Control vs Acceptance: How To Let Go

Control vs Acceptance: How To Let Go

Over the last 6 months, one of my core beliefs that define how I live and interact with the world around me has been significantly challenged. 

Locus of Control

I live my life according to the philosophy that each individual is responsible for the life they create for themselves. I have an incredibly high strong internal locus of control – I believe that the events in my life derive primarily from my own decisions and actions.  
This is in contrast to an external locus of control, which is characterised by a belief that life is controlled by outside factors which the person cannot influence, or that chance, luck of fate controls one’s life.
Generally, this is a spectrum that looks like this:
I’d be here on this spectrum…

Extreme Ownership

The byproduct of this philosophy is that you take extreme ownership for what happens in your life. There is no one else or thing to blame.

It’s always your fault and responsibility, and you must own your problems along with the solutions.

This philosophy rests on the assumption and belief that the world is more or less just.

That input creates output, that people secure roughly what they deserve, and with the incredible access we have to knowledge and wisdom via the internet that anyone can create magic for their life.
I’m grateful that I live my life in this way. 
It means I live and interact with the world around me with a powerful sense of agency. That everything can be changed, controlled, or at least influenced. 
It means that while I accept responsibility, I don’t accept the status quo. 
It also means I believe that everyone is capable of creating whatever they want for their life. It’s this optimism that drives much of my work at Art of Smart Education.

The Dark Side

The dark side of all of this is that I live with a high need for control.

Because I take responsibility for everything that happens in my life, I can get very frustrated with myself. Additionally, if everything goes wrong, there is no luck or fate to blame. I am solely responsible, and this can be catastrophic at a personal level. 

Challenging This Belief

Over the last year, I’ve experienced two hip impingement injuries. In short, it’s an injury where when I move my hips, they pinch my tendons in my legs causing pain and discomfort.
It’s meant that I’ve been unable to exercise short of walking, and some swimming, which has been a big change for someone who has exercised 5 days every week for 5 years straight with a focus on high-intensity interval training. 
The irony is that I gave myself both of these injuries.
How? From stretching…
In an attempt to take care of my body and increase my flexibility and mobility so I could continue to play soccer and exercise, I inadvertently gave myself two hip impingements.
So in other words, by taking responsibility, and doing the ‘right’ thing, I created a negative outcome for my life. 
Furthermore, while I took responsibility for injuring myself due to incorrect form when I was stretching, a key part of the recovery was to rest and do nothing…
This experience, while it may appear small and inconsequential has challenged me in two significant ways.

#1 I’ve believed that if you make good decisions and take positive action, it will create positive outcomes in your life.

This has shown me that this isn’t necessarily true. That you can do everything ‘right’ and it can lead to unanticipated, and undesirable circumstances.
In fact, the ancient Greeks recognised that you could be good and do good and yet still fail.
The Ancient Greeks developed the art form of tragic drama as a reminder of this. Greek tragedians like Euripides, Aeschylus and Sophocles told stories of intelligent, honest, talented men and women who on account of perhaps a minor, or understandable error or omission, would create catastrophe, downfall, ruin and death in their lives. 
These stories were designed to remind audiences how easily any life could be undone, how things often are influenced by luck and random chance, and that life doesn’t necessarily reflect the merits of the individual.
What this has taught me is that while I should continue to live with a strong internal locus of control, ultimately, everything I know and have could change very quickly.

It’s shifted my perspective on things, such that rather than viewing my life as the result of actions I have taken, I’ve taken the perspective that my life, the people in it and the work I do is an incredible gift, that I am very fortunate and grateful to have.

#2 While I can influence a significant amount of my life, ultimately, there so many are things outside of my control.

This includes my own body. Rather than fight this, I need to accept and be okay with this. 
The Stoic philosopher, Epictetus wrote:
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own . . .”
—Epictetus, Discourses, 2.5.4–5
This simple framework has helped me significantly.

It has helped me identify when I should live from my internal locus of control and take responsibility to influence and change outcomes in life around me and when instead, I simply need to let go and accept what is occurring in my life. 

Right now it’s a work in progress as I find it difficult to let go and accept that I can’t in some way, somehow influence things. It’s required the practice of courage because it’s scary to let go of control and accept something. I’ve felt very vulnerable to the world around me when I sit in acceptance. 
It has also meant I’ve needed to be kinder to myself which has been challenging.
Rather than get frustrated with myself when things don’t work out, through applying Epictetus’s framework, I’ve been trying to blame myself less and be kinder to myself. 


How do you live your life? 
On the locus of control spectrum where would you place yourself? Are you driven more by an internal, or external locus of control?
What challenges has this created for you and what might you need to change?
Let me know in the comments!
Written by
Rowan Kunz
Join the discussion

  • I definitely relate more to having an internal locus of control. I guess I thought that was more of a human nature thing – that we see ourselves at the centre of everything, but reading this has made me realise that people are on more of a spectrum in terms of their perceived control over things. Thinking about this has helped me to realise and understand more why people might have a different attitude towards the changes they can make in the world, a thing that I might have been frustrated by previously. I do wonder whether there is any correlation with this way of thinking and a more “individualist” way of thinking as well.

    • Good point – I think it could definitely correlate with higher levels of individualistic thinking!

  • Nice article! As you know I sit more in the camp of the environment influencing the events/success in your life (external loci). BUT even so, I think it’s super important to take responsibility for your actions, as this – in my view – is moral and makes for a better society overall. I do find it hard to reconcile these. One possible way though is to acknowledge larger scale environmental constraints – e.g. minority background, lack of good education, conflict in your family, etc. – but then in your more narrow and immediate affairs – emphasise that you ‘get what you deserve’. How to do that pragmatically I don’t know.

    • Haha, yes, I do know you’re more on the external loci side of things. I do agree that a person’s environment plays a huge influence on their behaviour. You’re right – pragmatically reconciling the two although necessary, is challenging. It reminds me of a F.Scott Fitzgerald quote:

      “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

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