• To-do lists and responsibilities hang over most of us and create stress

  • Psychologist Thijs Launspach shares his top mindset hacks for taking back control

Some of the students I teach share a common trait. When they pass one of their exams they are usually very proud of themselves for having studied so hard and not succumbing to the pressure during the exam (and rightly so!). They are delighted with their grade and believe they should be amply rewarded for their efforts. 

It’s a very different story, however, when they fail an exam. Then they tend to blame everything and anyone but themselves. The questions were too difficult or covered topics they hadn’t been taught. They had to take the exam at a ridiculous time (‘Who on earth is awake and alert at nine o’clock in the morning?!’). The exam supervisors were making too much noise and their lecturer’s terrible accent meant they hadn’t understood a word of what they were supposed to learn in the first place. It’s clear to them that their poor results are the fault of everyone else and certainly not their own. They appear to overlook the possibility that their disappointing grades may have something to do with the fact that they spent the evening before swilling beer in the pub until closing time.

Blaming everyone but ourselves is often our way of dealing with things that are unpleasant but also unavoidable. Laying the blame at the feet of others or pointing the finger at Lady Fortune is our way of diverting attention away from ourselves. If your misery is all someone else’s fault, you don’t have to face the possibility that you may in fact be (at least partly) at fault yourself. It allows you to deal with the disappointment without having to take a long, hard look at yourself in the mirror. This applies not only to poor grades but also to how we react to things like getting fired, breaking up or making a bad investment. And, of course, how we react to stress.

People differ in the extent to which they feel they are in charge of their own life. Those with an internal attribution style believe they control their life themselves. They view the events in their life – both positive and negative – as the result of their own actions. People with an external attribution style, on the other hand, tend to consistently assign control over their life to factors outside of themselves, particularly with regard to the negative aspects. Some external factor appears to control their behaviour or destiny: ‘I had no choice’ or ‘That’s just the way it is’. External attribution is akin to taking on the role of the victim: ‘I am who I am and I do what I do because that is what others expect of me or because I’m forced to behave this way. I can’t do anything about that.’

What's the impact of these different perspectives?

Studies have shown that an external attribution style corresponds with a higher level of stress, a lower degree of life and career success and feelings of helplessness, depression and anxiety. People with an internal attribution style tend to have more confidence, fewer negative emotions and more success. In my classes, it is typically those students who recognise their own role in failing to achieve good grades – and are prepared to change their behaviour the next time around – who manage to improve their score at the next exam. Conversely, the students who refuse to believe that they play a role in their own failure inevitably end up making the same mistakes again and again.

You can often tell whether a person has an internal or external style of attribution from the kind of language they use. People with an external attribution style tend to use the phrase ‘have to’ more frequently, while those with an internal attribution style are more likely to use the words ‘want to’. When you feel you ‘have to’ do something you are a prisoner of your own circumstances or the will of those around you. Something or someone is forcing you to act in a particular way. 

On the other hand, if you ‘want to’ do something, you claim the responsibility for yourself and it gives you the feeling that you are in control of what happens in your life. When you keep telling yourself ‘I have to go to work today’ you put the power to choose in other people’s hands. Saying to yourself ‘I want to go to work today’ means that the choice is yours (even if you don’t really feel like going). The end result is the same, of course, but there is a big difference in terms of how you feel about it. You could also choose not to go to work today but then decide to go anyway, for reasons that are important to you. The outcome may be the same but the difference is that it involves a considered choice instead of an obligation.

How to change your mindset

There is one golden rule if you want to change your style of attribution from an external one to a more internal one: fake it till you make it. You need to keep asking yourself the question: how would I behave if I was in control of the situation? What would I do differently? Another strategy is to change the kind of language you use, as described below.

Try to avoid using the phrase ‘I have to’ for a whole day. If you feel the urge to say those words, ask yourself: who is telling me I ‘have to’? Do I have a choice in the matter, and if so, what are my options? Then try rephrasing what you want to say by substituting ‘I have to’ for phrases like ‘I can’, ‘I want to’ or ‘I choose to’.

A person’s style of attribution is rarely ever exclusively internal or external. Most of us have a mix of the two, with a tendency towards one or the other depending on the situation.

No matter how good you are at retaining mental control of your own life, there are some things that are heavily dependent on external factors.

For example, you usually have some control over how a job interview will proceed. But whether you are offered the position or not depends also upon the quality of the other candidates and the kind of person the interview panel is looking for. However, there is a psychological advantage attached to having an internal style of attribution. If you are in the habit of allowing external factors to have the upper hand (‘I can’t do anything about the situation’) you are more likely to suffer from stress: if you don’t make your own choices, someone else will do it for you.

It’s not always easy taking responsibility for your own actions – for example, when you have to admit that you haven’t handled a particular matter very well – but doing so on a regular basis will boost your self-confidence and your capacity to deal with stress, simply because you have decided to take control of your own life.

Thijs Launspach is a psychologist and author of Crazy Busy: Keeping Sane in a Stressful World 

Further reading

Psychology of willpower: why good intentions aren't good enough for your brain

6 psychology-backed lifestyle tips

Why boredom is good for you

How to change the way you see yourself