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Ch-6: From External to Internal Control of Your Life

Part 2: Sources of External and Internal Control

Tom G. Stevens PhD
Psychologist/Professor Emeritus, California State University, Long Beach
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Chapter 6,  Part 2, from You Can Choose To Be Happy,  Tom G. Stevens PhD
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Sources of internal and external control

 Three-way conflicts: others, internalized others, and self
 Society and the media
 Reference Groups
 Beliefs swallowed whole
 Even compliments can support external control and manipulation
 Dealing with manipulation by positive or negative labels
 Your basic psychobiological needs
 Your Higher Self
 Other parts of yourself



Why do some people become independent and internally controlled while others become overly dependent and externally controlled? A newborn baby is dependent upon its parents for almost everything--food, shelter, love, and all types of care. Its parents have a great deal of control over the newborn's world. It doesn't take long for the child to realize how important its parents are. The child's belief in external control is rooted in its actual dependence upon others to meet its basic needs and values.

Even as adults we are dependent upon many others to satisfy our values. We are partly dependent upon hundreds of people just to supply our groceries. Yet, if adults are left alone, most have adequate resources to get food. On the other hand, if infants were left alone, they would starve. Beliefs in dependence are often reality based.

However, beliefs in dependence may be exaggerated. For example, many teenagers (or even adults) believe they are still dependent upon their parents for food and money.

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External control beliefs undermine self-confidence and independence. There is an important difference between teenagers and infants. Teenagers could obtain food if they were suddenly forced to be independent. Teenagers can get jobs or even get food from trash cans if necessary. Quite a few of my clients left home as teenagers, successfully supported themselves, and consequently become wise beyond their years. So, in fact, teenagers choose to depend upon their parents.

In most cases, getting food is not really what dependent teenagers or dependent adults are worried about. They are worried about their standard of living. They want to live as they are accustomed--that is natural. But, it makes the choice for independence difficult. Consequently, many choose to remain dependent, because they would rather have a high standard of living than independence. They don't realize they can learn to be happy with less money. They don't appreciate the value of independence and self-sufficiency--yet. One client said, "I'm much happier being free--even working so hard. The stuff my parents bought for me wasn't worth being under their thumb."

If people do not realize that they have the power to take care of themselves, but are choosing to remain dependent upon others, then they will feel weak and dependent. Parents often reinforce dependency by being overprotective, by being too critical, or by undermining their children's self-confidence. Stressing obedience, authority, and conformity also reinforce external control and dependence.

Believing we can take care of ourselves creates independence. Parents who stress internal control and independence give their children more responsibility. They let their children take the positive and negative consequences of their actions with less interference.

Their children learn how to control their own lives without going to their parents. They know that they are not dependent upon their parents; they can take care of themselves.

Getting more responsibility also helps children learn important life skills. Hence, they become more competent making decisions, planning, managing time, working, managing money, and relating to others. These life skills not only boost their confidence, but give them more internal resources that will help them stay independent.

If you want to increase your internal control, then it is also important to take more responsibility for your own life and emotions. It means you have to do for yourself what you have been hoping others would do for you.

If your parents have taught you to be externally controlled and dependent, 
be your own good parent--
give yourself independence, responsibility, the opportunities
to learn new skills, and the encouragement to keep trying!

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One of my clients in her late 40's was having intense conflicts and felt guilty because she knew her mother would disapprove of her lifestyle. The interesting fact is that her mother had been dead for more than10 years.

It was not her real mother that kept haunting her, but her internalized mother. An image of her mother waiving her finger and yelling at her often popped into her head. She said, "Mom may be dead, but she's alive and well in my head."

We often confuse our thoughts about what people will think or do
with what they actually think or do.
Our thoughts about what others will think or do
have a much greater effect on our emotions
than what others actually think or do.
Therefore, solving problems or conflicts with others
is often more an internal problem than an external problem.

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If you drive the right car, wear the right jeans and tennis shoes, use the right perfume, keep yourself slim, and maintain the right image, then you have "it." "It" means that everyone will like you, members from the opposite sex will fight over you, and you will probably become rich and famous. This in turn must be the ultimate route to happiness. That message is pounded into us every time we read the morning paper, look at a billboard, turn on the TV, or pick up a magazine.

How many of your peers' beliefs--and yours--have been conditioned by advertising executives trying to sell their products? How often do you notice the dysfunctional contents of their messages and challenge them? Mentally challenging these messages establishes internal control over your tastes and beliefs.

Social rules such as laws and etiquette. We are taught to obey rules about what to eat and what to eat with, about when to get up and when to go to bed, about how to look at a member of the opposite sex and how not to, about how to drive and what is "in" to drive. These rules include the law and rules of etiquette. They come from the government, our families, and our peer groups. We may conform to these social norms or not. If we do not, these groups may punish us. Their punishment can range from mild rebukes and sarcasm to physical harm, imprisonment, and ostracism.

We have seen how people can become rule-bound--by making these rules ends in themselves and interpreting them rigidly. The alternative is to view social rules as having value only to the degree that they contribute to people's happiness.

Emily Post, the original guru of American etiquette, once said that the ultimate rule of etiquette was whatever best met human needs; any other rule should be broken if it conflicted with that higher rule. Whenever we use our ultimate concern of overall happiness as our guiding principle, then we are being internally controlled-not rule-bound.

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Reference group is a useful concept for understanding external sources of control (see Sherif and Sherif, Reference Groups). Our reference groups are any groups that we identify with or see as important for meeting our values and needs. The group can be as small as two people or it can be as large as all humanity. It can be an informal group such as our family or friends or it can be a formal group such as a club or place of employment.


 Peer group(s)
  Work group
 Church or social organization
 Team or recreational group
 Interest group
 Cultural or ethnic group
 Ideological group or imagined group (e.g. writers, engineers, democrats, spiritualists, etc.)

(3) become INTERNALIZED MENTAL MODELS (e.g. mental model
of family);
(4) cause INNER CONFLICT & ANXIETY when they conflict with each other or with other important values.

We become dependent upon our reference groups to meet important values--social values for acceptance, companionship, and social activities; career and financial values; and even personal values for guidance and feedback relevant to our self-image. Social psychologists have found that our reference groups can have powerful influences upon our beliefs, values, life themes, and self-esteem.

While our reference groups provide many benefits, they also have rules and place demands on us to conform to their values and rules. At times their demands may conflict with the demands of other reference groups. These conflicting demands (between work and family, family and peers, or children and work) can create a great deal of inner conflict. The groups can also conflict with our own personal values such as our values for privacy, play, and even health.

The externally controlled person will be more affected by these demands from their reference groups. They will feel more inner conflict as the varying groups conflict with each other. The internally controlled person will almost always take the demands of a reference group less seriously than the externally controlled person. They know that their internal standards and values come first--even if that value is to contribute to other people's happiness. Internally controlled people know that they are the ones who will make the final decisions. They are not just responding to outside pressures.

PRACTICE: Identify your reference groups and other sources of external influence. (1) Who are the most important groups in your life? Who are the most important individuals? (2) For each, consider how much they influence you and how positive that influence is. How much do they affect your overall happiness and growth? Do they support or inhibit your becoming more the person you want to be? (3) Make conscious choices to reduce the influence of negative individuals and reference groups and seek out new reference groups that can help you be who you want. List at least one new reference group you would like to get more information about.

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BELIEFS SWALLOWED WHOLE (without critical examination and modification)

Parents tell their child that this barking, four-legged creature is a "DOG," and the child assumes that this creature is a "dog." This is the truth with a capital "T"--no question about it. The same parents tell their child that people from a particular ethnic group are lazy, and the child believes that statement with the same conviction.

During childhood, we developed elaborate belief systems that we largely swallowed whole. These belief systems may come from our parents, church, or other major influences. Any such belief system can become a powerful subpart of ourselves.

We need to be careful about giving away our own power to these internalized belief systems. I once saw a bumper sticker that said "QUESTION AUTHORITY." Questioning is not the same as disagreeing (or agreeing). Questioning means we are trying to understand what is meant and examine the message from a variety of relevant views.

The California State University system--the largest in the world--has decided that critical thinking is such an important mental skill that they require that all students must complete a course in critical thinking as a basic requirement for a bachelor's degree. If we do not learn to critically examine information we receive from the media, authorities, friends, and everyone else, then we will often be duped into believing things that make no sense--or inhibit our happiness.

What do we do when we discover a subpart containing dysfunctional beliefs? We can use the self-exploration method to expose those dysfunctional beliefs. Then we can use our more trusted parts to question those old beliefs--replacing them with more constructive and more accurate beliefs.

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We have explored several examples where people have used criticism, name-calling, and pressure to foster dependence. Often the recipient of the negative messages is kept off-balance by doubting their own competence or self-esteem. Being uncertain and anxious keeps them feeling weak, and makes them more vulnerable to manipulation. [Suggested responses to negative manipulation are summarized in later in this chapter.]

Has it ever occurred to you that even compliments and supportive statements can sometimes be a source of external control? For example, self-beliefs such as being a nice guy, responsible, caring, committed, or a Christian can be used by other people (or our internalized parent) to get us to do what

they want. I once read an introduction to a humorous book that was supposed to have been written by the author's mother. It went something like this,

My son wrote this book and asked me to read it. I am sure that if my son wrote it, it must be a wonderful book. I don't know. I haven't had time to read it because I have been so busy lately without anyone to help me. My son is such a wonderful caring person and loving son. I am sure that since he has finally finished this book he will again have some time for his sick mother who misses him very much and needs whatever help he has time to give around the house. I hope that you will all buy my son's book.

This is a humorous example of manipulation. The mother compliments her son so that he will enjoy the compliments and increase his dependence upon them. The subtle threat by the mother is, "if you don't do what I say and spend enough time with me, then I will withdraw the compliments." So the mother uses the compliment as a reward and its withdrawal as a punishment. This example of motherly control is a blatant example of what happens to many people. If this ever happens to you try some of the following suggestions:


Dealing with Manipulation by Positive and Negative Labels


>Focus on your emotional reaction. First, notice your ego boost, guilt or other emotions.

>Self-explore to find the self-image issue. Self-explore what you are feeling so good or guilty about--such as being a caring person or being selfish. How does this support or conflict with your ideal self-image? Is it more important how others view you or how you view yourself? If so, evaluate yourself using your own standards. Also, seek opinions from those whom you respect more.

>Work on accepting (potential) negative comments. Go to the section on self-acceptance in the self-worth chapter.

>What does the other person really want from you? Explore what the other person really wants from you. Ask yourself, "Is this person complimenting or criticizing me honestly, or doing it just to persuade me to do what he or she wants?" The latter is manipulation.

>Break their game with honesty. Going along with what they say without acknowledging the manipulative aspect of the compliment is not going to cause them to think more highly of you--on the contrary--they will only think that you are gullible or nonassertive.

What if a friend gives you a manipulative compliment such as, "You're such a great guy, would you mind doing XX for me?" Try responding with, "Ok, since I am such a great guy, I will do XX for you." In that way you are agreeing to do whatever they want--which you would do anyway. However, you are also subtly and humorously telling the person that you know that his or her compliment is for the purpose of getting you to do what he or she wants.

If you don't want to do what they are asking, you can point out the nature of the manipulation by saying, "Well, I guess you won't think I'm such a great guy after this, but I'd rather not do XX for you because . . ."

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Where do we turn to increase our internal control? Using internally controlled people as sources of insight and support can be enlightening. However, the primarily way to get more internal control is by looking inward. Become more aware of internal parts of yourself that will lead you toward happiness and develop them. What are some of these important parts that can help you get more internal control?


Our own needs, values, pleasures, and pains are powerful sources of internal control. No matter how passive we may be, if we get hungry enough, sleepy enough, or sick enough we become persistent to get that need met. These internal stimuli give strong internal messages that are hard to ignore.

If we love ourselves, we will listen carefully to these internal signals and give them priority. We will be less vulnerable to external control. Have you ever had to go to the bathroom when someone was talking on and on? Why wait until you are about to have an accident before excusing yourself? Listen to your inner signals while they are still weak--don't wait for a crisis to be assertive. Recall that example whenever you are tempted to ignore any important internal message.


To focus inward constantly would cause self-centeredness and unawareness of other people's feelings. If you have been too externally controlled, you may have a big fear of being too selfish or too self-centered. You may worry how you can balance attending to your own desires with attending to the desires of others.

Balancing external and internal needs with a strong Higher Self

One way to resolve the conflict between being too internally focused and too externally focused is to take turns between listening internally and listening externally. By having a strong set of internal rules for deciding when to listen internally and when to listen externally, we are actually establishing strong internal control.

The Higher Self can act like a filter. More externally controlled people tend to lock on to others' words--which take almost hypnotic control of their thoughts, feelings, and actions. They infrequently question what others said or judge it by their own beliefs.

An empowered Higher Self can control the external versus internal focus, because it is the seat of our strongest love and empathy. The more developed the Higher Self becomes, the more it will exert good judgment about when to focus inward and when to focus outward. Some of the issues you need to consider follow.

  •  The Higher Self's ultimate concern is truth and happiness. Both your own and others' happiness is important, but you can only directly control your own.
  • Recognize that you can make yourself happy and do not need other's approval, control, or support. Others' approval and support is a bonus.
  •  Balance between immediate and long-term happiness
  •  Balance between different values and subparts of yourself and between different life areas.
  •  Let the Higher Self act as a mediator to resolve deeper internal conflicts.
  •  Learn to use gentle persuasion instead of coercion, force, and negative self-talk for self-motivation. Focus on creating "I wants" instead of "I shoulds."

Knowledge and self-confidence increase internal control. One type of dependence on others is information dependence. Even the most internally controlled people can't function well without adequate knowledge. More internally controlled people know that knowledge helps establish internal control. Externally controlled people may be more concerned about what other people think than becoming competent. Instead, learn all you can, so that you can become more independent and self-sufficient.
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YOUR OTHER SUBPARTS (roles, interests, knowledge areas, etc.)

We have developed many subparts that represent different activities, roles, and sets of beliefs. The parts of me that love to play tennis, listen to music, watch mysteries, go for nature walks, read, theorize, or converse all love what they do. Each has a strong voice that my Higher Self listens to.

As an inner part grows, its voice gets louder. When I first began to play tennis, my inner tennis player was an unskilled and underdeveloped part of myself. It spoke softly and carried a little stick. I didn't care much whether I played or not. But like all interests, it grew as I attained more knowledge and positive experiences until it became a powerful part of me. Now I feel starved if I go an entire week without tennis.

My inner psychologist grew in a similar way. It is no accident that people who have few well-developed interests are more susceptible to external control. Highly-developed interests provide inner power and direction. Someone without interests is left rudderless to be taken by the strongest current.

PRACTICE: List your strongest sources of internal control. What parts of yourself (including Higher Self, values, interests, roles, themes, or other parts) help provide you with strong values, goals, and plans to give you positive inner direction? Be as clear and specific as possible. Which are you the most likely to be assertive about in the face of conflict with others? Which do you want the most to strengthen?

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