I feel helpless and out of control much of the time nowadays. I am scared of Covid-19 which continues to spread dangerously. I see the whole world is spinning out of control with climate change, refugees, economic hardship, and political unrest to name a few issues rocking us. I bet that many of you are feeling pretty much the same way, at least some of the time.
Image left to right by © Luis Sandoval M., © Michele, © Alexander from AdobeStock
How much control we feel over our lives varies considerably among people. More than fifty years ago, an American psychologist named Julian Rotter developed a concept that he called locus of control. He found that people fall into one of two groups. The external locus of control people believe their life is controlled by forces outside of themselves, like fate, God, or powerful others. The internal locus of control group believe their lives are shaped by how they think and how they behave, factors inside themselves.
External locus of control group say things like:
“I will die when my number is up—so why bother?”
“There is nothing much I can do about my situation.”
“You can’t fight City Hall.”
Internal locus of control people say:
“I can steer my life in the direction I choose.”
“What happens to me is up to me.”
“What I do makes a difference.”
A longitudinal study in Great Britain found that those children who had been labeled as having an internal locus of control at age ten were different from those in the external locus of control group years later. Internals had better jobs, were less likely to be overweight, experienced less stress, and were more confident.
What does the locus of control have to say to us today? A lot, I think. The concept sheds light on very basic levers of our most significant decision-making. Unlike Rotter, I do not believe we are in one group or the other and stay there for life. Rather, we zig and zag between the groups over the years and even over a single day. Sometimes we lament “there is nothing much I can do in these circumstances” and at other times we say, “It is up to me. I can influence my life course.”
When my clients tell me, “There is nothing much I can to change my situation,” I ask them how they feel when they say that. And, almost always, the answer is “not so good.” My clients feel better and have better outcomes when they can say, “It is up to me,” knowing full well that our control is never 100%. Right now, in this time of Covid-19, realistically, our ability to control our lives is more limited than in normal times. But we all can identify and act on those parts of our life that we can control.
We can take charge of our lives in 5 key areas—even in the midst of a pandemic.
1. Diet. We can choose a healthy diet.
2. Exercise. We can exercise regularly even if it only is walking around a small apartment.
3. Mindfulness. We can learn to meditate or do yoga regularly knowing that this will impact our level of stress.
4. Relationships. We can reach out to friends and family knowing that we are wired for social contact and it is important for our wellbeing to connect to others.
5. Meaningful Projects. We can work on one or more projects that have real meaning to us. We all seek a sense of purpose. For example, we can write, paint, garden, volunteer, care for a child.
Image left to right by
© Monkey Business, © mavoimages, © Tom Wang from AdobeStock
We all feel better when we tend to these five human needs regularly. Those lifestyle choices are good for our health. And our mental health. They will lessen anxiety and depression, boost our immune systems, and will help with insomnia. Routines are lifesavers in our present circumstances. I, for example, almost always exercise and meditate each morning. I go to a yoga class on Zoom once a week. I write when I get these done. I admit I reach out to my friends, kids, and grandkids in a more spur-of-the-moment, haphazard way.
A quick fix when you are feeling down.
Pick up your phone to call someone who is sick or lonely. Doing something for someone else is a powerful mood changer.
Many of us need to learn how to check our internal weather, and to learn how to listen to the ongoing stream of interior self-talk. And remember, we can choose to take control of our lives when we feel out of control and helpless.
Simply put, we become the story we tell ourselves.
Eleanor Roosevelt said it this way. “In the long run we shape our lives and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die.”