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By: Rick Fannin
Have you learned to stay inside your hula-hoop in recovery yet? Drugs and alcohol were our external solutions for our internal problems. This external higher power in drugs and alcohol was able to calm our anxiety, pull us out of a depressed mood, help us sleep, give us energy, and help us to forget painful events from the past.
This external solution worked for a period of time, but then, this solution started creating more problems than the ones that we were trying to escape from. While in the midst of denial about our drug or alcohol problem, we continued with this external solution for our internal problem. We looked for external sources of blame to avoid ever having to look at internal accountability for our problem.
When we could no longer deny that we had a bigger problem than we could handle, we finally sought treatment. However, in recovery, we may continue with this cycle of external solutions for our internal problems. We may be externally angry or jealous about how our partner treats us, but we stay in this dysfunctional relationship because of our internal problem of fear of abandonment. We may be externally concerned or appalled how others are not taking their recovery seriously enough and are not working an honest program so that we may avoid internally evaluating how we have been complacent in our own recovery. We may be externally angry and flipping off the slow driver in front of us, and when we get to work, we tell our boss, "Sorry I was late, but traffic was outrageous this morning." Yes, it is surely his fault because otherwise, I would have to accept that I have more things to change in my life beyond drugs or alcohol. In recovery, we must learn to stay inside of our hula-hoop and focus on the things that we can change, and radical acceptance of things outside of our hula-hoop that we cannot change.
"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."
Locus of Control
Our locus of control describes how much control we think we have over what happens in our lives and how much accountability we have for the things that we can actually control in our lives. It also describes the way people understand the problems they experience. It also somewhat predicts how they will attempt to solve these problems. For example, suppose I possess an internal locus of control. In that case, I believe problems are my own doing, and I believe that I am responsible and accountable for doing what I need to do in order to solve my own problems since I created them.
The locus of control is based on what psychologists call social learning theory, which suggests that an expectation is reinforced when the expected events or behavior actually occur in the future. In other words, if you expect something to happen, and it does, your expectation is reinforced. However, if your expectation does not occur, your expectation is weakened. The theory further proposes that whether one believes they have control over the causes of reinforcement determines the outcome. This fear is like a "self-fulfilling prophecy" such as "My wife is never going to trust me and always think I'm still drinking or getting high, so what is the use? I may as well go ahead and do it." The underlying fear is that the wife will never trust you, and you create a self-fulfilling prophecy by drinking, thus reinforcing the belief, and the fear that the wife will never forgive you.
Individuals with an external locus of control believe events are dictated by external forces, whereas people with an internal locus of control believe their actions have a direct effect on their outcomes. Knowing your locus of control can help you think about strategies for improvement. For example, individuals with an external locus of control believe they are unable to control or influence their performance and may not see a reason to improve.
Symptoms of External Locus of Control
- Likely to feel a little uncomfortable in social situations
- Feel powerless in many situations
- Ten to view things as negatively
- Tend to struggle to get back on track after something troubling happens
- Tends to focus on worries and negative "what if" scenarios
- May struggle getting good sleep because of the mind racing around
- Seeks attention from others due to their suffering
- Tends to control the small things in life or attempts to control or change others' behaviors or emotions.
- Looks for external blame for problems and struggles in life
Benefits of Internal Locus of Control
- Experience lower levels of anxiety
- Have higher moral development
- Less likely to smoke, drink, or abuse drugs
- Have secure relationship attachments
- The tendency to control their weight, adhere to medical regimens, use birth control more effectively, wear seat belts, and have regular trips to the dentist
- Better self-care
- Are more persuasive and better able to influence the attitudes of others
- Active in political factors to attempt to make social change
- More resistive to being manipulated
- Conform to others if they believe that conformity is to their advantage
- Spend more time on achievement-oriented tasks and achieving goals
- More willing to ask for help if they are struggling with achieving something
- Place higher importance on skill development
- Tend to attain higher academic achievements
- Are more satisfied with work
- Operate well even in low structure conditions
Learning to Stay Inside Your Hula-hoop
You can learn to develop an internal locus of control by taking more responsibility for all aspects of your life that you can control and becoming more accepting of the things that you cannot control. Dwelling on things that are outside of your locus of control causes an increase in your stress levels and takes up valuable mental cycles that could be better used for seeking solutions to your problems or working to resolve them actively. Here are some tips to take more control of the things you can control and be more accepting of things you cannot control.
- Utilize the serenity prayer to help you identify if you need to utilize problem-solving skills or emotional support.
- Avoid avoidance-based behaviors and instead either use instrumental, emotional support, distress tolerance skills, emotional regulation skills for things you cannot change, or problem-solving skills for the things you can change.
- Pay close attention to your own negative internal dialog and look for twisted and distorted thought patterns.
- Work on developing your problem-solving skills.
- Plan your future, set goals, SMART goals, with specific, achievable, and measurable objectives that will help in achieving that goal.
- Explore your values and identify areas where your behaviors are going against your core values.
- Do not fear failure. Develop a healthy fear of not even trying
- Open yourself up to trying new things
- Realize that not making a decision, is in fact, making a decision to stay stuck.
- Making a decision but not taking steps of action is again making a decision to stay stuck.
Trying to change others is a waste of time, elevates your negative emotions, and keeps you stuck. Realize you can choose to positively or negatively influence others, but ultimately you are powerless over the other person choosing to change.
And the Wisdom to Know the Difference
You will notice that people with an internal locus of control see their emotions as coming only from themselves. They know that nothing anyone else says or does can force them to feel a certain way unless they allow themselves to feel that way. As a result, they don't feel dependent on other people doing or saying certain things in order for them to feel better. They have a deep understanding that it is the way they think about events that determine how they feel about those events.
It is important to understand that experiencing pain in life is inevitable, but suffering is optional and is brought on by being attached to our desires and expectations and unaccepting of the reality of life. They understand that someone may do something that upsets us, but no matter what they do or what they say, staying angry or upset is a choice, that if we make it, causes us to suffer and remain in pain. They do not allow the dysfunctional behaviors of others to allow them to become dysfunctional as well. They have learned that being upset, yelling, or fighting with the other person keeps us trapped in pain and suffering. Instead, they learn to apply radical acceptance of others being exactly the way they are, will try to influence them in positive ways, but radically accept the fact that they are powerless over if the other person changes. Instead, they take power back and determine if they are willing to continue to condone the person, place, thing, or situation and if not, they make the decision to change the things they can.
Accept the Things You Cannot Change
Many of us believe lies about what we have the ability to change and avoid spending time planning and actually changing the few things that we can. Below is an example of things that we cannot change but may spend enormous time complaining, arguing, or upset about these things.
Courage to Change the Things You can
There are relatively few things in life that we have direct control over. However, many of us tend to spend less time on these things we can control and more time upset futilely attempting to change things that we do not have direct control over. The graphic below includes the things that we can change or control.
Spiritual Perspectives on Locus of Control
As a quick reminder, the locus of control determines the extent a person believes they have control of their lives. Typically, an internal locus of control would imply that individuals believe they have control of their fate and that their own actions determine their future. Conversely, an external locus of control would be individuals who view life's events and their own behaviors to be controlled by force other than themselves.
Within the psychology and professional counseling fields, having a strong external locus of control is considered bad as it contributes to emotional and behavioral regulation difficulties. Biblically speaking, some scriptures also suggest that we should develop an internal locus of control, as illustrated by the following verse.
"Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother's eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, "Let me remove the speck from your eye"; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First, remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye." – Matthew 7:1-5
You may be questioning, where does God fit into this Locus of Control topic? God is external, but the external locus of control is bad, right? Wait, our Holly Spirit lives inside of us, so God is internal, right? Yeah, I know, this part is confusing. However, we can easily clear this up by defining God a little better. See the verse below for who God says that he is.
"I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty. "– Revelation 1:8
"God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: 'I AM has sent me to you.'" – Exodus 3:14
Using this perspective, God is The Great I AM. God is internal, external, everything, and everywhere, and is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. You cannot be separated from God's Love, as illustrated in the verse below.
"And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God's love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God's love." – Romans 8:38
As Christians, we learn to live a disciplined life, which aligns with God's will, and do what is morally and spiritually right. We learn to tune in and listen to our Holy Spirit, which guides us and helps us intuitively handle situations that baffle us. We use the serenity prayer and accept and turn over to God the things that we cannot control, these external things. We trust that God will make all things right if we surrender to his will. In this, we have faith that God will change the external situation that we cannot control, or God will change our internal disposition about the external situation. We begin to realize that all things are possible with God, as illustrated in the following verses.
"But Jesus looked at them and said, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." – Matthew 19:26
"For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength." – Philippians 4:13
As Christians, what we have is a Christ-centered locus of control. We begin to realize that from our Holy Spirit, Christ lives within us, which gives us the strength to do things that pure reliance on an internal locus of control could not do. We tap into our internal locus of control and begin to live a disciplined life in alignment with God's will by doing what is morally and spiritually right.
However, we also realize that God is so much larger than being limited to within us, and a Christ-centered locus of control realizes that God can also change external circumstances that seem impossible. This leads to the development of humble-spiritual confidence, as illustrated in the following verse.
"If God is for us, who can be against us?" – Romans 8:31
That verse seems amazing, doesn't it? If God is on our side, then who could ever be against us? However, pause, humble yourself, and answer the question, who is "us?" Does "Us" include you, me, the ones you care about? But could "us" also include your enemies and the ones that you resent? And, if God is for you, AND God is for the person that you resent, does this put you at odds with God? Living this spiritual life, we learn to forgive others, forgive yourself, drop the resentments, have no enemies so that we may fully align with having God on our side.