“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”
― E.E. Cummings
Do you think your life is terrible because other people made it terrible? Do you think your terrible life is your fault and yours alone? Or do you think the truth lies somewhere in the middle?
Your answer reflects what psychologists call your locus of control. People with an internal locus of control tend to believe their lives are the results of their choices. People with external controls lay the blame at others’ feet. Most people do not have a perfect internal or perfectly external locus of control — both are dysfunctional — but one somewhere in the middle.
Successful people are more likely to have an internal locus of control than the rest of us. Not surprising. If we think our lives are the result of our choices, we are going to work harder to improve our lives. There’s no point in working to improve your life if your efforts will be for naught.
Becoming your best self requires you to have an internal locus of control. It’s all about spotting and highlighting the ways your choices are not contributing to your happiness and teaching you how to make choices that will. The things out of your control are sad, self-help says, but you can’t change those. You need to focus on what you can change.
It’s true, by the way. People’s locus of control is usually skewed far more externally than accurately reflects reality. People are far more likely to blame others for problems of their own making than they are to accept blame for something that’s not their fault. Anything that helps people see that is good.
In light of the new information, you revise your beliefs, which alters your actions, which improves your life. That’s where the “self” part of self-help comes from.
One day, you decide that you can control your weight, and begin to learn about dieting. One year, several dozen books, and 20 fewer pounds later, you not only believe you can change your weight but that you can achieve goals. So when a new boss at work challenges you, you believe you can rise to it. Another few dozen self-help books and several months later, you believe you can succeed in your career, too, and you decide to leave it all behind to pursue your dreams. You become a newer, better, freer version of yourself. And up the spiral goes.
That’s not to say we are responsible for everything wrong with our lives. One can’t help being born into poverty, for instance. But over the long run, our choices have much more impact on the course of our lives than we like to admit.
Why It’s So Hard to Get Right
Adopting an internal locus of self-control is painful. Believing you can change a bad situation means it’s also your fault the situation remained bad. When you rewrite your old external belief I cannot seem to lose weight to the internal I can lose weight with clean eating and exercise, you’re forced to admit that the reason you haven’t lost weight up until now isn’t that the world tempted you with tasty food, but because you chose to eat it.
When you admit that you can change your life, you’re forced to take responsibility for the fact that you haven’t.
Ouch, that hurts. Especially if you’re not used to it. When you’ve been doing it a while, there’s a certain way which you can laugh and say “Oops, I did it again! I was making excuses again! Silly ole’ me,” knowing everyone else is the exact same way too. But you have to practice to get there. In the beginning, though, it’s painful as hell.
Too painful for many people, it seems. Many people don’t try. They continue blaming the world for their problems, either privately or out loud, and wonder why they continue having the same problems.
Becoming the best version of yourself requires you to go through this process again and again ad infinitum. And who would want to do that? You must want something bad to bother with all that.
If you can bear the pain — if you can learn to seek the pain, even more so — you will have a tremendous advantage over everyone who is doing the perfectly sensible thing and running away.
Becoming your best self is a long, slow, and painful process. You need to learn to move from an external locus of self-control to an internal locus of self-control. In doing so, you need to revise many of your core beliefs and learn to regard the world in an entirely new way.
That revision is painful. It threatens your sense of balance in the world. It can plunge you into emotions like sadness, shame, and anger. So you push back, unwilling to accept the alteration even if it can make your life better.
With one hand you push yourself forward, with the other you hold yourself back.
You don’t need to despair. Everyone makes progress eventually. Anyone who is trying to improve will get there sooner or later. It’s only a matter of time.