What does it mean to have an ‘internal locus of control’, and how can having one help us fight off the psychological threats of the corona virus pandemic?
In his sprawling, mind-expanding book, Far from the Tree, Andrew Solomon writes the following about parents raising children with multiple severe disabilities: “Empathy and compassion work best in concert with the belief that you are still capable of shaping a meaningful life for yourself and your family. The technical term for this is internal locus of control, wherein one determines one’s own trajectory, rather than external locus of control, wherein one feels entirely subject to outside circumstances and events. To achieve an internal locus of control, people actively seek to match their lifestyles with their priorities…The most important thing, often, is a belief in something bigger than one’s own experience. The most common source of coherence is religion, but it has many other mechanisms. You can believe in God, in the human capacity for good, in justice, or simply in love.”
Applying Solomon’s definition, Phase One of the corona virus pandemic thrust all of us suddenly into external locus of control mode. Life threw something totally new at us, and we had to deal with it. We felt, as Solomon suggested, ‘entirely subject to outside circumstances and events’, hooked to reports of daily infection rates, numbers of people who had died, when the next total lockdown was coming. Many felt overwhelmed by uncertainty, even paralyzed, and pretty much behaved according to the dictates of the external powers-that-be.
But after a short while, small rebellions began. People slipped back into the driver’s seat of their own lives. Their internal locus of control grabbed the steering wheel, and they made the idea of continuing to live, not merely to survive, the theme of their enforced stay at home. Instead of ‘sheltering in place’, they truly lived in place, even thrived. They put their faith in some key idea, focusing on what they could do, instead of mourning over what they couldn’t do.
For many of us, that key idea was simply valuing the gift of time and its partner, patience, things we never seemed to have enough of in our previous world. Time and patience to read the long book we’ve put off, to cook a gourmet meal, to teach a child to ride a bike, to calm our anxieties and connect to our bodies with yoga, to organize thousands of travel photos into a digital album, to re-connect with family and friends far away via Zoom, to rehab our houses and gardens, or to just sit and talk over a glass of wine with the people with whom we share our houses and gardens.
For others, the key idea was the opportunity to give, to reach out to fellow humans suffering from the pandemic itself and from its restrictions. Young Israelis created a start-up using technology to locate the elderly nearby, bringing them needed food, medicine, and plain human contact. Musicians in various professional orchestras world-wide made cellphone video clips of themselves playing their parts in symphonies so a Zoom recording could be shared with music-lovers who missed going to concerts. And of course, there were the (mostly) hilarious jokes people everywhere sent each other, bringing us all the relief of a good laugh.
Now that many of the restrictions of Phase One are gradually being rolled back in Israel, having an internal locus of control takes a different form. Do we interpret the vague, ever-changing rules based solely on a literal reading of the news headlines, or do we call upon our own internal logic? Do we let the powers-that-be steer our ship, or do we let our hearts and minds have the final say? Some younger grandparents, not actually in a high-risk group, went back to taking care of their grandchildren, most of whom haven’t returned to preschool or school full-time. Helping their overwhelmed adult children, now back at work, simply made more sense, more closely matched their internal values, than continuing to isolate. In my profession, we all had to decide if, when, and how to switch back from online therapy sessions to live ones. Entire articles have already been written, and will continue to be written, on the subject of doing psychotherapy online during the pandemic. But just looking at one aspect, wearing masks, I will tell you what I did. As soon as restrictions were eased, I moved my office furniture to sit four meters from my clients, double the required two meters, then invited each client back in person. I had a mask at my side when each walked in, but not on my face. I had decided that therapy with a mask on had serious limitations. Actually, even more limitations than therapy on Zoom. But – if one of my clients had asked me to wear one, so they could feel safe (perhaps sensing a strong personal need to take extra precautions), I was ready and would have done it. My decisions and actions matched my priorities. Our days are now full of new decision points, and maintaining as much of our internal locus of control as possible will lead to less frustration and more satisfaction.
People develop an internal locus of control gradually, as a natural result of knowing what they want and need, and successfully finding ways to get it. Most parents instinctively know how to foster an internal locus of control simply by responding to their children’s sense of agency from the very beginning…but not too quickly and not all the time. When an infant cries from hunger, being fed immediately will help her feel confident that her signals out into the world are having an effect, are being responded to. But as the months go on, most parents understand that she can wait a few minutes before nourishment arrives. If she has to cry a little harder, her sense of agency when mom or dad show up will grow, and she’ll sense that her ‘voice’ made it happen. A school-age child who instantly gets everything he asks for will be deprived of the experience of figuring out how to get what he wants when he’s old enough to get it for himself. As children mature, parents who encourage them to participate in decision-making, pursue activities and relationships that make them feel fully engaged, even inspired, are raising future citizens of the world who will have an internal locus of control. They will gravitate naturally toward their own key ideas, creating self-aware, vibrant, lives for themselves, as well as contributing in meaningful ways to their communities.
Israeli children are now in the process of returning to school, after many weeks of a completely altered routine. The order to stay home and the order to go back did not come from them, but from external authorities. As I talked to my school-aged clients this past week, I found that they all had both positive and negative reactions – excited and anxious at the same time. Parents would be wise to initiate conversations with their children about these feelings, affirming that we as adults are also struggling to adjust to frequent changes outside our control. This kind of empathic, honest dialogue can help children feel both understood and equipped with the tools they need to face the coming weeks. Parents who are having difficulty supporting their children’s emotional needs because of their own challenges should consider getting professional help.
Anyone, at any age, can learn to redirect their locus of control, pay less attention to what’s out there and more attention to what’s inside us – our feelings, our yearnings and aspirations, our loves. We all have the opportunity to develop or strengthen the ability to write, and re-write, our own life story, instead of letting others script it for us. When we are the subjects of our lives, not objects reacting to forces outside ourselves, we can even cope with a pandemic without losing the sense of agency so crucial to our stability and well-being.