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How to Take Control of Your Own Life
When we think about power, we typically think about it as the ability to influence others: through coercion, through manipulation, through punishment.
But power can also be more inward-facing. Your sense of personal power is a mental state, encompassing your attitudes and beliefs about the extent to which you can control your own life, success, and happiness. In Psychology Today, psychologist Robert Firestone describes it this way:
Personal power is based on strength, confidence, and competence that individuals gradually acquire… It is self-assertion and a natural, healthy striving for love, satisfaction, and meaning in one’s interpersonal world. [Personal power’s] primary aim is mastery of self, not [mastery of] others.
As a life coach and social worker, I often meet people through my practice who are looking for more personal power. They want to be happier at work. They want a greater sense of purpose and direction. Most of all, they want to improve their self-confidence. They come to me because they’re sick of feeling helpless, and they crave more control over their own lives. What I try to help them realize is that they can’t cultivate more personal power until they make a radical change in how they view the world. They need to stop feeling like life happens to them and instead start taking ownership of their circumstances.
Personal power is represented by a “locus of control.” Your locus, which exists on a continuum of internal to external, refers to your beliefs about the extent to which you control the events in your life. Research has shown that where your locus falls can influence everything from academic performance and professional success to health behaviors and even your political ideology.
People with an external locus of control believe events in their life are primarily influenced by outside sources (luck, fate, injustice, randomness, outside powers, etc.). Their emotional reactions depend on the people and circumstances that surround them, and they’re more likely to agree with statements like “Every time I try to go ahead, something or somebody stops me,” or “I never know where I stand with other people.” People with this style are more likely to feel helpless when faced with failure and, as a result, fall into unhelpful behaviors like blaming, criticizing, or complaining. A person who is unhappy at work, for example, may blame their boss for blocking their career advancement and spend years growing resentful in a job that isn’t a good fit instead of working to improve the situation. Discouragement gets in the way of finding a better opportunity.
Spending time on activities that leverage your natural strengths can also help you gain more faith in your ability to get things done.
If, on the other hand, you believe you are in control of things that happen to you, you likely skew toward having an internal locus of control. People with this outlook believe that events in life, good and bad, are largely caused by controllable factors like attitude, preparation, and hard work and hold themselves accountable for making changes. People with an internal locus of control tend to agree with statements like “I earn the respect and honors I receive” and “When I make plans, I am almost certain I can make them work.” They also tend to have higher self-esteem and self-efficacy, meaning they believe in their ability to execute on goals or take action.
There are many online tests to help you figure out whether you’re internally or externally oriented, including Rotter’s original Locus of Control Scale and the University of Virginia’s Locus of Control Assessment. If the results aren’t what you were hoping for, know that your locus of control is something you can shift. Here are a few ways to develop a stronger internal locus and, by extension, grow your sense of personal power.
Question Your Automatic Thoughts
Next time you’re facing a setback, pay attention to the words you use: Externals often use phrases that imply they’re a victim of circumstances, like “I had no choice” or “Nothing ever works out.” When you find yourself falling into a defeatist mentality, try to reframe the way you’re interpreting the situation and look for elements within your control. Say, for example, that you’re consistently working out but not getting the results you wanted. You could blame your genetics and give up, or you could choose to investigate other fitness and diet options.
Take Responsibility for Your Emotions
No one is responsible for how you feel except you. To feel more in charge of your emotional life, start by paying attention to and acknowledging what you feel — simply naming your emotions can increase your command over them. It also helps to practice self-compassion; by focusing on being kind to yourself, you can learn how to work through your reactions productively rather than judgmentally.
Know Your Values
When you find yourself faced with a tough choice or difficult situation, it can be useful to rely on your core values as guideposts for your decisions and actions. If you’re not clear about what those values are, you’re at risk for becoming reactive to circumstances, rather than proactive. Take time to define what matters to you; anytime you’re faced with a choice, ask yourself, “Will this bring me closer to or further away from what’s most important to me?”
Seek Out Mastery Experiences
Intentionally structure your days to build up your self-efficacy. This can be as simple as sticking to a schedule or pattern; morning routines, for example, provide a daily opportunity to prove to yourself that you can execute a plan. Actions that strengthen your confidence, like reflecting on your personal successes and spending time on activities that leverage your natural strengths, can also help you gain more faith in your ability to get things done.
All of this advice requires to stretch yourself in different ways, but it all boils down to the same underlying principle: To change your locus of control, you need to define who you are and how you want your life to be. And to do that, you need to accept ownership of your thoughts, emotions, and actions. Increasing your personal power is all about realizing you have a choice in how you respond to external demands. The more you choose to be personally accountable, the more freedom you’ll have.