One of the most interesting concepts in psychology is the Locus of Control. It’s a way to describe how people believe the world works, albeit they may not be consciously aware of this. Let’s look at two extremes.
Two Groups: One group of people feel that they are in the front seat of the car, hands firmly clasped on the steering wheel, choosing the end destination. The opposite end of the spectrum is where people feel that they are backseat passengers, being driven by someone else, often to a place that they don’t want to go. The interesting question to ask: ‘Where am I on this?’
Smokey Mountain: Life is not always fair. Not everyone is dealt a great hand of cards to begin with. Health issues or tragic accidents can have an enormous impact on someone’s life – and both are largely outside of your control. Sometimes, it’s less dramatic but equally disempowering.
I visited a slum settlement called Smokey Mountain, the Municipal dump located just outside Manila, the capital city of the Philippines. Thousands of families live on a mountain of rubbish, earning a living from recycling materials. The ‘smoke’ that hangs in an acrid cloud over the area (hence the name Smokey Mountain) comes from burning plastic. The residents remove plastic covering to reclaim copper wire. It’s a toxic environment with a steady diet of health and enormous social problems.
It’s not just a Far East issue. When I grew up in Cabra West, there were people (nicknamed ‘Pick-A-Rooneys’) who made their living in exactly the same way from the dump located between Cabra and Finglas (the dump was later moved to Dunsink, its current location). So, if you are born into a family which lives in a corrugated tin shack on Smokey Mountain or your father worked as a Pick-A-Rooney’, the Locus of Control issue might seem about 10,000 light years away from the reality of your life. However, if you’re reading this blog on a computer or a smart phone I will assume that you are not in this disadvantaged group and have some degree of control over your life.
Social Determinism: For the moment we will put aside the arguments around social determinism i.e. the impact on kids of being born into a disadvantaged area or dysfunctional family. We will accept that each of us has a good degree of ‘free will’, allowing us to choose how we want our lives to be. What’s the impact of this?
Good News = you’re in control.
Bad News = you’re in control.
If you accept the point that you are in control of your own life, you cannot outsource the blame for things that are not going well. When you are in charge, your success or lack or success, happiness or sadness, is down to you. Despite enormous efforts made by some people to pinpoint the blame on parents, partners, bosses or all of the above, fundamentally everyone owns their own happiness.
Misery Addiction: In counseling, therapists sometimes meet clients who are addicted to their own misery i.e. they don’t want to change (‘misery addiction’ is not a formal term – but you get the point). These clients reject efforts to change their dysfunctional behaviour, essentially because they have learned to be helpless and sometimes enjoy the victim role. In Locus of Control terms, they see themselves in the back seat of that car – with zero control. The upside of this (psychological payoff) is that they take zero responsibility for changing this.
Our World: None of us have a choice about growing old – but we do have a choice about growing up. And part of growing up is accepting responsibility. The trick is to empower yourself, to wrestle back control of your own life. A key element in this is to take control of your thought process. You are what you think! The following story helps to illustrate this:
Cherokee Wisdom: One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said:
‘My son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.
The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.’
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his
‘Which wolf wins?’
The old Cherokee replied: ‘Whichever one you feed.’
Which wolf are you feeding?
PS I don’t know the original source of the Cherokee story. Someone might enlighten me so that I can acknowledge the author. Thanks for keeping up with the blogs!