Balancing Your Locus of Control During a Crisis

This one is a little long.  If you would like to watch a video version of me talking through this article, you can, but know that the video is also almost 20 minutes long:

As things continue with the Covid-19, I find more and more business owners and people that I talk to and meet with virtually are starting to struggle with some depression and feelings of hopelessness.

These are hard times and many businesses are shut-down or running with minimal staff.  Small businesses are being hurt with decreased business, less ability to market, or just the fact that their ideal client is holding on to their money and not buying out of fear that things will continue and they may not have enough. With all of this and more going on, it is easy to feel that things are out of control and there is a feeling of helplessness in not being able to change one’s circumstances with outside forces (disease, governments, public opinion) seemingly in control of much of what we do or where we go.

I want to give some helpful tips for dealing with these issues and having a healthy mental perspective to get through these difficult times. But I want to frame this around the psychological concept of the Locus of Control.

Locus means place, hub, or home. So, Locus of Control means Place of Control.  There are basically two places that we deal with on a regular basis: Internal Locus of Control (I personally have control over thoughts, actions, success) and External Locus of Control (someone or something has control).

Both are true and legitimate, but the Locus of Control is less about reality and more about one’s perception.

A quick example: I apply for a job/ interview and don’t get the job.  I can perceive that I did not get the job because I was not qualified enough, my resume needs more work, I did not answer questions very well, etc. (Internal Locus of Control). Or, I can perceive that I did not get the job because traffic made me flustered, the interviewer was threatened by me or did like the school I went to, etc. (External Locus of Control).

All of these things may be true, but I am going to respond to the situation very differently depending on which Locus I dwell or focus on the most. There are advantages to both and disadvantages to both.

Under normal circumstances, the average person balances these two perceptions and Loci based on one’s upbringing, experiences, values, and beliefs. For example, a religious person may have a larger External Locus of Control feeling that a higher-power has some control and can aid them externally.

There is no right or wrong in balancing these two Loci, but there are outcomes:

Those with a strong sense of Internal Locus of Control typically work harder to achieve things, are less influenced by others’ opinions, take more action, learn more easily from their mistakes, and are more driven to succeed.

However, the less positive aspects of having a strong sense of Internal Locus of Control are that the person is more self-centered (even to the point of being narcissistic), does not delegate well, likes to be in control, and, in the extreme, can be neurotic.

Those with a strong sense of External Locus of Control typically are able to let go of their mistakes and move on, are better team players, see the benefits and strengths in others, are more willing to seek help from others, and are more teachable.

However, there are less positive aspects of having a strong sense of External Locus of Control as well. Such as they are quick to blame others and slow to take responsibility, have more feelings of powerlessness or helplessness, show less motivation, are less resilient to struggles and difficult times, can have more depression, and, in extreme situations, suffer more from PTSD symptoms.

As I stated earlier, normally we balance these two Loci very well. But when trauma or major uncontrollable events happen, our homeostasis between the internal and external can be thrown much more into perceived External Locus of Control, bringing more feelings of helplessness or powerlessness and all the other things that come with it.

Some common examples of this are experiences for P.O.W.’s, major earthquakes or other natural disasters, or pandemics.

How much we are impacted by these events is in part due to two factors:

Severity: how much the event affected our daily lives, activities, health, stability, etc.

Length: how long the event goes on for or the effects go on for

Severity * Length = Impact

Again, it is not about reality, it is about our perception.  This is the good news. Because we have much more control over our response, healthy outlook, and stable mental health than the outside world does.

Although what we are going through is nothing like a war or being a prisoner of war, great examples and stories of this have come from concentration camp survivors and other POW survivors. I will focus on just one example. Colonel Hall was a Vietnam POW from the Vietnam war. For years, he, along with many others, was mentally and physically tortured, starved, and kept in solitary confinement. Their world consisted of a seven-and-a-half square foot cell without basic necessities. The prisoners had little or no contact with the outside or with each other.  Almost their entire lives was controlled by external loci – whether they had food, were tortured, or even were shot. The only lifeline the prisoners had was their virtual world that they created in the theater of their minds.

Colonel Hall’s story is famous because he maintained an internal Locus of Control by creating and playing a mental game of golf every day. He would detail every aspect of the course, each hole, the smell of the grass, his clothes and shoes, every detail he could.

The results: he suffered far less PTSD than other P.O.W.s. While some wasted away, he and others like him thrived mentally and maintained a healthy sense of self and control during their time as P.O.W.s.

So, how do we maintain a balance of a healthy internal Locus of Control when it seems that life is spiraling out of control and we have little control over income, social outlets, or even being able to maintain previous social norms or routines?

Let me offer you the proven ABCs of maintaining this realistic and healthy balance:

A = Awareness The first step is that we must do a self-assessment and understand the pressures and tendencies that exist to give into external factors. We must understand our internal homeostasis and when it is out of balance.

A.1 = Attitude We must have a can-do attitude. A determined attitude that we not only have the power to control the balance but that we will control the balance. Like Colonel Hall, there are many examples that we can learn from, and lean on if needed, to develop this strong determination.

B = Behaviors We need to find personalized behaviors that will aid us in implementing our determination and goal.  There is no ‘one size fits all’; it is individualistic and must be developed internally.  But here are some common ways that have worked for many people:

Self-talk – Monitor and practice positive self-talk.  The self that we tell ourselves internally must be positive, reassuring, and provide strength for us.

Positive affirmations – These can help immensely. Find affirmations that help you maintain a sense of your true self, nature, and potential.  For example, one of mine is: “I am an eternal being of self-control, self-direction, & charity.” Again, find your internal affirmation and learn it, say it, practice it, and live it.

An Attitude of Gratitude – Sometimes it can be harder than others to find things to be grateful for, but in times of crisis it is even more critical than ever to keep an attitude of gratitude.  Finding things to be grateful for reminds us of just how much we still have, no matter how much we may feel we are losing.

Problem Solving – is a skill that maintains great internal control. The nature of problem-solving is having to work around barriers whether internal or external to solve a problem.  We have to be creative and often very in-depth in our approach. Find a problem and work on a solution – involve others if needed, but don’t give up until you find a solution through or around any and all barriers.

Goal Setting – is combined with problem-solving to make a wonderful combination. As you set goals for yourself, problem solve ways to make it happen. It may be staying fit, learning a new skill, or sharpening a skill that you already have. Set the goal and have the attitude to make it happen.

C = Consequences/Outcomes As we go through the A’s and B’s, we need to monitor the results.  If Colonel Hall’s mental game of golf had not worked for him, not achieved the goal he was looking for, would he have kept doing it? I highly doubt it. In fact, for all we know it may have been the 10th or 20th thing that he tried to maintain that internal perspective of control, but he found what worked for him. Evaluate your results and go back to the beginning of the alphabet as needed.

The Locus of Control isn’t about changing the world; it’s about changing your own resiliency during whatever the world sends your way. Remember to be motivated, resilient, and take action. You are stronger and smarter than you think you are.

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