“Locus of control” seems to be a current buzzword in some self-defence circles. Unfortunately, the term is being misinterpreted and misapplied. That’s not just annoyingly incorrect and misleading; it’s also potentially dangerous.


First things first: definitions. “Locus of control” is a term with an actual, accepted meaning:

A locus of control orientation is a belief about whether the outcomes of our actions are contingent on what we do (internal control orientation) or on events outside our personal control (external control orientation).

Individuals with an external LoC believe that the outcome of their actions is determined by external circumstances – luck, fate, God, conspiracies, aliens, you name it.

Individuals with an internal LoC believe that the outcome of their actions is determined by his/her personal decisions and efforts – hard work, a winning personality, clear superiority over the human race, whatever.

This is the meaning of the term. There’s a whole lot of stuff it doesn’t mean:

  • Having an internal locus of control doesn’t equate to being proactive: people can be proactive because they believe that god or the little blue people who live in the television want them to be.
  • It doesn’t equate to being optimistic: people can believe that they can’t lose because the fate or the gods or whoever they ascribe agency to is with them. Historically, that’s motivated people to attempt all kinds of things, from the sublime to the ridiculous and the horrific.
  • It doesn’t equate to being independent: people can be very independent because they believe they can’t have any control over the behaviour and attitudes of third parties, so they shun society out of fear and turn into themselves.
  • It doesn’t equate to feeling or acting above the law: if you engage in criminal behaviours and you think it’s up to the fates whether you get caught or not, then you’re a criminal and you have an external LoC.

The list could go on indefinitely, because “internal LoC” means “internal LoC”; nothing less, and nothing more.

The other common misuse of the term is in assuming that  internal LoC is inherently good and external is inherently bad.This might kinda sorta work from a purely internal perspective. However, our lives are generally not solely internal. Most people interact with the world around them, to a greater or lesser extent. The level of control we actually have on various aspects of our lives can vary hugely.

So, for instance, “I failed the test because it was rigged” could superficially suggest an external locus of control. “I failed the test because I didn’t study” could suggest an internal locus of control. Those are gross oversimplifications, however, because they completely discount reality. It can in fact happen that a test is rigged, and there was literally nothing one could do to pass it. Realising and accepting that fact doesn’t make someone a quitter or a loser; it makes someone realistic, and it can enable them to actually take useful steps to address the actual problem (e.g., fighting against the unfairness of the examination instead of neurotically studying themselves into exhaustion).

[Fun historical fact: the Vikings believed that the time of their death was predetermined, unchangeable, and entirely unrelated to how they chose to live their lives. That didn’t precisely make them soft. Quite the contrary, in fact.]


Back to the original link:

In general, it seems to be psychologically healthy to perceive that one has control over those things which one is capable of influencing.

The highlight is mine, because the whole sentence is important. Feeling in control of things we aren’t in fact capable of influencing doesn’t make us strong, superior, rugged, pro-active individuals; it makes us delusional. It can also make us better victims and scupper our recovery.

It is absolutely true that believing that we have no control over things we are in fact influencing can lead us to make very poor life choices, or to make no choices at all. That is a huge problem in self-defence. People who believe they can’t do anything to stop being victims will most likely do nothing, and continue to be victims. It’s as useful as someone saying “I can’t do anything to stop being hit by cars, so I might as well not look when I’m crossing the road.” The repeated victimhood will confirm their belief in their own helplessness. It’s a vicious, downward spiral, and it’s repulsively ugly to behold.

However, pushing people to internalise their locus of control without encouraging them to take steps to gain actual control over their lives is terminally anti-useful. In order for people to manage or avoid situations, they need to have a realistic understanding of the elements that create those situations, and of the level of influence they can actually exert on them.

Think about it: if incorrectly internalising the locus of control was so empowering, it wouldn’t be a textbook abusive tactic: “look at what you’re making me do.” “I made my partner hit me” indicates an internal locus of control. So does “I made my parent rape me.” There’s nothing empowering or galvanising about this kind of thinking; not a goddamn thing. On the contrary, it can push a victim into staying into a situation, constantly trying to fix it by changing who they are and what they do, instead of getting the hell out of Dodge. If and when they get out, it can make their recovery heinously hard, because how do you recover from something you’ve caused to happen to yourself?  Self-victim-blaming is probably the worst form of victim blaming there is; how do you walk away from your internal voices?


Danger management is predicated on being able to correctly identify our hazards and establishing adequate control measures. It requires us to be able to connect with the reality around us: what hazards am I exposed to? what can I do to reduce my risks? It demands realism, and an understanding of how the world actually works; and that understanding often demands that we accept that we’re not all-powerful and all-controlling.

Self-defence experts who are selling a misplaced internal Locus of Control are not selling self-defence: they’re selling self-delusion. Unfortunately, as the market for that is ever blooming, they’re doing rather well at it.


One thought on “Control

  1. “It’s hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head”.
    Sally Kempton

    somebody(s) installed those “outposts” very, very early – not always to lead to extreme harm, but to enable some somebodies to get compliance, service, deference, agreement, acceptance, obedience,
    consent (even if reluctant or confused). And its not identified as installing ‘outposts’ that cripple: its called raising ‘good girls’, being a lady, being ‘feminine’. Those outposts will serve to make the ‘victims’ doubt themselves; doubt so strong that they doubt they even have the right to resist, disagree, to question. To fight back. To stop the harassment. Even naming the reality is nearly impossible for women and girls. So they don’t, because doing so would be the worst thing.

    I always find it sad, funny, despairing to watch or read MA-based SD4W instructors (99.9% men) keep telling their women/girls classes that “they are worth defending” over and over again. I honestly wonder why these men don’t notice that this happens over and over again.


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