It’s Monday morning and I’m standing in a pool of black mud in the middle of my mother’s living room.
This wasn’t how I had planned to spend my day.
Even though I had obsessively tracked the path of Hurricane Ian the week before it made landfall in Fort Myers, Florida, I couldn’t have predicted where it would land, how severe it would be, or that a 12-foot storm surge would carry mud, water, and piles of debris from the Caloosahatchee River into my mother’s living room.
But the hardest part of that week wasn’t the physical chore of sorting through my mother’s moldy and muddy belongings to preserve whatever possessions weren’t ruined—it was the days before the hurricane slammed into the Florida coast: the uncertainty, anxiety, fear, and most crucially, my inability to do anything about it.
The minute I knew her house had been flooded, and that I would be needed, I was locked into action. I had a plan. I knew what I had to do. And I felt calmer, more focused, and decidedly less anxious.
There’s a term for this: locus of control.
When we have some degree of control, some tiny sphere of influence, or just the slightest sense that we can take an action, make a decision, do anything, we feel more at ease.
That’s why people battling cancer, facing adversity or fleeing an enemy are able to mobilize themselves and face the challenge, but people fearing cancer, war, and adversity cannot fathom how they’ll manage if it should happen to them.
The role locus of control plays in status and power has been well researched. The famous Whitehall studies, which examined mortality rates among British civil servants, discovered that all else being equal, the employees in the lowest grade had a much higher mortality rate and poorer health outcomes than those in the highest grades.
While there is some debate over the precise cause of this, one conclusion researchers have drawn is that people in lower-status jobs have less control over their work, less decision-making autonomy, less social support, and more psychological stress.
Interestingly, there is also research that shows that those at the highest levels also have lower mortality rates … we’ve all seen those before-and-after pictures of Presidents and how they’ve aged during their terms. At the highest levels, that same lack of control, increased psychological stress, and less social support play a role.
This explains why people are drawn to conspiracy theories. They are a proxy of control. People who feel powerless and disillusioned tend to gravitate more toward conspiracy theories.
In a complex world, with seemingly random events constantly occurring beyond our control or understanding, a conspiracy theory not only offers an explanation, but also a sense of power, superiority, and self-esteem. You are in possession of the truth, a member of an exclusive in-group that others, too stupid or too submissive, can’t see.
So what choice do we have? If the locus of control is associated with high status, and life provides an endless stream of events we can’t influence—pandemics, hurricanes, and recessions—what can we do? How can we grow a locus of control?
The good news is that the locus of control is subjective, not objective. It is a sense of control. It doesn’t mean you can blow Hurricane Ian back out to sea. It doesn’t mean your boss will listen to you. But it does mean you have options. You can take action. You can figure out a Plan B, C, and D.
Some of the best ways to regain a sense of control that I’ve found for me, and for the people I coach are:
Break things down. Everything is overwhelming. And facing a steep mountain of tasks, or challenges is enough to make anyone sit down and give up before even trying. But take one step at a time. For me, making a flight reservation to help my mom was immediately helpful. Whatever difficulty you’re facing, if you can identify 3 steps to take, you’ll immediately gain a sense of control and begin feeling better.
Ask yourself what this challenge can teach you. Framing obstacles as opportunities for learning and improvement builds confidence. What it does, essentially, is put the focus on you and your growth. So instead of feeling like the victim of outer events, you can place yourself at the center and discover how whatever you’re enduring can make you stronger, better, and more able to deal with challenges in the future. Rather than thinking about success or failure, or the worst possible outcomes, identify everything new you’ll be able to learn or the skills you’ll be able to practice.
Reflect on the past. You are where you are right now only because you surmounted numerous obstacles in the past. How did you do that? What did you learn from overcoming those challenges that you can apply to future challenges? By doing this, you will be bringing past mastery experiences to the fore of your mind, thereby helping to increase your self-efficacy in the present.
Finally, talk to someone. Don’t dismiss social support or feel that you are alone. I was fortunate to be with my family in Florida—my sister and brother and their families. My friends texted me constantly, providing a sense of love and support. It mattered enormously. Sometimes simply talking things over gives you distance, perspective, and the sense that together, we can move mountains.
Life rarely, if ever, goes according to plan. It is full of ups, downs, challenges, surprises, and yes, emergencies that blindside you and knock you off of center. And while we may not be able to make life play by our own rules, we can rewrite our rules to have a plan that helps us stay centered, focused, and proactive whenever and wherever life decides to strike next.
Thank you for reading.
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