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What Blocks You from Solving Your Problems?

Updated: Feb 4, 2019

Secondary gain trap.


In psychology, there is a term that is called “secondary gain,” or pay-off. It is a form of protection that our subconscious mind creates and perpetuates by running a story (i.e. “That’s my story and I am sticking with it”) that involves something very familiar to you, like a pair of well-worn slippers. Familiar means the well-known, recognizable, memorable and, above all else, safe.


The need for familiarity is so deeply seated within your psyche that it wins over the unfamiliar, even when the familiar consists of a lot of negativity and dysfunction. Your hidden brain can’t let go of the bad, the unhealthy, and the negative, even if those things drive you nuts or make you miserable.

For example, you may have a desire to lose weight, but simultaneously see your weight as a form of protection. A client once told me that being overweight was like wearing a boxing glove. She was using her weight as an excuse to avoid dating, so that she would not have to deal with the disappointment should she not go on a second date with someone.


The dictionary definition of a secondary gain describes it as an indirect benefit usually obtained through an illness, the symptoms of an illness, or a condition. Secondary gains may include personal attention, assistance, sympathy, increased social interaction, and even release from unpleasant responsibilities or situations. People are very creative coming up with secondary gains. We devise numerous ways to protect ourselves from change. Here are some examples. See if you recognize yourself, or someone you know, in them:

  • A person who was sexually abused as a child uses being overweight as protection against dating thus avoiding intimacy and sexuality.

  • A person plays up martyrdom and feels that she is a noble victim while everyone around her is very self-centered.

  • A person takes pleasure in other people’s failures because it makes her feel superior to them and allows her not to try harder to achieve in her own life.

  • A person does not ask for what she wants because it shows how selfless she is.

  • A person soothes herself with food, drink or shopping to lower her stress and anxiety and to distract herself from the feelings of loneliness and emptiness.

  • A person is scared of letting people close to her, so she acts in strange or eccentric ways to provoke them to leave her.

  • A person attaches herself to the pain of rejection because it proves that others are mean and uncaring.

  • A person acts helpless because it lets her off the hook with others. She does not have to take responsibility, blame or accountability.

  • A person becomes easily aggravated with her surroundings (people at home or work) because it confirms how hard she is trying and how stupid and ignorant other people can be.

  • A person with a minor injury who uses it to manipulate her boyfriend into marrying her.

  • A person has a great opportunity for advancement at work but falls sick and chooses not to get better so that she does not have to be “found-out” as not really competent or capable at the higher level.

  • A person chooses to stay exactly as she is in order to maintain her position in the family, peer group or love relationship because it gives her a sense of belonging and fitting in.

  • A person rejects significantly higher income opportunity for the safety of her current steady income.

  • A person wants to quit smoking but she believes that it relaxes her and makes her look sophisticated.

In all of the examples above, a person gets one or more benefits from the problem she claims she wants to get rid of.


A client of mine, who we will call Hanna, rebelled against authority (mother; institutions such as school, correctional facilities). This paradoxically can be an open invitation for limits, restrictions and correction. It gave Hanna a false sense of power, but it ultimately led to her giving the power away to the representatives of the institutions she was rebelling against, as well as her mother, who then had to step in to rectify damages.


Hanna frequently recycles her past, which leads her to revisiting anger, guilt, resentment, sorrow, and shame from her childhood. She originally implanted a message of rebellion in her psyche against what she perceived to be unjust growing up. For example, Hanna and her sister were often left alone at home while her single mom was out of the house. At one point in her life, there was a benefit to that rebellion. Acting up made her visible, noticeable. She was seen and accounted for; she mattered to someone.


That implanted message in Hanna’s psyche is still running in her hidden mind today, forty years later. Hanna still struggles in her relationship with her mom and has had several problems with her own unhealthy behaviors. She claims she wants to change and get rid of her problems. And she will, as long as she exposes her secondary gain trap, which starts with the realization that no person does something, or stays somewhere, unless they get something out of it.


Hanna’s first challenge is to find answers to a few questions, such as:

  • What are you getting from having your problem?

  • What has been stopping you from making the change?

  • If you solved the problem, what would you lose?

  • What could you gain from not making the change?

Her second challenge is to help her significant others learn about the traps of secondary gain, so hopefully everyone can get a little less trapped.


How do we figure out whether we have secondary gain issues? Review the list above to see if you recognize yourself in any of the examples provided. Be honest, very honest with yourself when answering this question - Am I standing in my own way? If you are getting an emotional reaction while reading this (anger, frustration, sadness, sorrow, or a sense of loss), it is very likely that your secondary gain issue is coming up.


Address it now. Remove it from your subconscious mind remembering that your hidden mind does not want to give it up without a fight. Bring your secondary gain into your conscious mind by writing it down, journaling about it, making an audio or video recording of it, or talking to a therapist or a leadership coach about so that you are free to move on.



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