By request I am writing this week on the topic of Internal and External Locus of Control. Chapter 11 of my book, Food is Not the Problem: Deal With What Is! is entirely dedicated to this topic as it is a key piece in the puzzle of why you use harmful coping strategies and why it’s so hard for you to stop.
One of my favorite authors, Don Miguel Ruiz, in his book The Four Agreements talks about the ancient Toltec philosophy which has four basic tenants:
- Always do your best
- Always be impeccable with your word
- Don’t take anything personally
- Don’t make assumptions
He insists in his book that we are all living on a potential “heaven on earth” but, because of our lack of training and adherence to these basic tenants, we are truly living in hell.
Well, if my remembrance of my use of food to cope and all the negative self-talk, doubt, anxiety, depression, loathing, disgust, abuse, and despair that accompanied it is accurate, he’s right. I was living in hell on earth when a veritable heaven was always available to me if only I could have reoriented my head.
If only I could have stopped being so preoccupied with what others thought and felt and how they might judge me, then I could have started to think about what I thought and felt and needed, and then begin to take steps to make me happy.
There was a time, when I was extremely stuck in the external locus of control, that the above sentence would have made me instantly fearful of becoming a self-centered bitch who cared nothing for anyone and only ever thought of herself. That was my deeply ingrained all-or-nothing thinking Drill Sgt. freaking out over the thought of me actually trusting myself and putting stock in my opinions and needs. In the past, that was a sure path to harm, either verbal or physical, and was to be avoided at all costs as a matter of survival.
Well, the truth is, that was all a pile of bunk. I was harmed because my dad was messed up and was looking for any excuse to get angry, not because there was truly anything wrong with me or what I was saying or thinking, certainly not anything that warranted a tongue lashing or being beaten. But the very screwed up thing about life is that we learn what our teachers teach whether they are good teachers or not, whether they are right or wrong, whether they are functional and healthy or dysfunctional and completely messed up. As kids we don’t have any frame of reference to know the difference. So we learn what is being shown, and the lessons that stick the most are the ones that trigger the greatest emotion as they are being taught, which often refers to the ones in which our “teachers” were angry and taking their stress out on us. So even if the teacher is completely wrong, we learn the lesson as though our life depends on it, which at times it truly did.
We learn that we are bad, stupid, fat, ugly, wrong, selfish, a bitch, inconsiderate, rude, and that we will never amount to anything but that we have to make our parents proud. And with that great teaching we are meant to step out into the world and make a go of our lives. Yeah, right! That’s a perfect recipe for a life of mediocrity and substance abuse for a person who would otherwise be capable of amazing things.
The external locus of control refers to how much emphasis and weight we place on people and things outside of ourselves as we make decisions about what we can have, do, or be, and how we should feel and think. Internal locus of control is simply the opposite; how much stock we put on our own thoughts, feelings and needs. Between the two, internal and external, we are meant to strike a healthy balance so that we ultimately always defer to our feelings and needs, but also consider the feelings and needs of others and the impact on our society and environment as a result of our actions.
Narcissists and Sociopaths are at the extreme end of the scale with a 100% focus on internal locus of control: What they want is the only thing that’s important, no matter what they have to do to get it.
Co-dependent men and women who use food to cope (or alcohol, relationship obsession, procrastination, isolation, etc.) are typically at the extreme other end of the spectrum. They feel incredibly guilty doing anything just for themselves. Staying at home and resting, no matter how tired they feel, is not an option if anyone, however far removed, wants something from us.
How many times have you received a call from your friend Georgette, and, knowing full well that you’re tired and just want to read, and that she’s going to talk your ear off for well over an hour about the man she broke up with 6 months ago and how lonely she is, but how she can’t do anything about it because …., you answer the phone anyway in case she finds out you were home and screened the call? How many times? How many hours of your life have you spent doing things you didn’t want to do, often at harm to you and things that needed doing or that would have fed your spirit? That’s external locus of control. And it has to stop.
The external locus of control (ELOC), to the extent that you suffer with it, is fueled by fear of rejection and rebuke and will not go away until you begin to understand where it came from and begin to trust that it is okay for you to take care of yourself and for others to not get what they need from you.
If you just had a heart attack that’s your proof that you need to do this piece of work NOW, not in 6 months or a year or when the kids have gone off to college or when you retire, or when your mother passes away into the great unknown, NOW. Your life is being sucked dry. You are using food to cope because of this way of thinking, no ifs, ands or buts; no exceptions.
You can not feel truly happy, peaceful, safe and free to let go of food and body focus as long as you put more emphasis on other people’s needs, feelings and perspective on the world than you do your own.
And I’m not just talking about a 51% to 49% split here. I’m talking about at least a 75% (ILOC) to 25% (ELOC) split with the caveat that the 25% is ELOC and that it doesn’t mean that ¼ of the time you think of others and not yourself but that you allow yourself to give the needs and feelings of others (excluding dependent children who must be considered in a different category) 25% of the weight of any decision you make. The other 75% being your own feelings, needs and perspective.
What we are really talking about here is a complete 180 in your current world view. You see your current world view is completely skewed in favor of everyone else, with you getting what you need when everyone else is happy (which will be never). Your current world view has you feeling so frightened of “hurting” someone that you don’t have honest conversations about what you need or want. As a result your relationships suffer. You don’t feel truly known or connected to anyone and you believe that if you were honest about your needs you’d be rejected or judged (there’s that old teaching again).
What seems like the “right” way to be and the “right” way to get the safety and approval you seek is actually so very wrong and will only ever lead you to feel less safe, less confident, less happy, less peaceful, and less connected to yourself and others.
I’m not suggesting that honoring yourself is easy, it can mean some courageous conversations and the loss of some relationships if those people are more interested in getting what they want than they are in both of you getting what you need. What I am promising you from my own experience is that, instead of feeling anxious 24/7 and your constant companion being the critical Drill Sgt. and feeling like something is wrong with you and that you can’t do what you want to or have what you want to because you’re not good enough, if you do the 180 in your thinking and world view, you will feel almost constantly peaceful. You will feel solid and confident in yourself most of the time (except with new things where it is perfectly appropriate to have some doubt). You will value yourself and your right to be happy more than anything else and you will know that being happy doesn’t include harming or not considering others, it just doesn’t obligate you to meet their needs either. You will see, through this 180 shift, that it’s truly okay if others are upset with you because what you’re doing or saying doesn’t meet needs for them. It doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong, it just means they aren’t getting what they want. But you are not obligated to compromise yourself for anyone, you are obligated to respectfully and clearly articulate what you need and what you are willing to do and the other person/people is/are obligated to take care of themselves.
That is healthy, mature, adult relating.
Anything else is old, dysfunctional, co-dependency and keeps you stuck feeling bad and wrong and needing to numb out with food focus.
I compare the process of shifting from a heavy ELOC approach to life to the new ILOC split like an old steam engine pulling out of the station.
Currently you’re stuck in one view of the world. It feels right and familiar at the same time as it feels awful. It requires effort to start out from the station into a new landscape. And at the start it can feel like it is slow going, chug…..chug…..chug….. But soon, things start to gel, you start to “get it”, you feel a sense of flow and things shift. Life becomes easier and smoother and so much less effort. You have more energy and your relationships improve immeasurably, chug-chug-chug. You’re rolling!
There is, if you will permit me, a heaven on earth. It is entirely available to you any day and any time if you just shift your current world view 180 and allow yourself to see yourself as equal to others and deserving of what you need.
There are some very simple, basic steps from here to there and I’d be honored to be your guide.
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