Control What You Can (leave the rest): Growing Resilience by Cultivating Locus of Control
#3 of 7 research-backed ways to grow your resilience on the daily.
What is resilience, really?
Dealing with change, setbacks, loss, and grief is an inevitable and normal part of life.
Resilience is the psychological strength that allows a person to return to baseline faster after adverse experiences happen.
Resilient people are emotionally agile — they don’t ignore “bad” things or negative feelings, nor do they wallow in negative emotions. They have a “fitting” emotional response — neither overblown, nor callous, nor insensitive.
Fortunately, you are not “resilient” or “not resilient”: you can always grow your resilience because resilience is a set of skills that can be grown through practice, not a static trait of individuals.
But what happens when “normal” for everyone changes dramatically and seemingly overnight? In times of extreme collective uncertainty and adversity, like that posed by our new COVID-19 reality, it’s particularly important we all practice resilience daily so we can maintain our health, compassion, grace, and equanimity in the face of change and fear.
This is the third piece in a series of ten research-backed ways to grow your resilience.
What is Locus of Control and how does it relate to resilience?
One reason events like COVID-19 are so scary, beyond even the existential fear of a pandemic, is that they interrupt our sense of being in control of what happens in our life.
This might be particularly true for people who have cultivated a high internal locus of control — people who believe their own actions and behaviors influence their life circumstances and experiences. Someone who believes their life is the result of things outside of their control (like luck or fate) has an “external locus of control”.
In general, a high locus of control is associated with positive outcomes: people who have a high internal locus of control are more likely to learn from their actions and engage in behaviors that lead to the results they hope to achieve. For instance, they’re more likely to take medications as prescribed, have and persist in high educational aspirations, and feel less depressed, and more confident.
In many ways, this is the opposite of “learned helplessness,” a state where people who face a negative, uncontrollable situation are induced to believe that negative situations will prevail regardless of their efforts.
If you have a strong internal locus of control, you understand that setbacks and their cause are temporary, changeable, and local — you can always search for new ways to approach a difficult situation.
But what if we DO have to endure a difficult situation for a long period of time and it IS out of our control? (ahem, #globalpandemic). A huge interruption like the pandemic concretely shows us that events beyond our control can have a negative impact on our lives, perhaps especially if we generally feel we control our circumstances.
We always have control over how we respond to our circumstances.
Cultivating a high internal locus of control makes us more resilient, even in the most challenging times, because we’re more likely to still focus on what we can control, even if many things are outside of our control.
As the Irish prayer goes, “grant me the serenity: To accept the things I cannot change; Courage to change the things I can; And wisdom to know the difference.”
Ultimately, an internal locus of control is about responsibility. No one has complete control over their life, which something like a global pandemic shows very well, but if you understand that you do have control over your response — your effort, attitude and pro-activity — then you realize you are responsible for your what you make of your circumstances, given the reality you cannot control. You believe and practice the idea that:
“I can change the situation through my behavior; it’s not fixed.” This is always true, even in the most challenging of times.
The great thing is that you are not born with, or stuck with, an internal or external locus of control — you can grow your sense of control over time. It’s a skill, not a trait.
Daily Practices to Cultivate Locus of Control
1. Ask: “What is most important to me now? How can I learn and grow from this?”
No matter the situation, and especially when things go awry (which they do on the daily), you can always ask yourself the simple questions — “What is most important to me?” and “How can I learn and grow from this?”. These questions are valuable whether the situation is within your control or not. Then, ask yourself, “What will I do differently next time or, what will I do differently tomorrow?” to make it better. The goal is not perfection or achievement, just rooting in what’s really important, then growing and learning every day.
2. Set Goals.
Setting and achieving goals daily is one of the best ways to grow your internal locus of control (combine this with the “hunt the good stuff” exercise daily for maximum effects). Every week I sit down Monday morning and write down my biggest goals, and all the things that have to get done. Then, I break them into daily, more manageable tasks. Checking things off my list is a unequivocal joy every day.
There are many different goal setting frameworks, a simple and easy-to-execute one is WOOP. It asks you to reflect in four steps:
- What’s your Wish?
- What’s the best Outcome?
- What’s your main inner Obstacle?
- Make a Plan.
3. Do the next best thing.
Sometimes the world, and/or our to-do list, is simply overwhelming. It seems impossible to do everything, yet everything has to get done. It’s easy — and normal — to get paralyzed by how to best approach it. Yet the best strategy? Do the next best thing. If it can’t be the “best” thing, objectively, do a thing. Anything. Once in motion, the rest will feel more addressable. In social psychology this is sometimes called “the progress principle” — small wins now build momentum; action begets action. You can’t do everything at once. Do one thing, now. As Glennon Doyle, #LoveWarrior says, doing the next right thing, one thing at a time, will take you all the way home (or wherever your journey is headed).
Re: locus of control, Wikipedia’s page has quite a good overview; for more academic, check out Foundations of Locus of Control by Michael Nowicki and Marshall Duke.
Re: goal setting, Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation, by Gabriele Oettingen (the creator of WOOP); and The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg.
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