As children, we’re conditioned to ask permission whenever we want to do something. You need permission from your parents to leave the dinner table or to go outside and play. You need permission from your teacher to use the bathroom.

Even as adults, we feel compelled to request permission. You need permission from your boss to leave work early. You need permission from your spouse to grab drinks with your friends instead of weeding the garden. You need permission from the city to build a shed in the backyard.

As a result, most of us have developed an external locus of control. That is, we subconsciously believe we need permission to do anything.

In personality psychology, the term locus of control describes how people view the world around them, and where they place responsibility for the things that happen in their lives. Though this might sound complicated, the concept is actually rather simple.

  • If you have an internal locus of controL, you believe that the quality of your life is largely determined by your own choices and actions. You believe that you are responsible for who you are and what you are.
  • If you have an external locus of control, you believe that the quality of your life is largely determined by forces beyond your control, by your environment or luck or fate. You believe that others are responsible for who you are and what you are.

Most people respond to the system of rewards and punishments that has evolved in the culture that surrounds them. If your culture prizes material gain, wealth becomes important to you. If it emphasizes familial relationships, family becomes important to you.

But when you live like this — when you make decisions based on your social environment — the only happiness you can obtain is fleeting. As a result, many people suffer some degree of angst, of anxiety or dread. “Is that all there is?” we wonder, when we pause to reflect upon our lives. “Isn’t there something more?”

There is something more.

Lasting happiness can be achieved, but not by being a puppet whose strings are pulled by situation and society. To achieve long-term happiness (and meaning), you have to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of your external circumstances. You have to create a system of internal rewards that are under your own power.

Like most folks, I grew up with an external locus of control. I thought my fate was largely at the mercy of the people and events around me. This wasn’t a conscious belief, but the notion was always there, underlying everything I thought or did. I waited for things to happen. I needed permission to take risks or try new things. As a result, I felt stuck. I was trapped in a world I did not enjoy. I wanted something more, but something more never arrived.

In time, I realized that if I wanted something more, it was up to me to obtain it. Gradually, my locus of control shifted from an external focus to an internal focus. I decided that I am responsible for my own destiny and my own happiness. It’s up to me to live a life I love.

I am responsible for my own well-being, and you are responsible for yours.

If you’re unhappy, nobody else can make things better for you. You must make things better for yourself. Focus on the things you can control, and use that control to fix the other things that are broken. In this way, you’ll gradually gain confidence and greater control of your future well-being.

You live in a world of your own design. You have the power to choose. You create your own certainty. Life as you want to live, and do so without regret. Give yourself permission to do so.

Caveat: It’s okay to seek happiness by changing jobs or moving to San Diego. It’s not okay to steal your neighbor’s television or to drive on the wrong side of the road. Remember the Golden Rule. Enjoy your life without diminishing the ability of others to enjoy theirs.

5 Replies to “Permission and Control”

  1. Very good point, but an internal locus of control can be a two-edged sword. I grew up alone, which developed an internal locus of control in me from an early age. Unfortunately, the flip side to that was a striving for material well-being. Translation: good things, like cars, houses, travel, etc., but with debt and no provision for the future. Only after a near-bankruptcy experience almost 20 years ago did I wake up to the fact that I need to apply that internal locus of control in a better way.

    Much happier now (though nearly not as wealthy). 🙂

    • Alasdair says:

      Doesn’t really sound like an internal locus of control. You ascribe your need for material wealth to your upbringing, then your awakening to a near-bankruptcy. Those are external forces, and you give them all the power.

      Striving for cars, houses, travel, etc doesn’t stem from an internal locus of control – if anything, it would probably make you desire them less (you realise that they’re not what will make you happy, that that comes from within). Rather, it comes from an external locus. You believed that you need these things in your life to make you happy, and so you were always striving to bring more of them into your life.

      I’m glad you’re happier now though!

  2. Elizabeth says:

    I especially like your point about learning to be happy regardless of what’s going on around you. Some of my friends would be horrified to hear this, but it is possible to be happy without a spouse and kids. I would still like to have a spouse and possibly have kids, but I’m not going to go through life feeling like there’s a huge hole in it because things didn’t go as I planned.

    In fact, quite often amazing things happen when things don’t go as we planned 😉

  3. Good points JD. Having said that, I grew up in a family where I didn’t ask for permission – ever. I was being raised to become independent, I was thought to see opportunities and to act on these. What happened next? All my life (and career) I’ve asked for forgiveness rather than permission (I had to ask for dorgiveness couple of times); and it is working out okay. This is how I’m raising my son.

    Another thing we have done to us, and do to our children, is to knock out dreaming. I am probably the only mother around who told my son to ‘…forget about getting dressed and keep dreaming’ (mostly this is said in reverse.

    Our societies and the economy are changing and demend people who control their environment rather than being control by it.

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