Your locus of control

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I have to be honest and tell you that January has been a difficult month for me. Some days, the news weighs on me so heavily I can hardly bring myself to be productive. It feels so much easier to complain and lie around and mope when I’m suffocating in a fog of events that I cannot control. The protesters and the ACLU donations give me hope, but some days, that’s just not enough for my emotional well-being.

January has also been difficult because my student loan payments kicked in, big time. I’ve been making minimal interest payments since starting grad school almost five years ago, but those days are over. I have to start paying the principal. I completely understand it, and I know it’s ultimately a good thing to start making headway on this astronomical debt I carry. What has been difficult is that I cannot afford to make the payment because my stipend is so small, so I had to ask for family help in the meantime.

I can’t explain the shame that overwhelmed me when I made the phone call. I’m 31 years old, and I am not self-sufficient. It felt like a blow to my ability to call myself an adult. My ego happily stepped in and started running a narrative in my head about how all my choices have been wrong: taking out loans in the first place, picking English as my career path, going to “name brand” schools. Then the narrative started labeling me as ineffectual and powerless. You can’t pay your own debt right now? You can’t do anything to stop our maniac president? You chose this dead-end career?

Do you know the Serenity Prayer? A famous American theologian named Reinhold Niebuhr wrote it, and it goes like this:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

I’ve loved seeing the protesters’ posters that say things like “I’m changing the things I cannot accept.” I love that mindset when it comes to hate and inequality. But when it comes to certain circumstances in my own life, sometimes I just have to accept the way things are and learn to be peaceful.

My debt is a great example of this. I can’t change it right now. My family wants to help because they love me, and I can only hope that some day I’m the family member someone calls when they need help more than judgment. So for now, I need to find peace around my inability to make the payments myself.

In terms of various executive orders and other presidential insanity in the news, I am working on distinguishing between times when I need to pause and take care of myself and times when I’ve let the moping take over and I need to let it go.

Do you have “the wisdom to know the difference” in your own life? Or do you let events outside your locus of control get you down?

One way I measure this is understanding the difference between being proactive and being reactive. Stephen Covey’s first habit is to be proactive, which simply means taking responsibility for your life. Sometimes, responsibility might mean response-ability. Once you’re able to be mindful about the way you react and respond to external events, you start to feel better, strengthen relationships, and become more productive.

Do you ever blame circumstances, conditions, genetics, or something in your past for your behavior, feelings, attitude, or performance? I used to do this all the time. I still do sometimes, but I am better about catching myself and revising my script.

Here are few examples:

  • I used to blame my college debt on the fact that I never received a financial education. No one ever taught me how to manage a budget. Ultimately, though, I had a choice. And I am learning to be okay with my choice. It’s not anyone’s “fault.” All I can do now is make the payments on time.
  • I used to be really affected by what happened in my classroom. If a student mouthed off or misbehaved, I took it personally, as evidence that I was not a good teacher. But it’s not personal at all. Every student has a world of things going on, and their actions are rarely about me. All I can do is prepare my lesson well and be positive and helpful.
  • I used to think that it was impossible for me to do anything except academics. I was too shy, too afraid of uncertainty, and not good at anything else. It was just my genetics. But now I understand that I was confusing genetics with limiting beliefs. All I can do now is…anything! I can figure out how to do most things that interest me.

There’s something entirely self-centered about living reactively. You think that the world needs to change for you to be happy. But that’s simply not true. You are the only person who can make you happy.

Can you start choosing your response? Can you start managing your worries and concerns? Worry only about things within your circle of influence. There may be many things within your circle of concern, but what can you actually influence? Where would your energy best serve you if you stopped expending it on worry or blame?

Let’s say you’re an angry driver. Everyone is a terrible driver. That person just cut me off. Does she have any concern about the fact that I’m driving here? This guy is tailgating me. What’s his problem? 

But actually, none of it is about you. (It might be, if you’re going ten miles under the speed limit in the passing lane and won’t move.) Generally, everyone has his or her own agenda, and you’re not part of it. I’m happy to brake to let someone in front of me. It makes me feel like a safe driver, which is something I can control. Sometimes I imagine the person must be late for a meeting. Or what if he is rushing to the hospital because his wife is giving birth? We can’t know, but it feels better to assume the best, take ourselves out of the equation, recognize common humanity, and let negative feelings float away on the breeze. Choosing a positive response is something I can control. And it makes me feel good.

Choosing a positive response also makes me feel powerful. You gain agency when you say “I will” instead of “I can’t.” I’m auditing a class right now, and my professor assigned some extra work I didn’t think I would have to do since I’m not enrolled in the class. At first, I was thinking, “No way. Not fair. I can’t do this.” But I can, and I will, because it’s good for the class community for me to be a contributor. Does it always feel good to spend a Saturday afternoon doing that extra work? No, but I know it’s ultimately a helpful contribution, and the more engaged I am, the more agency I feel I have.

You might be blaming circumstances and giving up your power if you criticize others for their behavior (especially behind their backs), complain about others’ behavior a lot, compare yourself to others and find yourself wanting, compete with others with a scarcity mindset, stay stubborn and rigid in your beliefs despite evidence to the contrary, or have a cynical mindset. Do any of those sound familiar? Can you be proactive instead of reactive?

I used to be especially bad about this in the first year I was living with my boyfriend. I call it “The Dirty Dishes Saga or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love my Significant Other.”

I am a pretty tidy person, and I like to go to bed at night with a clean kitchen. I also like cooking, so the kitchen is often messy after dinner. In my perfect world, we take turns cooking and washing the dishes (no dishwasher in this 1960s era house). But we don’t live in my perfect world; we live in the real world. So sometimes the score card gets a little unbalanced. But what I found is that you only achieve domestic bliss if you throw out the scorecard. I used to get so angry when he didn’t do the dishes. It seems so silly now, but it used to be very painful to me. I would hold my anger inside, go to bed feeling resentful, and run a narrative that said something like, “If he would just help me with the dishes, I could be happy.”

Nope. If I could just change my mindset, I could be happy. And that’s exactly what happened. I stopped nagging him about the dishes. I did them whenever I had the time, and I recognized that he did the same. Now I am happy to do chores when I know he has a lot going on. And he does the same for me. It all balanced out once I stopped imagining that my happiness was dependent on circumstances outside my influence.

Does it really matter? If not, let it go. Too heavy? Put it down. Feel the burden lift from your tired shoulders.

Sometimes the only only thing in your control is your mindset. Other times, you might have more control over externals. Every day, I have the choice to work out. I have the choice to eat more healthy foods than junk foods. I have the choice to do some work. I don’t let my emotions dictate those choices, most of the time. Last night, I was totally craving a big casserole dish of mac and cheese, so I let it happen. But I had a kale smoothie for breakfast. Some days, my body wants yoga more than it wants to lift weights. I can be mindful of my needs, and recognize that I always have a choice.

Here are some questions to guide you towards your circle of influence and away from blaming circumstance:

  • Do you think your success or failure is largely up to you? Or do you tend to attribute your gains and losses to luck, chance, providence, or other people? The same goes for your happiness.
  • Do you tend to see your circumstances as negative, giving up easily or not trying at all, imagining the worst? Or do you take pleasure in small steps, trusting the process and not putting all your stock in the results?
  • Do you wait for others to apologize first? Or do you take responsibility for yourself, and experience the freedom and humility of apologizing and beginning the work of repairing a broken relationship?
  • Do you hold a grudge, blaming someone else for your circumstances and feelings? Or do you make the choice to forgive and let go, even if you still hurt?
  • Do you feel victimized by stress or illness? Or are you health-conscious, taking care of your body and your mind by moving, resting, and listening?
  • Do your moods, anxiety, or neuroticism rule you? Or do you act and adapt in spite of those things?
  • Are you angry a lot, perceiving others to be enemies or out to get you? Or do you manage your response to others, allowing peace to be your mindset and trying to see the humanity in others?

I won’t say that I am perfect at proactivity or responsibility every day. But knowing the difference between the things you can control and the things you cannot, and recognizing that you can choose your response or let something go, might be one of the most freeing feelings of your life.

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