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Perceived locus of control, and suffering

January 13, 2010

I started reading Shinzen Young’s Break Through Pain this morning, and it got me to thinking again about something I’d wanted to write about earlier: perceived locus of control.

In psychology, locus of control refers to where you perceive control of your life circumstances as lying: within you, or outside yourself. This concept relies on the perception that there is some clear “in here” and “out there” division of the world, which is a subject of its own! Considerering that most people do view the world through this kind of duality filter, it’s a very useful concept indeed.

What got me thinking about this again, in personal terms, was recognizing that I’d been somewhat resisting starting into a course of meditation specifically for pain management, even though I’ve been having trouble dealing with chronic pain. For similar reasons, I have had trouble sticking with a DIY myotherapy/rehab routine. The conflict I’ve set up for myself here? Doing extra things when I am in pain and exhausted from it feels unfair sometimes, almost like punishment. At some level, I have also been afraid that it won’t work, and that would be something else I could be blamed for Not Trying Hard Enough with. Of course, I notice that I start blaming myself for not Doing All I Can. Not only does the pain take on a life of its own, I start feeling a need to somehow bash it into submission. In the meantime, I am still suffering from pain.

These mental scripts make no real sense, but these things rarely do. By now, they mostly start playing in my head when I’m tired and suffering from the pain. I have gotten better at recognizing them for what they are, and not buying into them. And then I realize I’ve put off acquiring a book which might help with insight. 😉

No, this is not directly a post about the chronic pain I’ve been experiencing on a personal level. It is about some of the suffering we can cause ourselves–and the rest of the world–through dodgy assumptions about locus of control in our lives.

On the personal level again, a lot of this struck me while dealing with my grandmother. She obviously believes that she has very little control over her own circumstances, with plenty of learned helplessness going on. Her emotional regulation is virtually nonexistent, since she does not believe she has control over her own life even to that extent. She openly blames the people around her for the problems she experiences, to the point of being very emotionally abusive; she also relies on others for validation, and will become very angry indeed when what she gets in that department does not match her unspoken expectations. She is also terrified of almost everything–from electrical appliances to fat park squirrels–and tries to gain some illusion of control over her circumstances through ritualistic obsessive-compulsive behaviors, disordered eating behaviors, passive-aggressive and otherwise manipulative dealings with other people, obsession with fighting germs, and similar. She is a very unhappy person, who strongly resists the idea that she could possibly be happier short of miracles happening around her.

I still feel somehow disloyal, describing my own grandmother’s behavior in those terms, but that’s what I see. In spite of–or possibly because of–all the the difficulties she throws up in front of the people around her, she also helped me learn compassion. The world she lives in, though it exists only in her own head, is a truly terrifying place. It may not be fun for anyone to deal with, but I can see exactly why she behaves in some of the ways she does, based on those perceptions of how things work.

It’s also not hard to see how far from unusual this approach to the world is. She takes it to extremes on an individual level, but our society deals heavily in many of the same perceptions. So do a lot of others, around the world.

The external forces controlling our lives are seen in a variety of ways, and go by a variety of names. If you’re not directly attributing events to god(s), other godlike forces will do. That’s how we get the excesses of “Good Body” asceticism (not so different from more overtly religious styles of it), brutal status quo-propping evolutionary psychology, strict biopsychiatry, orthorexia, lifestyle activism, exaggerated fearmongering, reliance on government and other institutions to “do something” by controlling other people, and authoritarianism in its many other forms.

When we don’t believe that we have much control over our lives, we are far more likely to try to assert control over what we think we might be able to. Sometimes this is cloaked in terms of appeasing the forces which are really in control. We may scapegoat other groups of people as needing to be controlled, lest something horrible happen. We may blame other people for any misfortune that befalls them–disability, poverty, etc.–in hopes that the Unknown will not take notice and do the same things to us.

V.S. Naipaul, among others, has pointed out how this has played out with control over women’s lives in Pakistan: things are not going well, God must be displeased, we must not be following the rules strictly enough, surely exerting tighter control over women will make God happy again. We can see how this is playing out now, all over the world; that is just one extreme example. Another extreme example from a couple of days ago: Pope says gay marriage threat to creation. Then there’s the Stupak madness. I could go on.

This way of thinking encourages all sorts of extremism.

We can also see how similar scapegoating keeps playing out along racial, ethnic, sexual orientation, disability, gender identity, immigrant status, physical size, age, neurological, and other lines–basically, involving any way we can set up categories based on perceived differences. We get to dissociate ourselves from the people perceived to be causing problems, while controlling/abusing/killing them in an attempt to appease whatever higher power is perceived to be making life difficult for us.

This is one of the strands of wétiko thinking which has logically led to all manner of atrocities and exploitation. John Mohawk sets it out very well in his Utopian Legacies; he illustrates how this has continued to play out for millenia, at the very least. Jack Forbes approaches this from a slightly different angle in Columbus and Other Cannibals.

The complications of a perceived external locus of control is at least implied in all of those. In typically twisted fashion, the more strongly we perceive ourselves to be split off from the rest of a crushingly powerful universe, the greater lengths we will go to in order to establish and maintain some semblance of control over something.

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, in a lot of ways. To try to hold off the Unknown, we can set up all sorts of hierarchies and institutions so that we really do have little control over many things in our lives. Including Kaosu’s excellent example in a comment on an earlier post:

the traditional avenues of resistance (street protests, writing letters to Congress, mass movements, etc) have become totally impotent and ineffectual. There is often an extreme sense of powerlessness, and it becomes very difficult to see what else we can do on anything other than a personal level. And while I think making personal changes is a positive and necessary first step, we can’t just stop there. And have to keep asking tough questions, we have to think outside the box the system has handed us, and we have to be willing to face the frightening reality that in spite of all our “lifestyle changes” the problems persist and may be getting worse. That’s not “negative energy”, it’s just reality

This kind of system based on external control as the proper order of things encourages individuals to focus on minutiae in order to feel like they’re making a difference in their own lives, and in the wider world. Whether that is writing letters to Congress, obsessing over what we’re eating on any of a number of grounds, or doing beauty drag to be vaguely socially acceptable–people need to feel like we have some kind of control over our circumstances. The really sad and frustrating part if that these “options” offer an illusion of control, at best, while sometimes doing a lot of harm. These readily available “choices” are a very poor substitute for real freedom.

A lot of other false dichotomies are directly related to this one. Kaosu’s recent Activism and Mind/Body Dualism post goes into some similar implications, as does shiva’s Drugs, anti-psychiatry and cognitive liberty: transcending “social vs. biological” post I linked to yesterday. These delusions are interconnected. Thich Nhat Hanh, along with other Buddhist teachers, offer an awful lot to consider here.

As (the highly recommended) A Basic Call to Consciousness points out with many “real world” examples, things do not have to be this way. We do not have to keep perpetuating our own suffering, much less projecting and perpetuate it on other people.

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