When you’re facing an addiction, it can quickly start to feel as if your life is spinning out of control. There’s a reason, after all, that we often describe the progression of the disease of dependency as a “spiral.” But the connections between a person’s personal sense of self-control and the emergency and evolution of substance use disorder (SUD) are both highly complex and enormously important.
Indeed, there’s mounting evidence that the degree to which you feel in charge of your life has a profound influence on both addiction and recovery (1, 2). There’s even a term for it: it’s called the “locus of control” (LOC), and it is a psychological concept that refers to the extent to which a person believes that the successes or failures in their life are the consequences of their own actions rather than the result of external force largely beyond their control. So, what is locus of control, and what role might it play in addiction and recovery?
In and Out: Internal versus External Locus of Control
Psychologists generally classify a person’s locus of control in one of two ways: internal versus external locus of control. Those with an internal locus of control tend to feel as if they are in charge of their lives, choices, and circumstances. They usually have a high sense of self-efficacy, meaning that they believe that they can control pretty much anything that happens in their lives.
Not surprisingly, the opposite is true for those with a primarily externalized locus of control. When you have an external locus, you are likely to feel largely powerless, as if you have little or no say over the events in your life or how you respond to them. Your life becomes not a series of choices but of reactions to circumstances beyond your control when you have an external LOC.
To be sure, for most of us, LOC is an amalgamation of the internal and the external. Very few have only one of these types. Nevertheless, almost all of us lean more heavily toward one end of the spectrum than the other. Thus, your cognitive and behavioral patterns and tendencies help to determine whether your locus of control is primarily internal or external.
The Impact of Internal LOC on Addiction
It might seem as if an internal locus of control is overwhelmingly beneficial and even essential in preventing or recovering from the disease of addiction. After all, when you have an internal locus of control, you tend to feel a high degree of personal responsibility for your experience and your choices. You also tend to have high levels of self-efficacy, meaning that you believe that you enjoy a high degree of control over the events in your life.
On the one hand, of course, this can be quite beneficial, particularly when you are in recovery. After all, personal responsibility and accountability are critical to maintaining your sobriety. However, there’s also a significant downside to having an internal LOC when you are experiencing or at risk of developing an addiction. When you feel yourself to be in total control of your life, it can be easy to delude yourself into believing that your substance use is within your power. You may refuse to acknowledge that you have become dependent or that what you are experiencing is a true neurobiological disorder and not simply the manifestation of a pattern of “bad” behavior that you can change any time you feel like it.
Such a mindset is dangerous for a couple of important reasons. First, when an internal locus of control leads you to (falsely) believe that you have total control over your addiction, this can have an extremely detrimental impact on both the progression of the disorder and on your recovery. For example, in a study of the perception of the use of medications for alcohol use disorder (MAUD), Bromley et al. (2020) found that those who had a particularly high internal locus of control were more likely to resist the use of medication to support their recovery, even when such course of treatment was recommended by their physician (3). The researchers further found that this resistance was based largely on the subjects’ belief that they would become dependent on the medication and, thus, they would have less personal control over their own recovery. This fear of relinquishing control can have devastating consequences when you are battling a life-threatening disease, such as the disease of addiction, and are in need of help. No one, after all, wins the war against addiction alone.
There’s another challenge associated with the internal locus of control. When you feel that you are the master of your own universe, when you feel that you are the sole arbiter of what has happened, is happening, and will happen to you, not only are you shouldering a crushing burden of responsibility, but you are also inviting a barrage of blame and shame when you reach rock bottom. Indeed, when you are facing addiction, and you begin to truly recognize the turmoil that dependency has brought into your life, the havoc it has wrought on your relationships, the pain, the missed opportunities, it’s not difficult to find yourself swallowed up in a sea of guilt and self-loathing (4). This is especially true if you have a strong internal LOC and believe that every bad decision, every fall to temptation, was the result of a simple lack of willpower or simple choice rather than the outcome of a complex amalgamation of factors both within and beyond your control.
Though there are some aspects of a strong internal LOC that can be detrimental to your sustained sobriety, there are also many advantages to a healthy internal locus of control. When you feel that you have control over your choices, you will be more motivated to make good ones. After all, no one is going to go through the challenges of withdrawal and recovery if they feel the effort is futile, if they feel that, ultimately, they have no say over their sobriety. A healthy LOC, one in which you take charge over the circumstances in your life that you truly can control–your actions and your reactions to life events–then you will inevitably become more empowered, more accountable, and more responsible in and for your life.
The Impact of External LOC on Addiction
As significant as the impact of an internal LOC may be on addiction, the harms of an external LOC may be both more prolific and more severe. Indeed, there is mounting evidence that not only does an external locus of control contribute strongly to the development and progression of SUD, but it also substantially increases the risk of relapse (1, 5, 6, 7).
It makes sense, after all, because if you feel that you have no say in how your life turns out, if you feel that the things that happen to you, both good and bad, are a matter of blind luck, chance, or the careless or cruel actions of others, then how can you possibly muster the motivation to work a recovery program? Those who have a strong external locus of control quite often see themselves as either the blameless victim or the long-suffering martyr. Either way, an external LOC can provide a ready excuse to evade responsibility and accountability, to refuse to enter into or truly commit to treatment. Because an external locus of control means that you always already believe yourself to be the product of circumstances outside of yourself, that means that you’re operating reactively rather than proactively to the world around you. That kind of reactivity almost inevitably leads to a pattern of impulsivity which, in turn, contributes both to substance misuse and relapse (8).
In other words, you can’t resist cravings or triggers if you’ve never learned how to resist temptation. Resilience and resistance come, above all, from every obstacle that is overcome, every self-destructive impulse denied (8, 9). The more resilient you become, the greater your sense of self-confidence and self-efficacy, shifting your locus of control from the external to the internal (9, 10).
While a strong external locus of control can pose a significant threat to your recovery, perpetuating a cycle of poor self-image, low self-efficacy, and deficient self-regulation, there are some benefits to the external LOC. Specifically, an external locus of control can help you cultivate self-compassion, acceptance, and resilience. To be sure, we have control over our behaviors and our responses to the world around us. But we do not control that world. There are simply some things in our lives, our histories, and our environment that we cannot change and are not responsible for. Trying to manage the unmanageable is not only futile but cruel and dangerous, often contributing to or exacerbating addiction and relapse. An external locus of control helps you recognize those elements in your life that are beyond your control and to stop blaming or punishing yourself for events over which you bear no responsibility.
How Bayshore Can Help
At Bayshore, our expert team of caring professionals takes a whole-person approach to addiction recovery. We treat the individual, not the disease. As such, our programs are customized to the specific needs and goals of each client. Our practitioners and clinicians are uniquely qualified to provide comprehensive care, including physical and mental healthcare, nutrition counseling, and lifestyle management. We are proud to partner with specialists across the nation to ensure that our clients receive the highest-quality aftercare treatment once they graduate from our residential treatment program.
This holistic, personalized approach to recovery helps each client strike a healthy balance between the internal and the external locus of control. We support our clients in learning to take their power back and in cultivating personal responsibility and accountability. At the same time, we teach them to understand the disease of addiction, to abandon guilt and shame for circumstances that are truly beyond their control, and to recognize the importance of a strong support network in sustaining their recovery.
Contact Bayshore today to discuss how our team can help you or someone you love cultivate healthy strategies for taking control over their lives and, in turn, build a future free of drug dependency.