Cultivating a locus of control has benefits to our mental health, but it can be difficult to do, especially in today’s climate where people are dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, racial tensions, and an economic decline. But even in times like this with so much out of control, research suggests the ability to find some sense of control better equips people to accept situations that cannot be changed.
Meagan Turner, graduate intern in a clinical mental health program, points to recent research showing that an internal locus of control helps individuals develop a positive attitude toward life and an ability to combat negative feelings. Turner says, “People who have a more external locus of control tend to view the future negatively and have more difficulty tolerating uncertainty than do those who believe they have some control over their own lives.”
But moving from an external to an internal locus of control is not automatic. Ginger Houghton, LMSW, CAADC, with Bright Spot Counseling, believes it can be developed when people “remind themselves that they always have choices, even if the choices aren’t ideal. If you’re struggling to identify the options or choices that you have, ask some close friends whether they see choices you may not. Be careful not to answer them back with, ‘Yes, that’s a choice but…..’ Take the time to jot down the ideas and let them percolate in your mind versus shutting them out immediately.” Author Girish Shukla adds, “Others help us with a different perspective. They can inspire and encourage us.”
Blogger Sabrina Wang shares a personal experience of how an internal locus of control helped her. Not only is she a survivor of two bouts of leukemia in her late teens and early 20's, she now lives with a rare lung disease called Bronchiolitis Obliterans as a result of earlier treatments.
“I didn't feel like I had control over my life when I was first diagnosed at age 19 and because of it, I had a hard time coping with my illness,” said Wang. “I ruminated incessantly, complained a lot, and stayed in bed most of the time waiting for others to take care of me. It had a negative impact on my physical and mental wellbeing. I felt lost, extremely anxious, and helpless.”
Increasing her locus of control changed that. Wang says, “I now live a full and active life despite ongoing health challenges, and I feel I have the power to determine my path and the quality of life I have. I believe it is due to this strong locus of control that I am able to live a robust life and feel as good as I do today.” Wang also changed the way she spoke to herself. “I started to pay more attention to how I talked to myself and actively re-phrased negative self-talk into something more constructive.”
Evan Lawrence, LMHC, CPT, RYT200, suggests people intentionally begin to notice things that are in their control. He says “If we always think about things that are outside of our control, that can shape the feeling that everything is outside of our control. But when we look for what can be controlled, there is a reinforcing effect, as the more we make a habit of noticing, the more we start to notice.” This was also important to Wang who encourages people to “focus on the little things each day that you can control. For example, get up every morning at the same time and make your bed.”
While Dr. Brian Wind, Ph.D., Chief Clinical Officer at JourneyPure acknowledges that people cannot control things that happen to them, he says “we can control our actions, efforts, and attitudes in order to be more successful and proactive.”
“The first step to increasing your locus of control is realizing that you do have a choice regarding many things in life,” said Wind, “from the people you choose to interact with to the way you respond to difficult situations. For example, if you suffer from a mental illness like depression, you know that you can't force your depression to go away. However, there are steps you can take to reduce your symptoms.”
And finally, consider who is around you. Wang reminds people that beliefs and perceptions are heavily influenced by the people we surround ourselves with. Wang advised, “If you're hanging out with people who are always the victims of circumstance, use the words ‘I can't’ or ‘I don't have another choice’, or are focused on just accepting negative things that they aren't motivated to grow as a person, you might want to consider new friends who have a more positive, confident, and motivated outlook on life.”