Locus of Control: One Secret to Success for your Health Goals

BY Katie Arfa, PsyD, NSCA-CPT

As we all know too well, so much of what happens in life is completely beyond our control…

From where you were born, to the weather or traffic, how annoying your boss is, or what your partner says and does, you are constantly engaging in parts of life that you can’t change. Of course, you could TRY (some of these are too tempting) but exerting effort to change any of these things typically means anger, frustration, and disappointment…every time. Because they aren’t things you can change. Full stop. That said, how we THINK about these things can make all of the difference between feeling content and accomplished or feeling dissatisfied, stuck, and helpless. The same is true for our health goals. Let’s look at why.

What is Locus of Control?
Locus of Control (LOC) is a term that refers to a person’s beliefs about how much influence they have over the successes and failures in their life and which things they can and cannot control.

Someone who has an internal LOC tends to feel like they have a lot of control over the things that matter in their life, like career and health, while someone who has a largely external LOC tends to feel like they have little control over the things in their life. Another way to put it is that having an internal LOC makes you feel as though you are able to take active and meaningful steps towards achieving your goals while having an external LOC makes you feel as though you are at the mercy of life’s whims.

How you ended up with an internal or external LOC, like many other aspects of your psychology, is strongly influenced by your experiences growing up—especially what kind of messaging you got from your parents and family as life threw curve balls their way. Through actions and words, families are constantly teaching their kids how to view the world and while some families exemplify “You can do anything you put your mind to!” others project the idea that “Life is hard and there’s nothing you can do about it.” Which one you got as a kid MATTERS A LOT (and it may also be different than what your siblings soaked up) when it comes to your health goals.

Why it matters for your health goals
To be blunt, research shows that people with an internal LOC tend to have lower weight, tend to describe their health in more favorable terms, and report less stress and anxiety. Think about it—when you feel like you have control over something or that you trust yourself to figure it out, you’re more likely to organize plans of action, have more self-confidence, or spend time troubleshooting setbacks. But if you have an external LOC—especially about your health—you’re more likely to feel like nothing you do will make a difference, that there are too many factors working against you, and you can’t control whether or not you get “blown off course.”

Of course, LOC is much more complicated than the simplistic way it’s laid out here—and it’s definitely possible to perceive lots of control over some aspects of your life and virtually no control over others. That said, which category tends to capture your ideas about health?

How to know where you stand
1. First, and most importantly, use mindfulness—the practice of being aware of the present moment, especially your own thoughts, emotions, experiences, and patterns. At Re4m, we say it ALL the time—we cannot make changes in our lives (especially our health!) unless we’re aware of what’s going on first. A great way to start is just by “getting curious” about our experiences. When you find yourself in a state of discomfort mentally or physically, go back and ask yourself, “What happened in my mind and body that led me to this point?”

2. Take 10 minutes to sit down and think about or write down the following:
Which type of LOC do your parents seem to have (or have had while you were growing up)? In what ways have you adopted or rejected that way of thinking?
If you had to choose 2-3 “rules about health” that your parents taught you (not necessarily through words!) growing up, what would they be? (E.g., “Working hard will get you anywhere” or “If you’re too busy, it’s ok if you never workout,” etc.)
Ask for honest feedback from friends or family you know and trust. Be open to hearing something that you don’t agree with. Often, others can see patterns in how we engage with the world more than we can

3. Jot down the following aspects of health change and circle the ones you feel like you have full control over:

  • Beliefs about health
  • Motivation to start
  • Sense of Readiness
  • Follow Through
  • Organization of Tasks
  • Overcoming Obstacles
  • Self-esteem

The ones you didn’t circle might be areas that you approach with an external LOC (aka things you may need help changing in order to meet your goals). You can also do this exercise with specific things you want to change about yourself (E.g., list out things like: weight, appearance, eating habits, anxiety, etc.) to see which areas of your life an external LOC might be getting in your way. The scientific truth is that we have a lot more control over all of these things than we might think.

4. Take this quiz to get a better sense of how you view life in general! (Remember that your results on a general quiz won’t necessarily apply to your beliefs about health).

How to give yourself a boost
If you’re really wanting to change the way you engage with your health goals, MAKE some time to go through and do the exercises above. Again, it’s impossible to change things we aren’t aware of—especially our own thought patterns. When you notice your mind saying defeating things to you (like, “You’ve tried a million times, why would this be any different?” or “Losing weight is something other people can do, but your body just isn’t made for it,” etc.) flag that thought as unhelpful and something that gives you LESS control over your life. Then, write down or think about the opposite—something empowering or something that will keep you moving forward—and choose one TINY way to act on it.

Lastly, it’s MOST important to practice self-forgiveness for not being perfect and to reach out to someone who can help you develop and practice an internal LOC. If you’ve struggled to achieve success with your health goals, then your LOC may need to come first!