of control leads to proactivity.

An exercise for reaching a balance

Here’s a little trick to start working on a proper locus of control. By this, we mean the flexible kind that leads you to be critical and realistic about situations. Write down two columns on a sheet of paper. In the first column, write down the things that depend on you and that you can change. In the second, write those that you can’t change.

With the information in the first column, you can begin to define the behaviors that you can carry out to change what you don’t like. And with the information in the second column, you can work on accepting what isn’t dependent upon you. Focus on accepting it, even if it bothers or hurts you. Also, validate your emotions. In fact, this simple exercise will bring you a little closer to knowing yourself and discovering your own well-being.

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  • Tyler, N., Heffernan, R. & Fortune, C. (2020). Reorienting Locus of Control in Individuals Who Have Offended Through Strengths-Based Interventions: Personal Agency and the Good Lives Model, Front. Psychol. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.553240

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