Locus of Control and Motivation

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While I was out running , in the cold and wind, with no bears chasing me, I was thinking about how people’s actions are controlled by various motivations. Those motivations can be categorized into two groups, internal and external, or self and other. For example, if you are motivated by the desire to HEAR the words ‘Good job!” and/or get a raise, that’s external and other focused. If you are motivated by the desire to FEEL pride in a job that you know you worked hard at and did your best effort, knowing you earned that raise, that is internal and self focused. Obviously, you may hear those words and feel pride at the same time, but only one of them was powerful enough to motivate you to put in the work BEFORE you did it. Work is hard. People won’t do it unless they have a good reason. 

External motivators include

  • Worrying about paying bills or losing one’s home
  • Fear of disapproval by others
  • Threat of loss of love or acceptance by individuals or groups
  • Need to feel validated by having money or possessions
  • To get and keep relationships with others
  • Desire to be seen as important/smart/good-looking by others
  • Pressure to conform
  • To avoid the pain of punishment or criticism
  • Fear of death

Internal motivators include:

  • Desire to do what you believe is best (values)
  • Desire to do what you believe is right ( morals)
  • Desire to reach a goal that you set for yourself
  • Relationship with God and desire to please Him
  • To avoid the internal pain of guilt for not doing the right thing
  • Sense of accomplishment for working towards a goal
  • Sense of purpose in life
  • Self-respect
  • Gratitude for the opportunities to live life and help others
  • Desire to feel strong, healthy, confident in your abilities

Which group most sounds like what motivates you? If you are externally motivated most of the time, you will be prone to being controlled by others, easily upset when others disagree with your opinions, easily discouraged in your attempt to reach goals, dependent on others to stay motivated, in danger of being taken advantage of and conned by someone who knows what to say to push your buttons, and less likely to be successful in life. People who want to be ‘religious’ or spiritual,  but don’t really know God, are very likely to be controlled by charismatic leaders or cults.

The desire to please others can override our morals and values and sense of self-preservation leading to self-destructive behaviors. Or, being externally controlled can manifest as narcissism, passive-aggressive behaviors, or depression and anxiety. A person who is not controlled by others is free to live according to their values. This can lead to extreme selfishness if the person has no knowledge or fear of God. Both extreme dependence on others’ approval and total lack of need of it are dangerous. You can probably identify both types of people in your environment  and the effects of their actions.

Changing your motivation to an internal locus of control will take some effort, but it will greatly improve your life. Start by remembering that no one else can take responsibility for your life but you. YOU are responsible for your happiness, your goals, your choices. You are NOT able to control how others respond to you or what they do, so stop trying. If you think you are in control of someone else, realize that they are LETTING you control them, in other words, they are in control. They can stop anytime, and so can you.

The hardest change that many people struggle to make is dealing with the pain of disapproval or rejection. But learning to feel that pain AND then move forward anyway is a big step in having an internal locus of control. No one likes to feel that way, it’s normal to feel hurt and be sad when someone we care about refuses to support our goals, or actively hurts us with discouragement and criticism.  It is not normal to be destroyed by it. If you can’t get past it, I suggest getting professional help. Remember , YOU can choose to stay the same, or you can choose to change, even if others do not want you to. I can offer you encouragement ,and I am happy to do that, but only you can decide that your life is worth living and that you will not be controlled by others.

Being controlled by your love for and of God and Jesus is not the same as being controlled by people. In fact, it is the opposite. A true Christian knows that God’s plans are always best and desires to live out His plans.  That doesn’t mean being controlled by a man or woman who claims to speak for God, or a religious group, or parents  or friends in a religious group, unless they are speaking words from the Bible to you. Only by reading the Bible can we know the truth. The Bible is our foundation and guide. Compare what people tell you to what you read with your own eyes. If a person tells you that God told them that you should do a certain thing not in the Bible, do not believe it. God will not use a third party to give you instructions that vary from his Word, the Bible. God gave Christians a special helper called the Holy Spirit. Through prayer and study of the Word, you will learn to discern the voice of the Spirit, but it will not differ from the written Word. God won’t lead you into sin or hurting others or lying or adultery or even divorce. But our own hearts often try to lie to us.

Lastly, I’d like to point out that there is a reason so many people have an external locus of control. The world  system is focused on creating people who are extremely dependent on the approval of others. Who do you think stands to benefit from encouraging that? The people who want to control you,  of course! Let God control you and do not fear man. This is what the Bible teaches. The world is controlled by Satan until Jesus returns, but Satan does not control Christians, only non-believers. And he uses them to destroy people. Satan is the father of lies. What lies are you being motivated by? What fears are controlling you? What is driving your choices, relationships, goals? Let it be the love of God and trust that He will never steer you wrong.


  1. Dude, PK, you really knocked it outta the park on this one. First, thanks for the shout-out.

    I struggle with this as well. I was recently telling a close friend that I find I am quick to try and please my wife, so I can get some loving. At the same time, it seems that God is almost an afterthought. Like, I’m more interested in keeping my wife happy than I am keeping the Lord happy.

    To be honest, I find myself torn constantly. Do I be honest with my friends and risk losing a friend or do I just go along to get along?

    I’m not as far along as you are in the journey, so I’m still trying to figure it out.

    • Sounds like God is at work in you. Just recognizing our bad habits is a big step in the right direction. Being honest with a friend doesn’t have to mean that we say everything we think or try to change them. We really can let them have their own beliefs , as long as they don’t expect us to compromise our own values. Pray for them. Trust me, I’m still learning to live this way myself. 🙂

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