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Personal Responsibility and Locus of Control

A. Tom Horvath, Ph.D., ABPP, Kaushik Misra, Ph.D., Amy K. Epner, Ph.D., and Galen Morgan Cooper, Ph.D. , edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

In the previous section, we reviewed four different models of personal responsibility for causing and solving problems.

Locus of Control

This issue of personal responsibility for problems and their solutions brings to the surface deeper, underlying issues. In particular, it reveals whether we see ourselves as the actor, or the director, of our own lives.

Throughout this series on addiction, we've suggested that each person is free to choose between and among the various theoretical models of addiction. Ideally, people in recovery will pick some combination of models that best fits their needs and circumstances. In this way, they can successfully solve their addiction problem. However, these choices are largely governed by a stable personality characteristic called "locus of control." Simply stated, this personality characteristic describes people's sense of control over their own lives. People's understanding of their ability to control their own lives will greatly influence which types of recovery models are most suitable for them.

When people have an internal locus of control, they expect they will determine their own futures because of their own actions. If we were to imagine life as a sort of theatrical play, these people would consider themselves the directors of their own lives. Conversely, when people have an external locus of control they do not expect to have control over their futures. Things just happen to them. From this perspective, they have no control or influence over their lives. Continuing with our analogy of life as a theatrical play, these folks would consider themselves mere actors in their own lives.

Locus of control describes people's sense of control over their lives. It also describes the way people understand the problems they experience. In a related manner, it somewhat predicts how they will attempt to solve these problems. For example, if I possess an internal locus of control, I believe problems are my own doing (since I am the director of my life). I also believe that I must solve my own problems (since I created them).

Locus of control is a relatively stable and enduring aspect of personality (as are most personality characteristics). It is so stable that we "take it for granted." We are unaware of the way our particular locus of control colors our understanding of a problem. Nonetheless, it greatly affects our approach to solving problems. Locus of control can change, but it changes slowly, over many years.

Since locus of control is rather stable and influences our approach to problems, it becomes highly relevant to recovery from addiction. An approach to recovery that conflicts with your own locus of control is almost certain to fail. Therefore, find (or create) an approach to recovery that best matches your own position on the locus of control continuum (ranging from external to internal). If you would like, you could take a test to measure your locus of control.

You can more simply determine this by evaluating your own attitudes toward recovery. Do you see yourself as the person who must find a solution to your addiction problem? Or, do you see the solution primarily coming from others? If you have a strong internal locus of control, you will feel more comfortable with a compensatory model, or a moral model. Conversely, if you have a strong external locus of control, you will naturally resonate with an enlightenment model or medical model.

These sharp distinctions between an internal and external locus of control helps us to define this personality characteristic. However, nobody exhibits a purely internal or external locus of control. Most of us lean in one direction or the other. The point is to become aware of which direction you lean. This way you can more easily align your recovery efforts to your own personality and preferences.