I’m Up To Me, You’re Up To You

Mental health may get a boost from recognizing what we can control — and what we can’t.

When my son began first grade, I learned that his new teacher had been widowed within the previous several days. This news worried me.

Despite my motherly visions of a chronically distracted and tearful teacher, I soon realized that my son’s teacher was a steady soul who kept her wits about her during those classroom hours. In fact, I noted that she looked gradually healthier as the months passed. As the year neared its end, I commented on her apparent wellness.

She gave me a relaxed smile and said, “I’ve learned that you can’t control most things.”

Her simple assertion stuck with me. It’s such a fundamental sentiment, but one we may fail to consider.

Interestingly, research in psychology suggests that one’s “locus of control” can be influential. The concept refers to where we place the pin, so to speak, in our understanding of the factors that determine how events unfold. Those with an internal locus of control tend to believe they have influence. The amount of effort they put forth, their natural abilities — those are what are understood as important. For those with an external locus of control, it’s factors outside of one’s sphere of influence — fate, luck, society — that are deemed paramount.

Here’s where an application to mental health comes in: research suggests that having an external locus of control is associated with a higher incidence of depression.

So what gives? Is it freeing to let it all go, like my son’s teacher appeared to do? Or should we believe that we’re in charge? The answer may be that both are true. A determining factor: where we place ourselves in our understanding.

When it comes to oneself, it may be beneficial to believe in one’s own control. If I work hard, I can meet with success. If I focus my energy on positive thoughts, I’ll feel more upbeat. If I prioritize rest, I’ll have more energy. Believing those statements can be powerful.

On the other hand, when we’re convinced that nothing will help, that no amount of effort can unseat bad habits or cultivate new talents, then we begin to feel hopeless. One’s attitude becomes, why bother?

When it comes to others, we often desire more control than we have. If only we could rein in our supervisor’s habit of sending urgent emails after hours. If only we could put an end to a spouse’s routine of leaving dirty dishes in the sink. Whether we’re referring to those we interact with often or those pulling strings behind curtains, it’s best to recognize our limits. We can’t turn a person who loves risky adventures into someone who’s satisfied with everyday routines. We can’t make that 20-year-old without a career goal turn into a motivated individual implementing a life plan.

For my son’s teacher, she recognized that losing her husband was outside her control. No lament, wish, or pain could undo the illness that took his life. However, connecting with students, pursuing innovative teaching methods, and exercising regularly — those were all parts of her life she could control. By distinguishing between her lack of control in some aspects of her life and the ability to seize control over others, she achieved a healthy combination.

Certainly, locus of control represents only one piece of the mental health picture. Our brain chemistry interacts with our life stressors in ways unique to the individual, and renewing mental health is best a multi-pronged process that includes the input of a professional. Still, as life brings us challenges big and small, remembering that I’m up to me, you’re up to you may be a helpful step forward.

For further reading on locus of control: http://wilderdom.com/psychology/loc/LocusOfControlWhatIs.html

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