Playing Tug of War With Yourself

In last month’s newsletter, I alluded to a mysterious concept known as the “secondary gain.” This month you’ll learn about how this sneaky idea functions in your life, and why, when we try so hard to make changes, it feels like we are playing tug of war with our own selves.

Each and every behavior you do in your life has some sort of “gain”, or benefit. Behavior that receives no reward or has no outcome tends to fade. Here are some examples:

  • Brushing your teeth
  • Obeying red lights
  • Calling your mother on her birthday

We can all likely think of the “rewards” we get from performing each of the above activities. You can alternatively consider what would happen if we decided not to continue the above behavior.

OK, so when you perform a behavior over and over again, it becomes a habit. When you go to the dentist and he declares you to be free of cavities, do you stop brushing your teeth? Probably you continue or even feel inspired to floss more.

So what happens when we try to change a behavior or eliminate one that we DON’T like? Here are some behavior changes I work with or that might sound familiar:

  • Trying to stop smoking
  • Trying to stop procrastinating
  • Trying to save money

Notice that these behaviors involve eliminating something: smoking, procrastinating, and spending. Here is where the magical notion of the secondary gain comes in.

To successfully eliminate a behavior you must FIRST figure out what the secondary gain is to your problem behavior. I know all of the bad things that come from being anxious, and so does my client. But what are the ways that anxiety is actually doing something for her in her life? Here are common secondary gains of anxiety:

  • Protects you by keeping you from doing too many new things at once
  • Keeps you alert and on your toes
  • Forces you to closely examine all of your choices and concerns

These are very general secondary gains to anxiety, but you can begin to see how someone has little hope of getting over anxiety unless they find alternatives to meet the needs identified by these secondary gains. (You may recall my newsletter about how in order to say “No” to something, people need to have something to say “Yes” to.) An anxious person must figure out alternatives to making decisions, feeling safe, and staying alert.

How much effort it requires to overcome a secondary gain will depend on how much leverage that gain has over you. When you stop performing a habit, it really shows what you were getting out of that habit!

Use this concept to help unravel one of your own mysterious bad habits:

  • Think of a habit that you suspect might not be the best thing for you.
  • Pretend it was your job to convince other people to adopt this same “bad” habit. What would be your positive spin? How would you sell it?
  • Be honest with yourself about what you have discovered. Are some of the “benefits” of this behavior not needed anymore? Do you really need healthier alternatives? For example, maybe you began having a drink at every social event in college because it made you feel more included and less shy. Is this still true?
  • Remind yourself that no behavior entrenches itself overnight. Therefore, it will take practice to create alternatives.

Are you having trouble coming up with the hidden benefit to your problem? I can help you- call or email!