Life potentials Internal Locus of Control Psychology

The most successful people, in work and in life, are those who have what psychologists call an internal locus of control - the belief that their actions have a direct effect on their outcomes

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Internal locus

We need to feel in control of our lives

An “internal locus of control” is the belief that our actions have a direct effect on the outcomes in our life. That success (as well as failure) is a result of our own actions and that positive change therefore is up to the individual to make happen.

People with a strong external locus of control believe than mainly external factors account for what is happening in their lives.

Why an internal locus of control is good

  • The belief that your life is a direct result of your actions, drives you to perform and achieve. 
  • People who have an ‘internal locus of control” are happier and more successful in life. They know they are masters of their own destiny. 
  • You avoid falling into the pits of anxiety and depression. 
  • You are more open to new ideas which promotes creativity and personal growth. 
  • You take more risks and experience a deeper sense of self-satisfaction. 
  • When people feel that their lives are out of control, they become meaner and more aggressive. 
  • A higher sense of control increases your pain threshold. You feel less aches and pains. 
  • A study shows that giving the elderly small responsibilities such as tending their own garden, or decorating their own room, lowered mortality rates. 
  • Workers who feel that they have no control over their work are more likely to develop heart disease and high blood pressure. 
  • A sense of control helps patients recover from illness faster.

Being in control is not the same as the feeling of being in control 

Control is a deep seated need that most of us try to deny, because we don’t want to be called, well, “controlling.” But needing to be in control of our lives is not a bad thing. It’s a survival instinct. It benefits us to know that we can influence our destiny by the things that we do.

It is often misunderstood to mean that we need to control people and events in order to feel powerful. Direct control is not what we need, but rather the “sense” of being in control. It’s so important to our peace of mind that when we feel out of control, we invent the feeling – and we’ll be more than happy to do it. It is preferable to the feelings of fear, anxiety, insecurity and uncertainty.

We may not even be aware of the things we do to fulfill this desire. We may insist on needing things to be a certain way. We may reject other people’s opinions and impose ours. We put up defenses which also locks people out, and causes more unhappiness and dissatisfaction. Before we feel a sense of relief that allows us to open ourselves to life and experiences, a sense of control is mandatory.

When you feel that you’re not in the driver’s seat

A feeling of control is not just about holding the wheel and being in the driver’s seat. Sometimes, we also feel in control when we give up the reins to people that we trust. Just like when you’re a passenger in a car. You are not driving, but you know you will get to your destination. So you can relax and enjoy the scenery. Now, if you know that you’re riding with a reckless driver, you will want to grab the wheel because you feel threatened. You have lost your sense of being in control, and feel the need to protect your well-being.

There will be times in our life when we feel like we’re riding a runaway train. Life nowadays moves at a faster pace. It’s one of the reasons for the increasing cases of anxiety and depression. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Nobody wants to feel like a leaf that’s blown around by the wind.

What can we do to start feeling in control again?

First, we need to understand where we get that sense of control that we crave for.

What needs should be satisfied to make us feel in control? 

  • Our need for order. We have standards and certain ways of doing things. 
  • Our need to understand. If we know the reason why something happened, then we can either repeat the action, or avoid it. 
  • Our need for consistency. Being social beings, we need to network with our environment and the people around us. Consistency makes us feel safe and less vulnerable. If you notice, when you’re in a new environment or with a new group of people, you raise your guard in an effort to protect yourself. 
  • Our need to feel competent. Achieving is a sure way of giving you a sense of control. Even in the smallest completed task, you will feel a sense of order, and a feeling of competence. Completing a task also keeps you from worrying about it and makes your life less chaotic. This is the reason why you feel harassed when you’re unable to reach a deadline. You don’t feel in control and it triggers a myriad of negative emotions. 
  • Our need for safety. We know that we can’t be sure of everything, but we need pockets in our life where we feel safe, such as at home or at work. These are our havens. 
  • Our need to survive. To be healthy, have food on the table, a nice bed to sleep in at the end of the day – these are our basic needs.

According to psychologist Abraham Maslow, we have a hierarchy of needs:

Self Actualization - Achieving individual potential 

Esteem - Self respect and respect from others 

Belonging - Love, affection, being part of a group 

Safety - Shelter, protected from danger

Physiological - Health, Food, Sleep

When the lower needs are not satisfied, the higher needs are sacrificed. The lower you go in the needs hierarchy, the more control you need. Good health, food and sleep are necessary for us to survive. They take precedent over all needs. Once these needs are satisfied, then we can pursue higher needs in the hierarchy.

How to take back the feeling of control and be happy

“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change… 

The courage to change what I can… 

And the wisdom to know the difference.”

This quote is called the Serenity Prayer. There’s wisdom in these simple words. Knowing when things are in your control, and when they’re not is important to your happiness and peace of mind. It’s a fact of life that we can’t always understand why some events happen. A death in the family, a disaster, getting laid off, and other life events that shake the ground we walk on. How can we feel safe and in control again?

Exercises to Feel in Control

Here are simple exercises that can help you feel like both of your hands are on the wheel:

  1. Control what you can. Let go of what you can’t. If there are areas that are not in your power to change, don’t force it. Concentrate on those that you can influence. Attempting to control the uncontrollable is a recipe for frustration. 
  2. Do small things with great effort. Achieve a little every day. From cleaning your dirty attic, to closing a new transaction, to putting a smile on your partner’s face. Small accomplishments make you feel competent and able to face whatever challenge comes your way. 
  3. Remind yourself that you always have a choice. Ultimately, what you do with your life is your choice. Though some events in our life are beyond reason and understanding, you can choose how you react to it. Do you want to wallow in misery, or do you want to move on and focus on the good things? It’s all up to you. 
  4. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. What a cliché, right? But when you think about it, it’s true. Think of the challenges you’ve overcome in the past. At the time, it might have overwhelmed you. But you can look at it objectively now and realize that the experience was valuable to you. Because of it, you may have acquired new skills, or gained wisdom and understanding. Life experiences, negative or positive, help us become better people, if we let it. 
  5. Know your own strengths and weaknesses. The ability to look at yourself objectively and without judgement is a requirement for real happiness and success. Self-awareness allows you to focus on activities that highlight your strengths, while at the same time, you can develop your weak points or avoid situations where you will feel most vulnerable.

The need to feel in control of our life should not be taken negatively. It’s essential to our mental, emotional and physical well-being, and all human beings need it. So, whenever you feel like life is spinning out of your control, remember… you are the author of your life. You are never helpless. At any moment, you can decide to change the course of your life. It’s all up to you. 

What event in your life made you lose your sense of control? How did you overcome the challenge?

References

  1. Psychology Today: Why Having Choices Makes Us Feel Powerful
  2. Clinical Depression: Depression and your sense of control
  3. Success.com: 7 ways to take control of your life today
  4. Answers in writing: Why You Need to be in Control
  5. Changingsminds.org: The need for a sense of control

The Happiness Advantage

Read more about “internal locus of control psychology” and how it can help you to success and to a happier life in the book “The Happiness Advantage” by Harvard graduate Shawn Achor.


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