The next right thing

How to move forward when you feel stuck?

“Do the next right thing.”

If you’ve seen it already you know that’s a line from Frozen 2. I saw it opening weekend (of course — and it, as I suspected it would, left me a crying mess — maybe not as much as the prequel but that’s another story.) To keep things spoiler-free, I won’t say any more about the line, except that it was the most unforgettable of many things I loved about the movie.

And it was unforgettable because it captured succinctly something at the core of much of my work with people. Something I’m often trying to help people see. And it all starts with a psychology concept I first encountered in psychiatry training: locus of control.

Locus of control is a basically about our view of our ability to make change in our lives and the world, and it can be external or internal. An external locus implies that we see the centre of control as lying outside of us: that it is other people, or even other forces, that fundamentally define the course our lives. An internal locus implies that it is we ourselves, by our choices and actions and decisions, who determine what direction our lives take. So someone with an external locus is more likely to see events in their lives and the world as outcomes of the actions they and others take, while someone with an external locus is more inclined to view things as more probabilistic.

It’s easy to see how someone who is depressed likely has an external locus of control: part of the depressed mental state is the conviction that one’s actions, after all, do not matter.

Of course, as with all things human, locus of control quickly gets much more complex once you look up from the theory and observe actual humans. Because people aren’t exactly one or the other but exist on a wide spectrum. Plus we often have different loci of control for different aspects of life: an internal locus of control with work and an external one with relationships, for instance.

More interesting to me, though, is how our locus of control shifts as we mature through life, and what that often means. There’s a sense in which one can say that childhood (when fairly normal and not marked by crippling trauma) is basically about discovering one’s ability to change things. From the moment a child is born they’re learning how the world responds to what they do and learning to use that to advantage. And from time to time, you can observe their shock when they encounter situations where their actions don’t produce the expected results, but they’ll often apply themselves to figure out why and adapt accordingly.

But as children grow older, with maturity comes the gradual realisation that there is much outside their control. This can come from accumulated small disappointments, like for me, financial struggles my family faced in my teens. Or it can come from major tragedy: being sexually violated, seeing parents divorce, losing a loved one.

You experience something (or some things) and come to see that debt and death, divorce and denigration, aren’t exactly things within your control. Maybe you also start to learn about the world as well: politics, history, economics, physics — and you begin to realise how much is going on and how little you know. You begin to realise big it all is and how small you are.

How insignificant.

Stop.

That right there — that jump from small to insignificant — is precisely where many fall off the wagon. We start off as kids (if we’re not unlucky) assuming an internal locus of control and grow into adults with an increasing understanding of how much of reality is outside of our control. And some people respond to this by entirely giving up any assumption of an internal locus, others by holding on to a false idea of an internal locus. And yet others by ignoring everything outside their ever diminishing locus, becoming ever smaller people in the process without realising it.

But being human lies in holding these two realities in the tension they really exist in: understanding that an ability to live with an internal locus of control is not dependent on the circle of that control. That is, we may control 1% of reality but that 1% is absolutely significant.

To borrow from Christian thought (which is where I found the reconciliation to this tension in my own life), it’s like being salt: small, yes, but significant even so.

That’s what enables you to do the next right thing, to never come to see yourself as utterly helpless and unable to act: by keeping in mind that whatever else is happening, what you choose and what you do matters far more than you might even know. And to focus on the next thing and not look too far out because when you’re stuck is a bad time to pretend your vision is actually great.

Perhaps better actually, to look back at your life to see how not only your fails but also your biggest steps and achievements — are traceable to the tiniest choices and actions setting things in motion.

You know, like the domino effect.

Where do you feel stuck today? What’s the next right thing you can do?

Yours by choice,
Doc Ayomide