Understanding Locus of Control

My childhood overflowed with adventure: on sticky summer afternoons, I climbed the cherry tree behind our house and hung upside down, launching pits as far as my lungs could manage. Afterward, I stopped by the vine that lined our property to pocket dozens of deep maroon grapes before running through the cornfields to the pond where I would catch bass and sunnies on rubber worms while I made myself queasy with fruit. I swung on tires and ran through sprinklers and jumped off hay bales into pillows of indiangrass.

I say this to tell you there was a lot of joy in my childhood.

But that didn’t stop me from being afraid. Of most things, in fact. I was afraid of intruders in the night, who I imagined stalking the dark shadows of our massive hundred-year-old Victorian house. It was a parsonage, owned by my grandparents’ church before we purchased it, and it came with its fair share of haunting mythology (the ghost stories were free). I was afraid of talking on the phone, ordering at restaurants, and seeing my classmates in public. We didn’t crack the windows when we drove on the highway (too loud), and for years I had a recurring dream in which a burglar entered our home and tied my family to the dining room chairs before finding creative ways to hurt them (I was inevitably the only hope for my family’s survival). Like a committed little meteorologist, I even developed a daily habit of scouring the weather channel for tiny yellow lightning bolts and letting my parents know if our plans needed to change.

Worst of all, though—even worse than the torture dreams—I feared crowds. On Sunday mornings, my mom would iron our dress clothes, we’d collect our bibles and notebooks from our bedside tables, and my mom, dad, and I would load into our white minivan. As we pulled out of the gravel driveway, my mom would hit two on the radio presets, switching from the contemporary Christian station that was customary for the other six days of the week to the more Sunday-appropriate worship station. We would ride in silence, listening to Chris Tomlin sing about everlasting peace as my anxiety crept higher into my throat.

It was time for church.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved Jesus. I prayed nightly, my mom kneeling next to my bed after pulling my blankets up to my chest. She grasped both my hand in hers and closed her eyes tightly and hung her head low, close to mine, as we took turns thanking God and praying for blessings and healing for our family and friends. I imitated her prayers, stealing phrases and gratitudes, speaking with the same soft, reverent tone. (I once asked her what it meant when we prayed, “Thank you Jesus for the stay.” I’d been starting my prayers this way for years, not knowing that Mom was actually saying, “Thank you, Jesus, for this day.”) With equal vigor, I asked God to heal Daniel Parker, a member of our congregation who had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and Jimmy Huntington, my classmate who had been out for five days with chickenpox.

I invited Jesus into my heart and accepted his saving grace at an age so young that I don’t remember the moment it happened. Yet I can’t remember a time when I looked forward to church. I dreaded the friendly people, the way they were obligated to smile and say hello whether they liked you or not, the greeters at the door who tousled your hair or made a show of an exploding fist bump. I hated that at any moment strangers were free to go from not talking to you to talking to you. Church was my own personal hell and–lucky me–I got to visit every weekend.

When I was seven, my mom gifted me an NRSV kids bible for Christmas. It was a beautiful, hardback bible with a colorful, sidewalk chalk design on the cover. There was a fish emblem in the middle of the swirling yellows and reds and greens. “Wow,” I said when I tore open the Santa-covered wrapping. “Thank you.” And my stomach went to knots. I knew such a flashy piece of scripture was bound to be a conversation starter, so I clutched it tightly to my side, cover facing inward to hide the colorful design, as I carried it dutifully into church on Sunday mornings. All the while I silently begged: please, Lord, don’t let anyone ask me about my bible. And guess what, they never did.

This pattern developed quickly and naturally. I would experience an intense and often irrational fear, I would pray for protection from the conversations at church or the ghost in the attic or the fireworks or the cashier at the gas station, and the thing I was afraid of either happened or it didn’t. Either way, I knew the maker of the universe was in control, and that was enough for me. Even in suffering, I knew my story had meaning when it was being orchestrated by its divine teller. With a focused, earnest prayer requesting that God’s will be done, my job was complete. I had placed it in God’s hands and could let it go.

“Locus of control” is a psychological concept referring to the amount of control you believe you have over your life and experiences. It’s a spectrum on which we all find our place. If you land on the far left, you believe you have complete control over your circumstances (internal locus of control). On the far right, you believe something external has control (external locus of control). As an adolescent, I was as far right on this spectrum as one can realistically land. I believed God was in the driver’s seat. My responsibility was simple: to let God sit there. The less I tried to control things, the greater I proved my faith to be, and the more favor I found.

Like a lot of evangelicals, I was wired for all or nothing thinking. You were in or you were out. Saved or damned. Right or wrong. Dirty or clean. After college, I set out on a religious deconstruction journey, and I felt my locus of control swing drastically to the left. I didn’t know what I believed about God anymore. But I knew one thing: I couldn’t assume that God had complete control because too many bad things happened to faithful people. I still believed in a benevolent creator of the universe who wanted to see me thrive, but how much did they intercede?

Without God taking the reins, who was in control? Me, I decided. Everything was up to me.

Job interviews, my health, my family’s safety. All me. A fulfilling life, meaningful relationships, and my mental health. Also me. These were all things I had previously relied on God to manage. The less I believed in the God of my childhood, the more my anxiety increased. How can one person be burdened with all of this?

I recently heard a locus of control illustration that I found really helpful. Imagine this: there are three employees working at a struggling company. With every passing quarter, layoffs become more inevitable. How do these three different people manage this stressful situation as they continue their day-to-day tasks in the face of potentially losing their jobs?

  1. Sarah is on the far left side of the locus of control spectrum. She believes she has complete control over her destiny. She works long hours, putting in the time to prove her worth. She knows that it’s up to her to save her job. After three months of busting her tail, Sarah is laid off anyway. She believes she has failed, that she should have done more. She believes there must be something wrong with her work ethic or the quality of her work. Sarah feels ashamed as she sets out to find her next job.
  1. Michael is on the far right side of the locus of control spectrum. He thinks he has little to no control over his situation, believing that it’s ultimately in the company’s hands. Because of this belief, he does the bare minimum required of him even though he recognizes that they will soon need to make some hard decisions about who to keep. His work suffers and he is laid off. Michael feels like a victim to his circumstances. He feels defeated, like the world is conspiring against him, like God or the leaders of his company have failed him. 
  1. Shawn lands somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. He believes that he has some amount of control over his situation, so he puts in some extra hours and does exceptional work. After a few months, he is also laid off. However, he recognizes that there were both internal and external forces at play here. There was only so much he could do, as his company was struggling and they simply couldn’t afford to keep him on board. Shawn begins applying to new jobs with the belief that he is a skilled and capable employee who did everything in his power to keep his last job. 

As you can see, the middle path results in the most realistic frame of mind. But it can be so easy to float too far to the left or right.

At different times in my life, I’ve found myself believing too strongly that some external force would determine my fate. At other times, I’ve put too much pressure on myself, believing that every outcome was a direct response to my efforts, taking for granted the myriad ways other people, organizations, and the universe at large impact my life.

In Buddhism, there is a concept called dependent origination, which is a fancy way of saying all things are interdependent. Your actions impact those around you just like their actions impact you. There’s a relationship between you and everything else in existence. You can’t order a cup of coffee without impacting the waiter who brings it to you, the barista who brews it, the truck driver who transports the beans, the farmer who grows the beans, and the worker who harvests them.

Nothing is an island unto itself. Nothing exists outside of our massive interconnected universe. With this understanding, it’s difficult not to land in the middle of the locus of control spectrum. Your actions matter. External forces also matter. They impact us in ways we don’t always understand, and certainly in ways we cannot anticipate or control.

Where do you land on this spectrum? Do you tend to believe that external forces have the power to determine your fate? Or do you tend to believe that you hold your fate in your own hands? How might you move toward the middle?

“We are 100 percent individual and 100 percent a member of the community.”
― Katherine Thanas

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