Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference. — Reinhold Niebuhr
Locus of control is a psychological term for our beliefs about who controls the events in our lives. It can be internal (we have control) or external (outside forces have control). We can also be “bi-local” and believe in a mix of personal agency and external forces.
At first, children do not differentiate between the outside world and their internal world. They naturally assume that there is an internal cause for everything that happens. Abusers often reinforce that belief. Referring to unwanted sexual touch, an abuser might say, “You asked for a hug, so you wanted this.” Or, more directly, “You made me do this.” A physical abuser might say, “You made me mad.”
Children also internalize blame for abuse to avoid an intolerable double bind between the need to escape abuse and the need to trust caregiving adults. As painful as it is to believe they deserve abuse, it is less painful than believing that a caregiver chooses to hurt them.
Abuse also reinforces learned helplessness. “I tried my hardest to be good and the abuse is still happening, so I might as well not try.” This might come from the realization that abusers make the choice to abuse, independent of the victim’s behavior. Or, it might come from the mistaken belief that victims cause abuse, and some inherent flaw makes the abuse continue.
Reassign fault and power
One of the central tasks of healing is to reassign fault and power. Much less of the past was our fault, and at the same time we have more power in the present, than we believe.
It sounds like the Serenity Prayer refers to rigid categories of what we can and cannot change, and wisdom lies in understanding them in advance. Instead, the Serenity Prayer refers to fluid categories that we discover in each moment. We gain wisdom about what we can and cannot change through experimentation. When an action works, then great! We can change that, this time. When an action does not work, we can practice serenity until we think of something else to try.
Brick walls and curtains
When we first confront a problem, we do not yet know if we face a brick wall, or a doorway covered by a curtain. As we attempt different solutions, we learn more about the problem. With an internal locus of control, the response to failure is to try harder and take failure personally. We imagine that we should be able to push through that brick wall.
With an external locus of control, the response is not to try at all and feel helpless. We forget to test whether we can push through a curtain.
With a bi-local approach, failure tells us that we are not the sole cause of the problem, and gives us more information about external causes. We can acknowledge a brick wall and continue to look for solutions.
For example, someone treats us unkindly. We can try to own our projections around unkindness. If that works, then the problem lay with us, and we fixed it. If it does not work, rather than trying harder, we can assume that the person is choosing to behave unkindly for their own reasons, which may have nothing to do with us.
Other people are external to us
We can influence other people, or even command them, but ultimately other people’s actions are not under our control. It can be a relief to drop the effort to control others and bring our attention back to choosing our own actions and beliefs.
Each of us is a part of larger systems: families, workplaces, communities, and whole societies. Our relative position of privilege or marginalization in each system is one of many external factors that affect the results of our actions. A cis white man encounters fewer obstacles than a trans Latina woman, simply because we unconsciously give cis white men the benefit of the doubt more often, and assist them more quickly. Systems tend to preserve the status quo.
At the same time, as a part of the system, anyone’s actions might have unexpected leverage at a tipping point and cause change.
Separate fault and power
We may not have caused a problem, but we can try to find solutions. Absolving ourselves of fault can be a powerful first step to seeing a situation clearly. Asking, “What if this isn’t my fault?” can lighten defensiveness and ease emotional pain. Energy that might have been spent on trying to fix ourselves can help find creative solutions instead.
Even if our action stops abuse, it does not make the abuse our fault. After years of abuse, a victim might set a clear boundary with an abuser one day. “I don’t like that and I want you to stop.” If the abuser stops, the abuse is still wholly the abuser’s fault. If the abuser continues, the victim still successfully expressed a boundary.
The wisdom to explore the difference
In each situation, there is something we can change, if only to decline to blame ourselves for factors outside our control.
We do not need to determine in advance what is within our power to change. We do not need to have a fixed locus of control, whether internal or external. We can continue to explore the fluid boundaries between our power and our vulnerability, and practice serenity as we learn.
Locus of control article at wikipedia.