Secondary Gain, or why people keep their problems

Jeremy Roadruck
3 min readMay 3, 2017

You have a friend, she’s got a problem. She ALWAYS has a problem. Even when she knows how to fix it, has been to all the experts, has put in time and money to change… the problem remains.

Why do people do that?!?!

Well, there’s this thing, it’s called “Secondary Gain.”

Secondary gain is used in medicine to describe the significant subconscious psychological motivators patients may have when presenting with symptoms. It is important to note that if these motivators are recognized by the patient, and especially if symptoms are fabricated or exaggerating for personal gain, then this is instead considered malingering.

Secondary gain is not a diagnosis. It’s part of the psychology of the person with the problem. It’s not something you are even conscious of when you’re benefitting from it.

“Primary and secondary gain are thought to occur by unconscious mechanism. The following list a list of possible secondary gains:
gratification of dependency needs;
gratification of revengeful strivings;
fulfillment of need for attachment;
desire of patience to prove entitlement for disability;
fulfillment of need for oversolcititiousness from others;
avoidance of hazardous work conditions;
fulfillment of need for sympathy and concern;
permission to withdraw from unsatisfactory life role;
need for sick role;
financial rewards;
acquisition of drugs;
manipulation of spousal maintenance of family status;
maintenance of family love;
domination of family;
freedom from given socioemotional role…”

From The Concise Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychological and Behavioral Science by By W. Edward Craighead, Charles B. Nemeroff

In other words, the BENEFIT of having the problem is GREATER than not having the problem.

I’m sure you’ve seen it… the person so attached to their problem that it becomes their identity. If the problem were to go away, who would they be anymore?

Often, when people have been through a trauma of some sort, it challenges them and changes them. When others find out about the challenge, the kind hearted have compassionate feelings and offer to help, to connect. The person with the trauma is actually rewarded for the trauma! It’s as if they gain a new, unconscious rule in their brain: “By being in pain, others reach out.”

Secondary gain comes in to play when this person now begins to expand his or her problem, bring it to the attention of others, but then refuse to take the appropriate steps to course correct and solve the problem. However, keep in mind, all of this is not conscious. Once this pattern of behavior is brought to consciousness, this person now has a decision to make: to actually make the appropriate course correction, or take advantage of the trauma for the sake of connection and other benefits.

So, when you find yourself having a persistent challenge, issue, or source of pain in your life, ask yourself: what benefit(s) do I gain by having this problem? Am I getting connection with others? Justification or self-righteousness for my attitude or conduct/treatment of others? What benefits might you lose if this problem were no longer a problem in your life?

In answering these four questions, you start to open a door to new awareness of why you’re holding on to pain that you say you’d like to release.

Look for the benefits of the problem and you’ll have the keys to open the door and release you from your prison. Or, you know, stay in your personal hell. Your choice. No pressure. ^_- Game on, yo!

Jeremy Roadruck

Founder of #TheParentingProgram. Helping your kids speak up and own their voice, creating their own emotional safety. Passionate about Family & Life