Who’s in Control

I’ve heard a lot about “control,” most of it negative. Like, “He’s a control freak,” or “She just has to control everybody in her life.” And then there is the other side, which seems to affirm that you can’t control anything and shouldn’t try like, “What’s going to happen is just going to happen” or “Just let go and everything will work out.” I don’t think there is a good concept of what control is, what it isn’t, how it can be good, and how it can be bad. There are also a number of psychological diagnoses, like OCD, that suggest that there is some basic pathological tendencies in control. My interest in this treatise is largely about how people feel in control or controlled. Let me share my thoughts.

Locus of control

One of the very valuable tests we use in our office is something created by psychologist Julian Rotter in 1954 called the “Internal-External Scale”, usually referred to as the IE test. There are only 29 questions on this test which attempts to determine whether a person has an “internal locus of control” or an “external locus of control.” Rotter defined people with an internal locus of control as having control of their lives, compared to people with an external locus of control as having little or no control over their lives. Rotter found that people with an internal locus of control fared better in life, a finding that proved true in research. Many research studies, including my wife’s doctoral dissertation, included the IE to study people’s view of control. An important finding of the IE research showed that people with an external locus of control were more depressed and felt helpless in life. Helplessness, together with hopeless, and a number of other symptoms are symptoms of depression.

I have generally found that people with an internal locus of control do succeed in life, feel better about themselves and other people, and find ways to cope with life’s difficulties. The feel motivated to do something about their lives, both facing difficult challenges, and enhancing their strengths and utilizing passions. Another symptom of depressions is “anhedonia,” or the lack of motivation and interest. You can see how the arrow could go both ways if you have an external locus of control: (1) you feel helpless to do anything to make a life for yourself, and (2) not doing anything in life can cause you to feel helpless. I have seen both, and it tends to be a downward spiral: feeling helpless; acting helpless. But there is much more about this locus of control business.

Beliefs associated with an external locus of control

Bad luck, for one. People who feel controlled by the world often use this phrase when they fail at something. They even use it to prevent them trying to do something because they “are not lucky like some people.”

Other people. More often it is not bad luck, it is other people who seem to control one’s life. In other words people with an external locus of control feel “controlled” by the people in their lives. This felt external control can be with spouses, parents, children, friends, employers, employees, or government officials. So they feel, “They won’t let me…,” sometimes not even knowing who the “they” are.

Blaming. An adjunct to the “they” problem that these folks have is tendency to blame others in some way like, “the dog ate the homework,” “the teacher didn’t tell me how she wanted me to do the homework,” or simply, “It wasn’t my fault” statements we sometimes hear from children. Adults will blame their spouses, bosses, friends, children, or parents because these people “controlled” them in some way.

Accidents. A patient I saw for maybe seven years (quite unsuccessfully, I must add), told me several times that she (yes, one of the very few women I have seen as a patient in the last 30 years or so) felt that “if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong with me.” This same woman, by the way smoked three packs of cigarettes a day, slept 14 hours a day, watched TV the rest of the day, and now having gained back 100 pounds of the 300 she had lost in bariatric surgery some years beforehand. As I said, the arrow goes both ways: feeling helpless and acting helpless. Freud wrote about what he called parapraxes, which included accident proneness, which he theorized was caused by unconscious factors.

Body ailments. This is a big one. People with a myriad of physical and medical problems almost always have an external locus of control. They speak of their bodies as if these bodies were somehow external to themselves. I hear “my heart this…,” “my arms that…,” my legs that…,” “my eyes this…” and many other physical symptoms. This kind of external locus of control is the most insidious because while the so-called problem is actually within one’s body, the person feels that his or her body is somehow controlled by external factors beyond their control.

Beliefs associated with an internal locus of control

Self.  This is the key ingredient with these people. They have a sense of what we psychologists call “self”. This is understandably a vague term without an exact definition but one that is very central to the heart of depth psychology. In its simplest form “self” is the feeling that I exist. Believe it or not, many people operate as if they don’t exist. They just go through life doing what is expected of them but not knowing why, and perhaps not even caring why. This sense of self, that I exist, breeds some other ingredients that lend to an internal locus of control.

Self-confidence. This is not to be confused with arrogance, which is the feeling that I am better than other people. Symptoms of self-confidence include the ability to make mistakes, feel sad for a moment or two and recover from this mistake. The root of the word confidence, by the way could be translated (from the Latin) as “with truth.” So self-confident people tend to be truthful.

Self-reliant. Simply put, they rely primarily on themselves. They share their thoughts, feelings, and doings with others but always at a bit of a distance because they tend to think that they can survive without anyone. This is tantamount to independence.

Disinclination to complain. They tend to take responsibility for their actions, sometimes to a fault or sometimes when it wasn’t actually their fault. But this tendency away from complaining makes them more likable. Do you know of someone who is always talking about what he/she/they/it did to them? You tend to stay away from such people.

A balanced life

No one is in complete control of his or her life. Externally controlled people may have a sense of how we all need each other, but they tend to lose that very important sense of self that is so central in life. We are all dependent on circumstances, other people, and perhaps that random good or bad luck from time to time. The task is to find that internal sense of control that helps you face the challenges and enhance the opportunities.

Further Reading

Brock, D. (2004). Comparisons of personality type, psychopathology, and church denomination in women. Available on Dissertation Abstracts

Johnson, R. (2018). The Other N Word blog and the Feelings blogs

Rotter, J (1954). Monologue on locus of control. Available on the Internet.