Do you have any habits, life situations, or relationship patterns that negatively impact the quality of your life? Do you complain about these things but take no action to change them? Have you ever really thought about why that is?
In order to be empowered to change anything, we must be clear about what we gain from staying stuck. In therapy, this gain is referred to as secondary gain. Secondary gains are the benefits people get from NOT overcoming a problem.
Generally, people are not consciously aware that they are gaining anything from a bad relationship, chronic pain, or an addiction, so at first glance, this concept may seem counter-intuitive. Stay with me.
Looking at this more concretely, I will share the case of my client Beth*, a thirty-eight-year-old successful businesswoman who wanted to be in a romantic relationship and was nearly a hundred pounds overweight. She had been sexually abused as a child and gained the weight as a response to her abuse. Consciously, she desperately wanted to be in a loving, romantic relationship. In our first session, she told me wanted to lose the weight so she could feel good about herself and fall in love. She told me she was going to start to date as soon as she lost the weight. As our work together started to unfold, we discovered that although the extra weight made her feel ashamed and unlovable, it also made her feel safe and protected. That sense of protection was the secondary gain that reinforced her poor eating habits, which kept the weight on. She was unconsciously and literally trying to protect herself from being assaulted by having a protective layer on her body.
As we continued to work together and established the reality that she was safe from her abuser now (he was long dead) and that she did not need the weight for protection, it started to come off. The more work we did, the less threatened she felt by becoming fit and healthy. Once she acknowledged the benefit of the secondary gain, it was no longer driving her. She has currently lost eighty-five pounds and is happily dating for the first time in her adult life.
In my own life, I stopped drinking in my senior year of college with the help of a therapist. The turning point came when she asked me what I would miss if I did not change my excessive drinking behavior. The answer terrified me. I realized at the age of twenty-two that I would miss my ENTIRE life if I did not stop. The life I was meant to live would never happen if I continued on this road. I uncovered that my secondary gain was not feeling all of the pain and fear that I had inside. I had used alcohol as a problem solving bypass mechanism to not feel, but through therapy, I realized that feeling pain is the impetuous to change. I am so grateful today that I did.
Like me, many clients with addiction issues cannot see the secondary gain that their addiction provides for them. When I ask them what they would do with all of their time and money if they were not drinking it away, they have no idea. Part of the secondary gain of being numb much of the time is not feeling the anxiety that having a life plan would create. Consciously taking control of your life and trying to accomplish something poses the risk of failure, humiliation, and a plethora of other uncomfortable feelings. Of course, the reality is that not taking control guarantees that you will not create a life you love.
So I challenge this beautiful Positively Positive community to look at the reoccurring issues in your life and then look deeper. What are your secondary gains in repeating the same scripts in your life or holding onto negative habits? What would happen if you flipped that script and did something different?
To help you recognize the secondary gain, ask yourself two questions:
- Who am I if I’m not (overweight, drinking too much, always complaining, being a victim, sick, etc.)?
- What am I missing or avoiding by not changing or moving on?
Once you get your answers, I encourage you to challenge yourself to take the leap and do something different. I hope that you will take the time to dig deep on this issue because I want you to live a life that thrills you! Drop a comment, as I am always interested in your thoughts.
As always, I want you to take care of you.
Love Love Love
Terri Cole, founder and CEO of Live Fearless and Free, is a licensed psychotherapist, transformation coach, and an expert at turning fear into freedom. A cornerstone of Terri’s practice, meditation, was the impetus for her recently released guided mediation CD “Meditation Transformation.” In Fall 2012, she will begin hosting a Hay House radio show, giving listeners who are swimming upstream easy tools to flip over and float. Terri can be found on her website, Facebook, and Twitter.
*Actual name not used
**Photo by anandhame.