The price of greatness is responsibility.
-Winston Churchill

At around the third grade, when we’re approximately the age of 8 or 9, we develop our true first understanding of ‘responsibility’.

We begin to notice that there’s a direct link between our experiences and our actions. For example, we start to ‘get’ that our performance at school shows up in our grades, teachers treat us based upon our behavior, and our stomach ache is directly proportionate to the amount of candy we’ve consumed.

That makes sense – it seems around that time there’s a shift in how our parents treat us as well as teachers. We can’t get away with whining as much, we receive a short list of chores we must carry out, and no one cares if we ‘over did it’ at Halloween. We’re not babies anymore, we’re little people who “should start acting like it.”

And while all of us share approximately the same time period of development, that in no way means we share the same amount of development. Through a fairly exhaustive study of children and responsibility done (primarily) in the 70’s, we’ve come to understand that personal responsibility isn’t a toggle switch. Like almost everything in nature (especially as it pertains to the human mind), there’s a sliding scale of how much personal responsibility we’re willing to feel. It’s actually called the Responsibility Scale, and it measures our Locus of Control.

What is Locus of Control?

It’s a theory which refers to how much we believe we control the events in our lives. (“Locus” just means “place” or “location.”) We can either have an “internal” locus of control (which means we believe we control our lives), or we can have an “external” locus of control (which means we believe the environment, other people or an invisible force – such as a higher power or ‘the universe’ – control our decisions and lives).

Now, obviously any polarization on this scale is an unreality. If we believe we are 100% in control of our lives, our decisions and the things we experience we’re actually being highly delusional. The only way this could be true is if we were “an island,” and have no association with anything that could influence us. If you’ve ever tripped on a rock, then you know that sometimes the environment will have an impact on you. (Yeah, you could say the person was being absent minded, but if the rock wasn’t there they wouldn’t have tripped on it regardless of their attention to detail.) On the flip side, if you believe you are 100% at the mercy of external forces you are equally in a delusional place.

While both of these extremes have their own set of pitfalls, we’re going to focus on the dangers inherit to an imbalanced external locus of control, and (as promised) especially as it pertains to “outsourcing” your identity.

First of all, there are clear connections between how you were raised and which locus of control you favor. If you were raised by a family that faces hard times but doesn’t pull themselves out of it, they will most likely teach you that you are at the mercy of your environment. A lot of people come from single parent households, and these also have a tendency to teach an external locus, usually due to anger they feel for the absent spouse/parent.

When there’s lots of blame in a house, there’s lots of foisting responsibility onto others. If you grew up in a blame-rich environment, you’re far more likely to adopt this habit and see the world through this lens.

So, what’s so bad about having an external locus of control?

The worst result of this mentality is to live a life that is uncomfortable, unhealthy or downright painful and sincerely believe you have no power to change it. Your belief becomes reality, and you continue your life path all the way to its conclusion: running out the clock having waited on outside forces to make it better.

Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.
-Henry David Thoreau

When we believe we have no impact on our environment, it’s easy to believe there’s no reason to authentically and thoughtfully choose your beliefs, values and identity. It’s not as if you’ll be using your identity to make anything happen. Self-expression is really a waste of time in a world apathetic to your existence. And, in fact, since you’re on the receiving end of fate, doesn’t it make far more sense to adopt a set of criteria that has been designed by someone else, someone that actually has impact?

Okay, so I’m outsourcing my identity, and I have an external locus of control. What on earth do I do about it?

There’s no doubt about it – it’s not easy to realign your locus of control. There’s some pretty deep, powerful wiring in your mind that has decided this is the best way of dealing with life. Remember – everything you believe makes sense to you, including this. Fortunately, you can use your mind to change your mind… and it’s a matter of tackling the wiring, itself.

In the next part, we’ll talk about 5 strategies for realigning your locus of control.

In the meantime, I’d love to know if you are or have ever faced this challenge. What does it look like for you?


Read the follow up post “Who’s in Control of Your Life? Part II


  • antonia
    • antonia
    • April 20, 2012 at 12:28 am

    And THAT’S what I’m talking about.



    p.s. Thanks for sharing. :D

  • John-Arthur Daley
    • John-Arthur Daley
    • April 19, 2012 at 7:30 am

    Hi Antonia. Many years ago I was a director of a travel compnay owned by a large Shipping company.
    On the surface it was a great job but to survive meant having to accept complete control by people I had no respect for.
    One day after a liquid lunch I rose in the boardroom and said “The last original idea this company had was to change from sail into steam and many of you are not too sure that you have made the right decision.I quit”
    They thought I had gone mad as did my then wife.
    However two weeks later I was in South America working for myself and a few years later I married again. That was about forty years, three children and a happy marriage ago and I have never regretted it or looked back since.
    I agree with you totally.
    Many thanks for your insights.
    John Arthur Daley

  • antonia
    • antonia
    • April 16, 2012 at 6:01 pm

    That’s a beautiful moment in life, right there. :)

  • antonia
    • antonia
    • April 16, 2012 at 6:00 pm

    I’ve heard from pretty much every mentor I’ve ever had “growth happens outside of our comfort zone.” Closing your mind to anything outside of your comfort zone is the surest way to stagnate.

    A little self-pity is understandable, but it’s not especially helpful. Taking the perspective that you have – that you’re in full control of your own existence – is a really helpful perspective to have in a society that teaches us to blame when we don’t get what we want.

    RE: controlling others… My observation is that those who feel most out of control use controlling others as a way to regain it. The people I’ve always admired the most, those that own themselves and feel like they’re unruffleable, very rarely attempt to control anyone else. Instead, they often get others to do what they want through leadership, a much more palatable, win/win solution.

  • antonia
    • antonia
    • April 16, 2012 at 5:55 pm

    That’s awesome! Feedback from the world means a lot to us, especially if we have a tendency to be externally focused.

    As an Extravert, I’m definitely externally focused and feedback means a LOT to me. I’ll get MORE depressed from silence than from negative or critical feedback.

    That said, my observation is that we usually don’t get our needs met (including the need of feedback) unless we’re persistent. I think sometimes we feel if we ask for feedback it will somehow diminish its value. (“If they really meant it they would have volunteered it and not waited to be asked” or “They only said what they thought I wanted to hear.”)

    If we have a trusted source, request full honesty and are open to what the person has to say to us, then asking for feedback is both appropriate and beneficial. If the message is diminished in those circumstances, then it is ourselves that diminished it.

    Alternatively, we can be our OWN feedback mechanism. As self-conscious as we can be looking into the mirror and talking to ourselves, I HIGHLY recommend trying it. If you need feedback from the world that you are valuable and that there is someone out there proud of you, be that person for yourself. Look yourself in the eye and say, “I’m proud of you. I know you have value and meaning, and I’m dedicated to your excellence.”

    Do whatever it takes to 1) mean it, and 2) believe it.

    Good luck. :)

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