Internal Vs. External Control: Why We Need Both

internal control vs external control

Imagine you’re on a cruise ship with a sumptuous buffet facing you four times a day. Internal control is all that stands between you and galloping weight gain. This is why external control has value. We often hate external controls, but when they’re gone, the sudden demands on our internal control can be jarring.

Imagine your boss gives you a new project to work on. You ask when it needs to be done and he says “whenever.” Internal control is all that stands between you and infinite procrastination. If you
had a deadline you might complain about it, but when you don’t have one, you’re curiously frustrated.

A reader wrote me about this dilemma recently. He said he was good at controlling his temper at work, but now that he’s retired, he’s surprised to find himself losing his temper.

When external controls are absent, we humans often find ourselves in a quandary. Most of us want to solve it with internal control instead of inviting external constraints to be imposed on us. But when that internal control falls short, what can we do?

It helps to know that internal controls are just neural circuits you built in response to past external constraints. For example, a little monkey learns not to grab a banana when a bigger monkey is near because he gets bitten if he does. The bite triggers cortisol, which connects all the neurons active at that moment. Now the little monkey restrain his impulses when he sees that bigger monkey. Conscious effort is not required for the self-restraint or the neural circuit-building to happen.

You want to build new circuits, but you don’t want to get bitten. Unfortunately, without the motivation of immediate pain, circuit-building takes so much repetition that we tend not to do it. For example, you can learn to write with your non-dominant hand if you lose the use of your dominant hand. That proves you were capable of doing it all along, but you don’t do what it takes to develop that circuit if you don’t need it. Once your non-dominant hand becomes relevant to survival, your brain figures out how to activate those new pathways. Our brain blazes new trails when external constraints block the old ones.

A reader of mine recently made the courageous decision to embrace new external constraints. She took a job in Korea, where her lack of language skill made even the simplest task a challenge. She could not even toss something in the garbage because she couldn’t read the recycling labels. She could not comfort crying children in her care because they only spoke Korean when they got upset. When she tried to relax with friends, she wasted hours getting lost on the train.

And she loved it. She was learning to master uncomfortable situations, which was exactly her motive for making the move. Her old life had been carefully arranged to avoid discomfort. In fact, the
external controls in her old world were so low that she never built the inner resources she would have liked.

Inner resources are just old circuits generalized beyond the context that created them. Our little monkey only needed to get bitten by two bigger monkeys before he learned to generalize.

You have learned to generalize your self-restraint beyond the situations that created it. But only so far. A sumptuous buffet, or the social isolation of retirement, presents more new stimuli that your old circuits can handle. You can build new circuits, but without some external constraint, you might not. It’s hard to accept our need for external constraint because we grow up fighting bedtimes, curfews, and rules. We value our freedom.

Of course, many people are learning to fill their refrigerator with vegetables and empty their pantry of junk food. Many recovering addicts are learning to move to a new region to strip their environment of old associations. But our natural need for external constraints is widely overlooked. In the psychology profession, it is sneered at as out-dated behaviorism. In popular culture, it is sneered at as old-fashioned rigidity. We like choice, and if our choices lead to bad consequences, we are quick to blame “the system.” This mentality has led us to enormous freedom, and enormous demands on our internal controls. If you find yourself frustrated with your inner resources, it’s good to know that you can create a new circuit whenever you want. You can design an external constraint that helps your brain carve a new pathway. Many people are now experimenting with a “screen fast.” They restrict their use of all screens in order to alter patterns that are getting in their way. You can design an external constraint that helps you build the new circuit you need. You’ll be glad you have this extra tool in your toolkit.

Dr. Loretta Breuning is Founder of the Inner Mammal Institute and author of Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain your brain to boost your serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphin. She’s Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay. She learned about the brain chemistry we share with earlier mammals, and began creating resources to help people manage their inner mammal.

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