Her Campus Logo Her Campus Logo
placeholder article
placeholder article

Failures of an Internal Locus of Control: Another Collision with Reality

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Texas chapter.

One of the best compliments I’ve ever received was from my grandmother. When discussing Sam Harris’ logic, or rather lack thereof, she expressed, “Grace, I’d be surprised if you agreed completely with anything. That’s just not you.”

I doubt she meant the comment to be a compliment. She most likely was making a factual claim about how fundamentally disagreeable I am, and how it comes out most clearly in debates. I gladly took the comment as a compliment, because she’s right; I would rather continue to be a ball of intellectual confrontation than uphold someone else’s faulty philosophy as a pinnacle of truth.

Being the disagreeable person that I am, I also enjoy when slight nuances in someone’s argumentation can turn a generally good argument, as determined by its conclusion, at least, into an annoying opinion piece. Premises that loiter close to the truth enough to seem legitimate always have a way of disturbing your locus of apathetic control.  They gnaw at you, begging for attention by being slightly off kilter.

Lisa Marchiano’s “Collision with Reality: What Depth Psychology Can Tell us About Victimhood Culture” is one of those article that gnawed at me. Introduced to me through a couple of Facebook friends (gotta love those sharing options), this article encapsulates a conclusion I would generally find myself attract to, but upon further investigation, is just (bluntly) irritating.


In the article, Marchiano, a clinical social worker and Jungian analyst, contrasts young Carl Jung’s overcoming of his (possibly?) self-imposed victimhood with the current trend of young people not overcoming self-imposed victimhood. Marchiano writes,

“In my therapeutic work with mothers of teens and tweens, I am a frequent second-hand witness to children who, seeking to avoid the developmental demands of approaching independence, cling to their frailties in much the same way 12-year-old Jung did. Negotiating such an impasse as a parent can be particularly difficult, as current cultural trends offer unwitting support for young people to claim oppression and illness.”

Immediately, Marchaino introduces her main critique of society: victimhood culture has a tendency to encourage having an external locus of control, which is correlated to anxiety disorders, in contrast to having an internal locus of control, which is correlated to better health. These loci of control mean the way in which a person feels like she can control a situation (internal locus) or be controlled by a situation (external).

Stipulating a victimhood culture, Marchanio reasons that there are certain advantages to claiming victim status. College campuses arguably develop victimhood as a way to “raise one’s standing and confer virtue” whenever a possible victim flees to the protection of a third party. An influx of individuals claiming victimhood status by mental illnesses, for example, also decreases the stigma behind being victimized, encouraging treatment and the normalization of victimhood. However, claiming victim status, Marchanio insists, increases helplessness in individuals, as people tend to let external circumstances dominate their internal sense of control. For instance, “Depression isn’t my fault,” a depressed individual might say. A natural progression to feeling vicitmizaed by depression is the helplessness of “I cannot control my depression”. Even special educational 504 plans can be viewed to appease children’s anxieties by developing avoidance behaviors from challenging circumstances.

The biggest consequence of individuals falling prey to victimhood culture, Marchanio tells us, is that individuals lose “the story they came into the world to tell”. Curiously, Marchiano ultimately concludes how giving way to an external locus of control prevents the realization of one’s own potential. Living out an external locus of control is somehow deficient. It is almost as if she suggests that by maintaining the feeling that one can control her own life a person may actualize her fate, an externally controlled phenomenon.

Such a conclusion brings out the absurdity of Marchiano’s article—an internal locus of control is entirely an illusion. To see this, consider an example Marchiano gives.

‘The Times article profiles a New Jersey high school that has developed a dedicated program to meet the needs of anxious students. It relates an encounter between Paul Critelli, one of the program’s teachers, and a withdrawn, anxious student who claimed he had nothing to do.

Critelli looked at him incredulously.

“Dude, you’re failing physics,” Critelli said. “What do you mean you don’t have anything to do?”

“There’s nothing I can do — I’m going to fail,” the student mumbled.’

I’m sure other college students have either been in this situation or know of someone who has been in this situation. Sometimes, a student has to make a 50% on her final in order to pass her class. Sometimes, she has to make a 90%. Sometimes, she has to make a 168%. After asking for extra credit and begging the professor for another chance, sometimes, just sometimes, there is actually nothing she can do to fix her grade.

Sometimes, an internal locus of control will not overcome external controls on an individual’s life. Maintaining an unrealistic internal locus of control only proves to delude the individual, encapsulating her in a false reality and subjecting her to a faulty cost-benefit analysis, which dictates future possible actions. Addressing a victimhood culture should not include the embracement of an internal locus of control. Rather, the address must include a better understanding of accurately assessing external risks and cost-benefit analyses.

Marchiano introduces victimhood culture as if it threatens society. While victimhood culture does have its drawbacks, in her introduction of how it may perpetuate victimization, Marchiano actually showcases the merits of the culture.

“A mother in my practice recently shared that her child’s seventh grade year began with the teacher having students share their preferred pronouns. Immediately afterwards, this mother’s 12-year-old daughter began identifying as genderfluid and became preoccupied with her new status as a member of an oppressed minority. Though the teacher undoubtedly meant to communicate tolerance and acceptance, she inadvertently created an inducement to victimhood.”

Engaging conversations that attempt to minimize oppression may close pathways for the exchange of ideas, particularly because requiring a victim to justify their membership to a victimized class can be oppressive. However, these conversations also serve to inform people about the oppressed group. In this circumstance, the 12-year-old might have always felt gender-fluid, but the student might have never known how to express themselves without the aid of their seventh grade teacher. The teacher could have given this student a new way to understand themselves. Talking about victimized groups could have allowed the student to recognize their belonging to an oppressed group and encouraged the student to explore their self-recognized identity. The student may also now know how to better operate in a world that does not fully respect their identity. Recognizing minority groups becomes a source of individual enlightenment and external information. It’s a reckoning of external worlds, for people both in and out of victimized groups. Victimhood culture teaches people about those groups existing outside of non-marginalized people and also how the world treats those groups.

Understanding that there are external forces that greatly control an individual’s life is not a direct attack of an internal locus of control, but it does begin to demonstrate where an internal locus of control fails. Victims are not always in complete control of their circumstances, and pretending that they are is detrimental to their assessments of the world and their actions in response to the world.

Consider a personal example. I’m a runner, and one summer evening, I decided to go on my run. I decided to run in the evenings, because I get some light outside, but the evenings are cool enough to avoid a Texas heat stroke. I don’t have access to my school’s gym during the summer, so I ran in my grandmother’s safe neighborhood. My work out outfit consisted of leggings and a loose athletic t-shirt. I took precautions to minimize my chances of sexual harassment. Nevertheless, a truck screeched to a halt in the middle of the road that evening, and a rider proceeded to throw open his passenger door so that he could get out of the truck and yell cat calls at me. I was scared and my personal sense of safety decreased exponentially. With my run ruined, I walked home calling friends to keep me some kind of company until I was in doors. “You should be flattered,” my sister said to me when I called her for comfort.

I want to bring out that I attempted to decrease the risk of sexual harassment as much as possible, within reason. My clothing was appropriate for the type of activity I was performing and the time and place in which I was running was not only optimal for my health, but also optimal for my safety in light of health restrictions. I applied as much of an internal locus of control through prevention as possible given my situation. However, even when I stacked the odds of not getting sexually harassed in my favor, I could not avoid external forces at play. I was a woman caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and so I was a victim in my situation.

Even when doing “everything right”, victimization by external forces is difficult, if not impossible, to avoid. If I were to completely internalize an internal locus of control, I could of risked greater harms while on my run. Suppose I wore just a sports bra, or suppose I ran a part of town with a higher crime rate. I would increase the amount of risk I was taking on, without any real payoff for the increase either. I decreased my risk not by believing I alone can control my situation, but by recognizing my contextualization and the risk in different contexts. Becoming aware of how I relate to society in the context of how society views and interacts with me, I maintain a realistic set of expectations for how much risk I can appropriately take on when also interacting with the world. Yet, even by decreasing risk, I could not avoid it completely. Again, this is because the external risk is unavoidable and impossible to subjugate to an internal locus of control.

Instead of hyping the advantages of an internal locus of control in comparison to an external locus of control, what should really be encouraged for victimized individuals interacting in society is the ability to accurately make risk assessments. Marginalized individuals should remain realistic about external forces acting against them, and they should not internalize a faulty internal locus of control, which can only serve to further distance them from reality. Individuals instead should contextualize themselves in society by better understanding external forces acting on them, running constant risk assessments and cost-benefit analyzes on possible actions in order to best map their own lives for themselves. For instance, I better understood my risk having been sexually harassed on my run. The next day, I ran sooner in the day, decreasing sexual harassment encounters, while only marginally increasing health costs from my increased time in the sun. I’m still a victim of sexual harassment. However, understanding my risk better by becoming more aware of how society treats me also positively informs my future actions of avoiding unnecessary risk.

These risk assessments inform the individual on how much their own actions can affect certain outcomes. I contend ignoring external forces does not evade helplessness, but contextualization through risk assessment might.


Photo Credit

Grace is a Philosophy and Economics double major and a Government minor at the University of Texas at Austin. Most of her writing focuses on politics and civic engagement, characteristically intertwining her journalism with op-ed takes (usually nonpartisan; depends who you ask). Grace enjoys reading philosophy, reading and discussing politics, gushing over her dog, and painting in her spare time. As a true economics enthusiast, she also loves graphs.