There is a common belief in the psychotherapy field regarding an internal locus of control, also known as differentiation or autonomy. This concept, whatever it is called, is intended to empower the client. The client is asked to consider his/her wants and needs, and to then set boundaries that help the client meet those needs and make choices that bring the client closer to his/her values and sense of authenticity. But if the locus of control were entirely within the self, we would not be so impacted by the words, choices, and actions of the people with whom we are in intimate or hierarchical relationships.
Pursuing an internal locus of control – which is often encouraged in codependence support groups and codependence-oriented therapy offices — demands that clients think their way through painful experiences, telling themselves that the opinions and behaviors of others do not define them. “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Essentially, other’s words, actions, and choices only hurt you if you allow that to happen. If you are hurting because of another person’s words, choices, or actions, it is your own fault for letting the other person hurt you. In other words, you need to develop thicker skin.
But this doesn’t account for the real-world impact people have on each other. Consider the example of an employee with a supervisor who expresses less than favorable attitudes toward him. Maybe the supervisor is overly critical rather than constructive toward the employee. This employee will be overlooked and others may even begin to treat him similarly. Do the supervisor’s words and actions impact the employee, even if the employee does not feel emotionally bothered by the verbal criticism and degrading treatment? Yes, absolutely. Contrary to the idea of an internal locus of control, the employee is impacted financially, socially, and professionally by the supervisor’s treatment. So we see that the locus of control does not reside entirely within the self.
One might suggest that the employee could address the supervisor, provide examples of how he wants to be treated, and suggest some boundaries. But what if the supervisor disregards the given boundaries? If the employee is in a position to look for and find another job, he may be able to “control” the situation by leaving a toxic environment. But what about the single mom putting three kids through school with no college degree and no free time to search for alternative employment? What about the people in sparse, rural areas with very few job options?
The same could be said for partners of addicts. These loving individuals do everything in their power to keep the addict safe and healthy, but their lives are still significantly impacted by the addict’s words, choices, and behaviors. So once again we see that the locus of control does not lie entirely within. External factors are nearly always in play.
Since the mid-1980s, therapists and counselors working with partners of addicts have insisted that these individuals needed to work on “not being so codependent.” In so doing, the therapy and counseling field has perpetrated harm by insisting that victims of an addict’s abuse and neglect have some magical internal locus of control they can assert by simply setting better boundaries. And then we exacerbate the damage by shaming these individuals for not being able to control the way unhealthy people (i.e., addicts) treat them.
That said, seeking an internal locus of control is not without merit in certain situations. A positive use of the concept is when we help an addict determine what he wants for himself, along with a course of action to get there. But expecting loved ones of addicts to “feel better” by creating an internal locus of control while the addict is still actively misleading, withholding, rejecting, blaming, and minimizing is not healthy, not appropriate, and not likely to help either person.
From my perspective, exploring an internal locus of control is best done with loved ones of addicts when the addict has some sobriety and the loved one is considering safe ways to re-establish intimacy and connection. Until then, therapists should help loved ones consider what they want in their relationship with the addict and any future relationship(s). Then we can help them find ways to accomplish that, even while in a crisis situation.
Speaking of crisis, when an animal (any animal) finds itself in dire circumstances, backed into a corner and threatened, it will behave in uncharacteristic ways to protect itself and its family. The only way for that animal to return to its normal character is to establish a sense of safety and control over the crisis.
Humans are no different in this regard. We behave desperately in desperate circumstances. Watching a loved one trapped in addiction is a desperate situation for partners, spouses, parents, children, and other loved ones of the addict. Like any other animal, they will do whatever it takes to reduce the risk of harm to themselves and others in their life. This may include sacrificing their own needs until the crisis is over.
Unfortunately, self-sacrifice can only go so far, and it isn’t sustainable. This may be why the codependency movement has become so obsessed with developing an internal locus of control. But that type of control is an illusion that must be discarded. That is probably why the first step of recovery from addiction (our own or someone else’s) is admitting that we have a problem we cannot control.
I ask you: How counterproductive is it to tell loved ones of addicts to pursue an internal locus of control? They cannot control the addict, no matter how hard they try. And they can’t help but be impacted by the addict’s word’s, choices, and behaviors. Suggesting that an internal locus of control will fix things is panning for fool’s gold.
What I hope to accomplish with this article is to call our attention to the potential risks of using the internal locus of control concept at the wrong time in a client’s healing and recovery process. Misusing the internal locus of control has the potential to bring greater suffering and loss to loved ones of addicts.
That said, it is certainly possible and important to take intentional actions that help to reduce the impact of other’s unhealthy behaviors on our own well-being, but as we do so, we should recognize that the locus of control is not entirely within ourselves. The prodependence model, developed and presented by Dr. Rob Weiss in his book Prodependence: Moving Beyond Codependency, utilizes the helpful pursuit of integrity and authenticity while also validating the difficult circumstances in which loved ones of addicts find themselves through no fault of their own. This new approach empowers loved ones to seek health and well-being for themselves and the addict without adding to their burden by insisting they can decide which arrows are doing legitimate damage and which are just hitting thin skin.
The shift away from codependence treatment and toward prodependence treatment is simple and dignifying. The same ultimate goal remains: Do what you can to live authentically while loving the person with chronic disease and challenges. But the codependence advice of detaching with love only severs lifelines and resources. Detaching with love should be the last possible solution, only taken when safety is a concern for all involved. And it should only be done with the guidance of a trained professional who understands when and how a therapeutic separation can benefit all parties.
Rather than preaching “detach with love,” prodependence acknowledges the inseparable and influential relationship between the addict and his/her loved ones. Prodependence welcomes both into the treatment process, invites both to heal and recover, and places the locus of control on the relationship and the recovery process, rather than on the individual.