You didn’t get the job you really wanted. But you aren’t surprised. The odds were stacked against you anyway. Even if you prepared more, the result would’ve been the same: Someone else would’ve gotten the position.
Or you did get the job. But it has nothing to do with your qualifications, experience or interview skills. You were just at the right place at the right time. You got lucky.
You decide to start dating. Your first date is awful. It’s awkward, and they spend the entire time talking about themselves. Which only makes you feel more and more rejected. But you’re not surprised, because this seems to happen often.
According to Rebecca Turner, MS, a marriage and family therapist intern, these examples illustrate an external locus of control: a belief that what happens in your life is outside of your control. In contrast, individuals with an internal locus of control believe that what happens in their lives is within their control.
For instance, if a person with an internal locus of control gets a job, they believe that it’s, in part, due to their efforts, experience and hard work. If they don’t get the job, they examine their interview and see where they can improve — and use these insights for future interviews.
In the dating example, for starters, a person with an internal locus of control would take actions to increase their chances of meeting potential mates. They might try a dating site. They might seek out people with similar passions, joining a running club or taking a photography class. They might ask loved ones to set them up. If a date goes terribly, they remind themselves that some people simply don’t have chemistry, and sometimes things don’t work out.
Ultimately, an internal locus of control is about responsibility, Turner said. You know you don’t have complete control over your life, but you understand that you do have control over your effort, attitude and ability to be proactive. You realize that you are responsible for what you make of your circumstances, she said.
It’s important to point out that these are general ways of how individuals interpret their world, Turner said. Which also might be “more pronounced in some areas than others, such as family versus work relationships.”
How do we develop an internal or external locus of control?
In short, it’s complicated. That is, according to Turner, it’s “likely a complex interplay of intersectional factors like family, culture, gender, socioeconomic status, experience of poverty or violence.”
For instance, maybe you grew up in a family where your emotional and physical needs weren’t met, even though you tried your best to communicate them. And you learned that what you do doesn’t matter. Maybe you grew up in an anti-Semitic country, and watched your loved ones get passed over for positions solely because of their ethnicity. As kids, we also pick up on how adults in our lives perceive and respond to their own circumstances, Turner said.
Over time, this mentality becomes so ingrained that you believe and act like you have zero control, even when others tell you otherwise or opportunities arise. For instance, as a child, you’re told repeatedly that you are stupid. A supervisor points out your natural talents and offers to help you develop them, but you decline.
The good news is that you can change these beliefs, regardless of how entrenched they are. Below Turner shared three ways you can start cultivating an internal locus of control.
Focus on what you can control.
Identify your goals and divide them into steps. Ask yourself: “What do I want from my life?” Next make two separate lists. Looking at your steps, note what you have control over and what you don’t. Then reflect on your strengths. Create a plan for how you’ll use your strengths to address the steps you have control over.
Turner shared these examples: You’re an extrovert who’s interested in programming. You find an in-person class, which gives you the opportunity to study in a group setting and meet new people. Or you’re an introvert who loves to cook. You prepare a new recipe for a few friends.
“Actively exploring things you are good at or interested in in the context of what helps you be your best self can help us create our own path, not wait to let others create it for us.” (In the above example, someone who’s an extrovert seeks out a large group, while the introvert chooses a small group.)
Turn criticism into growth.
When something doesn’t go as you anticipated, practice self-compassion. Focus on what you can learn, how you can evolve. For instance, instead of saying, “I’m such an idiot” or “If I had been better, this wouldn’t have happened,” name what you’re feeling and learn from the experience, Turner said. You might say, “I’m feeling really disappointed that I wasn’t offered the job. What can I do to make myself a more attractive candidate for my next interview?”
“Life can be painful and disappointing, thrilling and challenging,” Turner said. Having a support system is vital. Others can help us gain perspective. They can encourage and inspire us, particularly when we feel disappointed and stuck. They can hold us accountable. They can cheer us on. And we can do the same for them. If you’re having a hard time finding supportive people, Turner suggested getting creative: Consider everything from book clubs to online communities to churches to counselors.
Having an internal locus of control is incredibly empowering. It is this very thinking that helps us create the lives we want to live — lives that are fulfilling and meaningful to us. At the same time, there are many factors — poverty, violence, sexism, ageism, racism — that have a significant influence on our well-being and sense of control, Turner said. “These are issues not just for the individual, but for our national and global society to acknowledge, take responsibility for, and begin to enact open-hearted and wise-minded change.”