Who controls your happiness? Who is responsible for your income? Your attitude?
Each of us has a belief about how much control we have over the things we encounter in life. We each view life either as something we can control or something that controls us.
The extent to which a person feels they are in control of events that can affect their life, wellbeing, or success is referred to as “locus of control” (LOC). Locus of control defines who you view as responsible for your successes and failures: yourself or other people.
External Locus of Control
When you feel that someone or something else is in control of your existence and the things that happen to you, you have an external locus of control.
People with an external locus of control are more likely to feel helpless and powerless—and to indulge in a victim mentality or behavior such as blaming, criticizing, complaining, and giving up or “checking-out”. Because they are externally oriented when they fail to reach a goal, they blame it on things to do with other people or situations, never their own actions.
For example, an externally oriented person may blame not getting a promotion on internal politics when in fact they failed to make a compelling case for the value they bring to the table. By the same token, when they do ascend the leadership ladder, they take little or no ownership over this positive outcome, instead attributing the good results to luck.
When your locus of control is external, you also come to rely on outside validation. Because you don’t believe in yourself, you end up seeking the approval of others, possibly by replying to messages as quickly as possible to impress your boss or by posting photos to Instagram and “keeping score” of all the double-taps you get.
In doing so, you give other people and external situations control over your emotional state and self-worth – and by extension, over you. You have essentially placed your identity and value in the hands of others and have prioritized the opinions and priorities of others over your own.
Internal Locus of Control
Alternatively, if you feel you are in control of things that happen to you, you have an internal locus of control. These people have an attitude of personal responsibility and believe that their choices and behavior influence the outcomes they experience in all facets of work and life. They feel their actions have a direct bearing on their results and they accept responsibility, as well as credit, for how things turn out.
For example, when trying to get a promotion a person with an internal locus of control will admit to himself or herself that they need to increase their influence, visibility, and prepare a list of accomplishments. They will say, “If I get this promotion, it’s because of my efforts.”
People with an internal locus of control hold themselves accountable for making changes in their life. Research suggests that people who operate with an internal locus of control are more successful in both personal and professional settings—enjoying better health, relationships, and careers. They make better leaders and handle change more effectively than those with an external locus of control.
By internalizing your locus of control – by accepting that you have the ultimate control in your life – you accept ownership of your actions. This means, among other things, that you are self-validating. You have no need for excuses (no more “But, I have to send this text or else she’ll be mad”). You’re not afraid to be open and honest about what you want or what your priorities are and you don’t worry so much about what other people think.
The combination of competence and confidence that comes from believing you are in control of yourself and the situation can make your power to change enormous.
Taking Back Control
In order to shift your locus of control, you first need to understand where you sit on the spectrum of internal versus external control.
Psychologist Julian Rotter developed the Locus of Control questionnaire in 1966. A low score indicates a strong external locus of control while a high score indicates a strong internal locus of control.
Locus of Control questionnaire
Indicate for each statement below whether it is T (true) or F (false) for you. There are no right or wrong answers. Score your results using the rubric provided.
1. I usually get what I want in life.
2. I need to be kept informed about news events.
3. I never know where I stand with other people.
4. I do not really believe in luck or chance.
5. I think that I could easily win a lottery.
6. If I do not succeed on a task, I tend to give up.
7. I usually convince others to do things my way.
8. People make a difference in controlling crime.
9. The success I have is largely a matter of chance.
10. Marriage is largely a gamble for most people.
11. People must be the master of their own fate.
12. It is not important for me to vote.
13. My life seems like a series of random events.
14. I never try anything that I am not sure of.
15. I earn the respect and honors I receive.
16. A person can get rich by taking risks.
17. Leaders are successful when they work hard.
18. Persistence and hard work usually lead to success.
19. It is difficult to know who my real friends are.
20. Other people usually control my life.
Once you have completed the questions, tally your score using the table below. For example, if you marked statement #1 true, add 5 points, and if you marked it false add none.
Interpreting Your Score
0 – 15 Very strong external locus of control
20 – 35 External locus of control
40 – 60 Both external and internal locus of control
65 – 80 Internal locus of control
85 – 100 Very strong internal locus of control
External Scorers: You have a fairly strong belief that events are beyond your control. In other words, you do not feel that there is much of a connection between your behavior and your outcomes. You are relatively less likely than others to take credit for your successes or to take the blame for your failures. Instead, you tend to believe that success and failure are primarily a matter of luck, chance, or other people and things.
Intermediate Scorers: A score in this range means that you have inconsistent views about the degree to which you control your own fate. You probably believe that you do control your own fate in some areas of your life, while believing that you have little control in other areas.
Internal Scorers: You have a firm belief in your ability to influence your outcomes. Your relatively internal score means that you generally do not attribute your successes and failures to good and bad luck or chance factors. Instead, you feel that you can influence the course of what happens to you.