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When the Need for Control Gets Out of Control
by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.

"Individuals with an extreme degree of internal locus of control often have perfectionistic thinking as well...individuals with external locus of control are less likely to be successful because they don't make the effort."

Internal Locus of Control Example

Margie complained about being overworked both at home and at the office: “Everyone relies on me and can't seem to make decisions on their own.” However, as we explored this issue it became apparent that Margie didn't like to delegate and tended to take responsibility for everything, “The best way to make sure something is right is to do it yourself.” When we discussed the difficulty of delegating she indicated, “I would delegate if they would take initiative and do things correctly without me having to re-do their work.” As a result of needing to be in control, Margie was stressed and irritable. In addition, her family and employees didn't feel they could take the initiative without causing Margie displeasure.

External Locus of Control Example

Alan believed that if he didn't do well on a class assignment “The teacher was grading unfairly” or “Everything goes wrong for me.” His attitude with school was that no matter what he did, he didn't have control over the outcome. As a result, he tended to blame others or circumstances for his mistakes and failures.

Internal Locus of Control Fallacy

Margie's need for control was causing her undue stress. This type of control fallacy is an internal locus of control in which a person believes that success is based upon effort. Although nothing is wrong with this attitude at a moderate level, it becomes problematic when applied to situations in which a person doesn't have control.

1) Perfectionistic Control Individuals with an extreme degree of internal locus of control often have perfectionistic thinking as well. They tend to believe that there is a “right” way that things “should” be done. As a result, they may become easily frustrated when others don't share their perspective.

In addition, they frequently believe that they can't rely on others to complete a task correctly. Therefore, as in Margie's situation, they may tend to do everything themselves to make sure it is “right.” Unfortunately, this form of control may lead to resentment because others aren't doing their share.

Many times people in Margie's situation will find that others will tend to rely on them more and more. This dependency is in reaction to not feeling that they can capably handle a situation because the Margies of this world are looking over their shoulders and correcting mistakes before they have a chance to self-correct. So this internal control fallacy tends to cause problems for both the person who has the internal control issue as well as for others who may be associated with the person.

2) Caretaker Control Another aspect of internal locus of control is trying to solve others' problems. This individual doesn't want others to suffer, especially those they care about, so they try to control their lives. However, this can lead to resentment from those who are being controlled. They may not want to make the changes the caretaker has in mind for them.

The caretaker needs to recognize that we can't be responsible for another person's feelings and problems in life. We can be reasonably supportive and helpful, but ultimately, we don't have control over another person's life experiences. In fact, we don't have the ability to determine what is “right” for another individual. For example, a parent may believe that a college education is necessary for success and may demand that a child attends college. However, perhaps that child is more interested and talented with mechanics. Who is right?

External Locus of Control Fallacy

The above example of Alan illustrates the external locus of control fallacy which is the tendency to believe that success is based upon luck, not upon effort. This individual will tend to believe that someone else is successful because “He was at the right place at the right time” or “If I had the family connections she has I could have been a CEO as well.” Thus, when a person has an extreme degree of external locus of control he or she will tend to not make an effort with tasks or to give up easily. They also tend to make excuses for not achieving success.

Again, this attitude will affect others around them. For example, Alan may be the type of employee that would take advantage of Margie's over-responsibility and control. He may even tend to blame her for his failings “If she would have provided better supervision, then this wouldn't have happened.” Therefore, others will frequently be frustrated with someone with an external locus of control.

Thus, individuals with external locus of control are less likely to be successful because they don't make the effort. In addition, they may be more likely to have conflict with others due to their attitude towards others.

How to Change an Internal Locus of Control Fallacy

1) Focus on the Positive First, give yourself credit for being a person who is willing to take responsibility and who recognizes that effort leads to success. Appreciating these positive qualities allows you to realize that you don't need to change all aspects of the internal locus of control. However, two aspects need to be evaluated: being overly responsible and trying to control things that are not reasonably under your control.

2) Determine If You Have Control In fact, these two aspects are interrelated. I often tell clients, “You can't be responsible for something over which you have no control.” Therefore, the first step to dealing with the internal locus of control fallacy is to determine the degree of control you have. Too often, people inaccurately assess the degree of control they have. One way of determining this control is to ask yourself, “Even if no one else did anything, can what I do make a difference?” If not, then you don't have control.

For example, a mother wants to make sure her college-age son is on time for school. If her son makes no effort, can her efforts to wake him up and remind him make a difference? Not likely, because he needs to be responsible for attending school. Now what she does have control over is what she is willing to do if he doesn't make the effort. “No, I'm not willing to pay for school when you aren't taking responsibility for attending classes.”

3) Determine How Much Responsibility is Reasonable If you determine that you do have a certain amount of control in a situation, the next step is to determine how much control or responsibility is reasonable. One of the basic principles I teach people is to not take more responsibility than the person they are trying to help. If I'm teaching a class, I have a limited amount of control over whether the students will learn anything, and with some students I may have no control. Therefore, I can be responsible for providing the class with information in an understandable manner and being available for questions or problems. But beyond that, the rest of the learning experience is up to the student. If I take too much responsibility and pursue a student trying to help improve his/her grades I may be making more effort than the student. In which case, I become frustrated and the student doesn't learn any more because he/she is not taking responsibility to learn. Over-responsibility for someone else tends to lead to co-dependent behavior in which the other person becomes less responsible and more dependent.

How to Change an External Locus of Control Fallacy

The external locus of control fallacy is often the more difficult of the two to change because it requires recognition of the irrational thinking. Yet the style itself tends to place blame elsewhere and not recognize responsibility for change. Typically, when I see clients who have this problem they have been strongly encouraged to seek therapy by someone else who may be negatively influenced by their behavior. For example, a wife may insist that her husband seek help because his attitude affects their marriage and her happiness. He may be perfectly content to continue with the external locus of control because it doesn't cause any immediate noticeable discomfort.

Sometimes I will have clients who come to me with the complaint: “I don't know how to be an adult. Everything was always given to me and I don't know how to be responsible. I can see how it might be causing problems at work.” Typically, these individuals have learned an external locus of control because they had parents with an internal locus of control who took responsibility for everything and didn't have expectations for them.

1) Recognize the External Locus of Control So the first step is the recognition of the external locus of control. One way of recognizing it is by listening to the self-talk. If you frequently blame others or circumstances and if you tend to see success as due to luck or “who you know,” you are likely to have an external locus of control. You may also use the Perceived Control questionnaire to determine what type of control you have.

2) Recognize Importance of Effort The next step involves changing the words you use and recognizing the importance of effort and responsibility. Stop using the concept of luck as an explanation of behavior. It may be helpful to examine what has allowed people to be successful in life. If you pick up biographies of successful people, you will often see the themes of effort, determination, and responsibility reflected in their stories. For instance, Madonna didn't just happen upon her success but she was a hard-worker and a clever businesswoman who created her dreams.

3) Take Initiative Finally, quit making excuses and start asking yourself, “What can I do to change this situation?” Tell yourself that success is up to you. Tell yourself that you can't expect others to be responsible, that you must take the initiative to change your life and make it what you desire.


As I've mentioned elsewhere, the way to change our thinking and the emotional and behavioral consequences of our thinking is through repetition. Once we have identified the rational self-talk that we want to engage in, we need to repeat it to ourselves frequently enough so that it becomes automatic. Once it becomes automatic you are well on your way to significant changes in your life.


Kindle Books by
Dr. Monica Frank

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