Secondary Gains: with Primary Losses

A man walks into a doctor’s office. “Doc, I have a problem. I think I’m a chicken.”

The doctor says, “That is a problem. But I think I can help.”

The man hesitates before responding, “See, the thing is…my wife needs the eggs.”

Secondary Gains are the hidden advantages a person gets from not overcoming a problem. For example, by providing his wife with eggs, the man in the joke doesn’t have to deal with the consequences of thinking he’s a chicken—because presumably thinking one is a chicken will have consequences. However, it also has its rewards. While disclosing thinking he’s a chicken on a job interview would be liable to negatively effect being hired (or, for that matter, generally entering the work force–with the exception of a career requiring a chicken suit), if he doesn’t really want to work, claiming to think he’s a chicken, however self-effacing, serves this purpose. Still, although this attitude is typically frowned upon; fortunately he isn’t shirking all responsibility: he is, after all, providing his wife with eggs. Further, and from his point of view, he’s not only providing eggs, but possibly doing so at great sacrifice to himself. In reality, but ignoring his Secondary Gain, because of thinking he’s a chicken he isn’t able to work. Chuckle-headed reasoning to be sure, however, it’s all in the way he spins it: perhaps thinking he’s a chicken, is a small, though worthy, incidental: nothing more than his cross to bear. A problem would arise only if his wife wanted brown eggs.

As humans, everything we do, whether beneficial or detrimental, has a payoff. Even the survival of the species has the pay off of orgasm. Paradoxically though, negative patterns and behaviors–though they keep us stuck, also have their payoffs: they let us avoid real or imagined, but painful aspects of ourselves we’d rather not experience.

Still, for the most part, it’s understandable—roughly 88%, because that’s the percentage of the mind assigned to the subconscious where patterns that lead to a predictable outcome are developed: and thus the ones we automatically go to. Obviously because people most often fear the unknown, it is simply easier to go with what’s predictable–even if it doesn’t make sense to do so. My wife needs eggs so I’ll continue thinking I’m a chicken. Don’t laugh, the subconscious mind doesn’t exactly have a reputation for being reasonable and rational. Considering that 88%, this leaves only the mind 12% to do what actually makes sense. It’s easy to see why we are vulnerable to the appeal of negative payoffs—however crazy or defeating. From a spiritual perspective, perhaps understanding this aspect of human nature can offer greater compassion for others. But don’t be fooled: withholding your opinion because another might feel threatened might just be a Secondary Gain in disguise.
There are, obviously, bigger, more devastating outcomes that our Secondary Gains cause to our lives.

  • Procrastinating out of a fear of failure, rejection, or inadequacy, by avoiding the discomfort of uncertainty meeting a challenge.
  • Remaining angry or seeking revenge throughout a divorce (or other personal loss) instead of accepting the circumstances and addressing your life going forward. Or believing you are justifiably a victim, entitled to the sympathy garnered from others.
  • Sabotaging current relationships to avoid challenging past feelings of fear, inadequacy, or unworthiness, from past relationships.
  • Underachieving in your career because you are afraid to own the responsibilities of recognition, or facing jealousy from others in your field.
  • Citing addictions and their behaviors as an excuse for acting badly, irresponsibly, or impinging upon others. Or using charm to avoid the social consequences of these behaviors, although equally self-defeating: others either letting you slide, or overlooking your problem—so it continues.

Distinguishing Secondary Gains from marginally unproductive or enjoyably, blowing off responsibilities for indulgences can be, to use a term from the movie The Fabulous Mr. Fox, “A cluster cuss.” As humans we’re psychologically gamey by nature due, in part, to what amounts to be an evolutionary irony. Our instincts for survival relied far more on emotions than logic. While logic is worked out through a step by step series of considerations, emotions are roughly weighed against (emotionally) reactionary considerations prior to acting upon them. I should get to bills. This touches off a series of logical, and unpleasant considerations—the amounts in specific accounts, which reminds me of how little I’m making, which further reminds me of how much more I should be doing for work, putting me in a state of neurological inertia. However, bills aren’t due for a few days, and just the thought of watching a movie feels better—because it has in the past. Guess what I’ll be doing?
Again, nobody likes change—despite the rampant proliferation of self help books and articles like this one, strewn across the internet. One could, from a meta level, question the potential in this phenomena: is pursuing the desire to recognize one’s Secondary Gains, a means to avoid the underlying issue? Remember people like their routines, or so caught up in them they can no longer disentangle their intention from their actual purpose.

Lift the lid off a secondary gain and you’ll probably discover a boiling caldron of shame, bubbling with shoulds, woulds, and coulds, with hefty dashes of discomfort, fear, and apprehension. But breath it in deeply, and recognize it for what it is: just what it is. Try to appreciate it as the distillation of behavioral remedies meant alleviate discomfort around vulnerability. Humanize your anxiety. Realize that anxiety is essentially a survival mechanism meant to alert us to danger or threat. However, also recognize anxiety is an evolutionary left over, yet seemingly gone haywire when compared with the potential dangers which natural selection–quite by accident–equipped us for. Experientially, the danger is real, but in reality it’s all in the head. Out in nature, I see a piece of rope in the grass, and my fight or flight mechanism registers, getting activated to react to the threat of a snake. All this happens in a transactional millisecond before my more evolved, prefrontal cortex realizes, Ah, it’s just a piece of rope. Still, I need this system to ensure survival—just in case it actually is a snake. Yet if the fear I encounter is abstract, or psychological, rather than tangible, and left to my own devices, then I will most likely err, and proceed, on the side of safety. If paying bills activates my fight or flight in the least, and discerning the reality of this is up to me, without a tangible counter example—except something much easier, seemingly safer, certainly more pleasurable, and has seemingly negligible consequences, like watching an episode of Dexter, then by all means, I’ll choose that.

All this is to say, that while the behaviors associated with secondary gains are initiated to avoid some type of shame, inadequacy, or discomfort, and that unfortunately the consequence of these behaviors instills more of the same, at the end of the day they are better seen as reflective of bad habits rather than a bad person.

But how do you figure out Secondary Gains? I partly credit to my close friend, James Orlando, also a therapist, for a question he often poses that gets at figuring out the Secondary Gains, (despite finding it maddening when turned on me):
“What’s the function that it serves?”

For example I recently worked with divorced father who complained that he didn’t feel connected with his kids. When I asked him what connecting with his kids might look like, he didn’t have as clear an answer as what’s currently preventing him from connecting with them.

“The house is an absolute disaster! I’ve been trying to make my place more of a home for them, so I’ve been doing some extensive remodeling.”

Referring to his kids as “them” was a clue. “Lots of projects.”

“Yeah, like fourteen going at a time. So, like the upstairs bathroom is unusable right now until I put the sink back together, and I’m in the midst of painting the livingroom, so that’s in disarray.”
“When do you work on these?”

“Well, so between work and down time—I like to unwind by doing little creative things, like music or creative projects.”

“So, you do these projects when you have the kids?”

“For the most part. But they’re unending! Last week me and them had to sleep in the extra room, so finally this last weekend I just had them stay an extra night at their mother’s to avoid the paint fumes. And the debris!”

“What do you imagine you’d be doing if there were no projects?”

“Well have to finish these first,” he complained. “But obviously, I’d spend more time with…my kids.”

“Well, what would being with your kids be like?”

He considered this for a moment. “Well they probably wouldn’t….engage the way….” He made a resigned face. “I want them to. And just go off running around, playing imaginary game.”

“What wrong with this?”

“They look like those type of kids you see at the edges of the school playground, apart from everyone else.”

“Are they those types of kids when they are at school?”

To my surprise, he said, “Yes. I think they both have the same difficulty I have with connecting to others. I guess I have difficulty connecting with them and then when I don’t and they are running around acting like weirdos, I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to do family. It’s probably why my wife left me.”

I side-stepped colluding with his bid for sympathy, and stuck with the self defeating behavior. “What needs to happen to solve this?”

“More time with the kids less projects?”

“Exactly! But if you genuinely like doing projects—why not do them in your free time when they are with their mother.”

To disengage from his current behavior he would have to recognize his tendency to avoid interacting with his kids. When he begins to experience feeling he doesn’t know how to connect, he needs to learn to just be with it, and resist flight, being sure to note even the slightest successes, and continually applying this. His children, hopefully noticing the difference, will respond in kind, helping to reinforce this new behavior while at the same time participating in developing a more cohesive family. He might also put the same amount of energy in considering further ways of connecting with his kids, as he would with projects.

The reason I only partly credited my friend James is that I extended the purpose of his question into a usable formula: problem/behavior (+) purpose/function (+) current results (-) actual desired results (divided by) what’s needed to achieve these results or resolve the problem = a healthier outcome.

Not all behaviors for the purpose of Secondary Gains which appear to hold us back are strictly negative. Take the same father but who is widowed. He may fanatically throw himself into keeping up the home, convincing himself and others it’s to compensate for how well his wife had. Really, there’s two possible sets of Secondary Gains: avoiding his ambivalence about being left with two children to care for; or managing his grief over the loss of his wife by focusing on not letting the home fall out of order. In time, as he adjusts, he’ll be better equipped to deal with his grief, rather than managing it. Remember the human is an organism, and has evolved to survive so it can continue surviving. With threats to survival, like grief, the organism has evolved a whole frontal lobe to consciously—and even unconsciously, develop necessary schemes for its survival. Facing such a significant loss is destabilizing, so the organism devises a system of thinking that enables it to titrate the process as the organism can handle it. Most things that are destabilizing to face are parceled off and compartmentalized by the mind and emerge as the person is fit to tackle them. Behaviors, even in their managing-stage, may appear to be self-defeating, when in actuality, may be for the organism’s best interest in the long haul.

So, ask yourself, What is the thing(s) I want to achieve or accomplish? What stands in my way? What do I tend to do instead that avoids, or contributes to avoiding tackling this? What is it’s function, and what do I get out of it? What fear or discomfort does it serve to avoid? What can I do to better serve achieving what I want?

All responses, though professionally based, are intended as opinions, and are not a substitute for working with a therapist professionally.