Anxiety and locus of control

Do you focus on your choices or on events you don’t control?

© Dave DuBay

In book two part thirteen of his Discourses Epictetus makes an astute observation:

When I see someone in a state of anxiety I say, “What is it that he wants?” For unless he wanted something that was not within his power, how could he still be anxious? That is why a lyre-player feels no anxiety when singing on his own, but becomes anxious when he enters a theatre, even if he has a fine voice and plays his instrument well. For he wants not only to sing well, but also to win the approval of his audience, and that his something that lies beyond his control.

I feel anxious when I want a certain outcome but I’m not sure if it’ll happen. Or worse, there’s an outcome I don’t want but I may not be able to prevent it from happening.

Psychologists talk about an internal or external locus of control. People who believe they can control the outcome of events have an internal locus of control while those who think they have little power have an external locus of control.

This is important because people with an internal locus of control are more likely to take action and to take responsibility for themselves. But people who think things are the result of dumb luck are more passive and more likely to blame the circumstances.

Stoicism makes a key distinction between things that are not up to us—which includes all external events—and things we do control, namely our deliberate choices.

So does Stoic philosophy promote an internal or external locus of control?

Some might say that Stoicism’s locus of control is external due to its claim that external events are not up to us. In a Facebook discussion someone asked why a Stoic would even try to accomplish something if the outcome is not up to her. But that’s anxiety talking—it ignores what is up to her.

I think Stoicism’s locus of control is internal due to its claim that our deliberate choices are up to us. Put differently, we have no power over events (though we may have degrees of influence), but we do have power over how we respond to these events.

Let’s return to the lyre player. Why even bother learning to play in the first place? Because trying or not trying to learn a musical instrument is a deliberate choice. How hard he practices is also a deliberate choice.

Innate talent, or talent relative to other musicians, is not a deliberate choice, however, so the musician must approach his endeavors with a reserve clause: I’ll do my best but also try to practice non-attachment regarding my desired outcome.

Besides, the musician must realize that ultimately he will lose his ability to play. He’ll get older and less nimble. Arthritis may strike.

And most important for Stoics, the only thing that cannot be taken from him is his character. Even if Alzheimer’s strikes and he begins exhibiting inappropriate behavior we cannot say that he willfully sacrificed his character but rather that his brain has become diseased.

But for now the musician must focus on his chosen response to events. Even if the audience boos him he can still maintain his character by not retaliating and instead holding his head high with dignity.

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