Secondary Gain Keeps Us Safe and Stuck

Secondary gain is a fascinating phenomenon that explains why people sabotage their goals, especially in health, relationships, and finances. As stated earlier, the primary objective of the subconscious mind is to avoid discomfort and realize pleasure, a drive that helps to account for self-defeating behaviors (such as smoking) and emotions (such as fear of public speaking). But secondary gain (with or without underlying emotional trauma) takes self-protection to the next level and can explain why people remain stuck in certain states (being overweight, financially dependent, depressed, grieving, or in chronic pain) or relapse repeatedly, despite temporary progress.

The state of being stuck persists, even though there are significant disadvantages to maintaining the problem. We can define secondary gain as the benefit provided by the problem state. Many people with chronic life problems are actually receiving a hidden benefit so great that they subconsciously avoid or resist solving them (or else they would lose the benefit). Consider asking, “How does this problem serve a beneficial purpose, and what would be the drawback of solving it?”

Julia was a client who was affected by both emotional trauma and secondary gain. An attractive woman in her 30s despite being 50 pounds overweight, she had been slim until a traumatic experience at college led to consistent weight gain. She was once very popular with men until she was date-raped by a classmate. She recalls using food to cope with emotional stress, and that behavior continued until she was significantly overweight. Julia had seen a therapist for at least a year after the incident, so she thought she had addressed the trauma. She had attempted to lose weight throughout her 20s, but her successes were short-lived because she became increasingly stressed each time she lost a meaningful amount of weight. She had even seen a hypnotist for help with her eating habits, but that hypnotist may not have recognized the trauma and resulting secondary gain as key factors, so the intervention failed.

I asked her, “Is it possible that you’re subconsciously staying fat so that you won’t be raped again?” At first, she thought that was absurd because she knew that it was extremely unlikely that she would be raped again. I explained that her logical conscious mind may realize that, but her emotional subconscious mind did not. My hypothesis was that the initial stress eating and resulting moderate weight gain had the unintended benefit of making her less attractive to men. Once she realized at a subconscious level that she was “safe” as an overweight woman, the fat began to serve as a protective barrier. Her subconscious had associated so much emotional pain to the sexual assault that it was unwilling to risk being slim and attractive to men. Whenever she began to lose weight, her perceived risk of being raped increased, so her stress level increased. In other words, her subconscious would do whatever possible to avoid a repeat of that experience, even at the long-term expense of her health and relationships. Irrational yes, and very likely true.

My proposed solution was to neutralize the traumatic memory so that the emotional pain would disappear. While she would still remember the event, it would no longer disturb her emotionally. Just as with the above cases, Julia’s trauma easily dissolved, and the memory of her rape no longer moved her emotionally, no matter how intensely she tried to recall it. The memory was no longer emotionally charged, and her belief that she was sexually unsafe around men disappeared along with the stress from losing weight. As expected, she was able to stick to a healthy regimen and lose weight more comfortably than ever before, because being slim and attractive was no longer a threat to her safety or wellbeing.

By resolving the trauma, Julia negated the secondary gain from being overweight, providing yet another example of why we must address the root cause and not simply treat symptoms. Millions of people have a diminished quality of life after experiencing sexual assault, including a significant number of obese individuals who have experienced sexual abuse or other trauma. Unfortunately, most of them are unaware that they could be freed of this burden easily and quickly with the proper approach and methodology.

Secondary gain can also arise when someone receives sympathy or emotional support (as is often the case with depression, grief, and chronic pain) or is enabled to avoid responsibility (as is the case with financial dependency).

Next time, we’ll consider several client examples of how unresolved trauma can cause insomnia and irrational fears, and how easily such trauma (and the resulting symptoms) can be resolved.