Three weeks ago, my mother lost consciousness following a medical emergency, and she remains in a coma. Because she is hospitalized in South Korea, I rushed from Seattle to Seoul to be with my family during this time. Among the difficulties we as a family are wrestling with, the cruelty of the COVID-19 pandemic that we had only encountered through the news until now has hit us as a painful and traumatizing reality: Due to lingering COVID restrictions in Korea, the ICU where my mother is hospitalized allows only two visits a week, 2 people max per visit (but only 1 person at a time), and 20 minutes per visit (10 minutes each for two visitors). And that’s the ICU; non-ICU units officially ban any visits (unofficially, some family members briefly sneak in, but that’s another story).
As my family (my father, sister, and I) navigates these trials, one of the things that has helped me cope, emotionally and cognitively, is the reliance on two concepts that I have taught my students for many years: external locus of control and self-compassion. Simultaneously, I also find myself struggling to apply these concepts to myself for my own gains; it is truly a case of “easier said than done” for me. Below, I will briefly define these two ideas, and then share how I am processing my current experiences in Korea against the backdrop of these two concepts. In doing so, I hope to highlight external locus of control and self-compassion as important coping tools, including for those who teach about them.
External Locus of Control
External locus of control1 describes a worldview dimension that emphasizes the role of entities outside of the self (e.g., God, institutional forces) in bringing about changes (i.e., “in charge”). On the flipside, internal locus of control captures a way of believing that the individual has the power to bring about meaningful change(s). I often remind students of how in the Western context, internal locus of control tends to be such a dominant framework applied to making sense of our personal and societal ills, and how the pitfalls of such a hyper-individualistic approach is that it ignores or deemphasizes structural layers outside of the self. I also remind students that an external locus of control, contrary to any unfavorable messaging that they might have internalized about it, is not “such a bad thing,” and that sometimes the human experience is recognizing our finite selves. There are forces beyond the individual (e.g., structural issues that override individual efforts) that can better explain individual sufferings. This moment is also a chance for me to connect the belief in God – the external entity who holds all things in His hands – as an example of how external locus of control can be helpful for one’s emotional health and flourishing.
But again, easier said than done, now that I am in the thick of my journey through the valleys that are full of shadows (Psalms 23:4) beyond my control. For the scheduled ICU visits, my father, sister, and I intentionally arrive 30 minutes early so that we can be the first through the doors right at 11 am (start of visitation time) – every second given to us to be with my mother is precious. But inevitably, the check-in nurse comes out late, and therefore the whole process gets delayed. It’s a difficult lesson in how the many plans in our hearts (Proverbs 19:21) can sometimes lead to empty and frustrating outcomes.
But another way that I feel the reality of external locus of control in my life is through prayer to God. My family is acutely experiencing a paradox: on one hand, we feel a sense of desperate energy in our minds and conversations; on the other hand, we have so much time on our hands because there is little we can do in between our 2x a week visits – the days in between the short visits seem like an eternity. Each night when we pray together, we confess before God that the only thing we can do consistently right now is to pray. We acknowledge before God the external locus of control sentiments expressed in James 4:14 (ESV) of not “know[ing] what tomorrow will bring.” And at the same time, we draw comfort in knowing a God who promises this in Deuteronomy 31:8 (ESV): “It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”
Self-compassion as defined by Kristin Neff2 includes three essential components: (1) kindness to oneself; (2) recognition of the shared humanity behind all of our experiences; and (3) a balanced approach to life’s problems, one that is neither consumed by painful experiences nor minimizing of them.
When I introduce the concept of self-compassion to my students – especially students who grew up in Christian backgrounds emphasizing the denial of self and service to others as a noble Christian virtue – they hesitate to embrace self-compassion as a compatible concept with their Christian worldview; it is not uncommon for students to critique the idea as self-centered and therefore at odds with Christian ideals. When students respond in such a manner, I enjoy the opportunity to counter with alternative ways to think about how self-compassion has an integral role in living a life that is pleasing to God, whether it be through learning to see how God sees us, and recognizing that showing kindness to ourselves is a starting point for loving others (for more on self-compassion as a Christian practice, see the article by James C. Wilhoit3).
In the face of my own dire circumstances, the principles of self-compassion are complicated to live out; to put it bluntly, self-kindness feels like a luxury during this time. But I am trying. And I am grateful for those around me who remind me, through their compassionate words and actions, to be kind to myself.
I can also see glimpses of how God is orchestrating different encounters and observations to nudge me closer to self-compassion. This experience is especially so for the component of self-compassion that points to the universality of human experiences. The ICU hallway where my father, sister, and I anxiously wait for our visitation time is a place filled with distressing energy, but it also unmistakably offers peeks into our shared humanity in a way that leads to a strange yet real form of comfort. Here are a few examples of such observations and encounters in the ICU hallway:
- There is the moment that the ICU door opens to allow visitors to check-in. A chaotic scramble ensues as family members make their way to the nurse who holds the clipboard with the sign-in sheet. No one lines up, and everyone is talking over each other to present the most compelling reason to sign up first. There’s some controlled and therefore excused jostling as families crowd around the nurse with the clipboard. I even overhear a family and a clergy member whispering the details of a not-so-discrete scheme to sneak in more visitors than allowed. In the middle of this confusion, there is also an odd sense of connection to these strangers around me.
- Then there is the family of three who are receiving bad news from a healthcare worker. I can clearly overhear the conversation – there’s no privacy in these hallways – but even without the words, their body language betrays their desire to appear strong.
- There is also a middle-aged woman, slumped against the wall in a squatting position, sobbing into her hands following a 10-minute visit with a loved one. No words need to be said for others to grasp the reasons behind the tears. Some people in the hallway look away so as to not embarrass her. Others blatantly stare, not out of curiosity, but from a place of compassion – connecting with the pain she is experiencing, and not-judging. We are all her, at this moment.
- Finally, there is the older man who is yelling at a nurse because there’s been a miscommunication of some kind from the hospital, and he is desperate not to waste even a single second of the 10 minutes he is allotted trying to resolve the issue. At this moment, no one in the hallway tells this man to calm down; we all can relate.
And there are many other observations and encounters. More broadly, this element of self-compassion – shared experiences – is reflective of the truth that we as human beings all long for something greater, something better; that we live in a fallen world where pain is inevitable, and that whenever we do encounter these deep valleys of life, it brings a real sense of comfort to learn that the ills of this world affect all of us.
As I put down and organize my messy thoughts in the form of a blog post, I am cognizant of the level of vulnerability that this piece is requiring, and the discomfort that I feel about the intense focus on an ongoing personal experience (my teenage daughter would likely describe this emotion as “cringe”); even while I write about self-compassion, I need to preach self-kindness to myself in light of the limitations of my written reflections. I do pray that Christian scholars who read this blog post can make meaningful connections to their own struggles and rewards while utilizing their own course content for everyday living. I also hope that readers can benefit from the simple reminder that as Christians, we can place our trust in a God who is so much greater than ourselves (i.e., external locus of control), and that we can draw strength from big and small shared experiences with one another, despite the temptation to feel isolated when experiencing significant personal challenges (i.e., self-compassion).
- Derald W. Sue, “Eliminating Cultural Oppression in Counseling: Toward a General Theory.” Journal of Counseling Psychology 25, no. 5 (1978): 419-428.
- Kristin D. Neff, “Self-Compassion: An Alternative Conceptualization of a Healthy Attitude Toward Oneself.” Self and Identity 2, no. 2 (2003): 85–101.
- James C. Wilhoit, “Self-Compassion as a Christian Spiritual Practice.” Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care12, 1 (2019): 71-88.