Are you struggling to make the changes necessary for a happier, healthier life? Do you keep sabotaging yourself and can’t understand why? Whether that’s a body overhaul, a new job, finances or relationships, the culprit could be ‘secondary gain’.

In today’s article, I delve into what secondary gain is, how it manifests, and practical strategies for overcoming it.

To watch the extended version of this article, click here.


In both personal growth and change, the concept of secondary gain plays a really important yet often overlooked role. It serves as a subtle force that can hinder progress and make transformation almost impossible.

Understanding why you find it challenging to change requires unravelling the complexities of secondary gain, in other words, the hidden benefits or rewards you get from maintaining the status quo.

Understanding Secondary Gain

1. Unseen Rewards:

Secondary gain refers to the hidden advantages or rewards that you receive from maintaining your current behaviours, even if those behaviours are undesirable or counterproductive. These gains are often unconscious and may serve as a form of self-protection or coping mechanism.

I like to refer to secondary gain AND self-sabotage as ‘misguided self-love’.

2. Subconscious Motivations:

Unlike primary gains, which are the direct and obvious benefits of a behaviour, secondary gains operate beneath the surface. They can be challenging to identify because they are often subconscious, arising from deep-seated beliefs, fears, or emotional needs.

3. Why Change is Hard:

Secondary gain acts as a protective mechanism, providing a sense of security or meeting emotional needs. When you attempt to change, a part of you may unknowingly resist because the benefits of maintaining the current situation, even if negative, outweigh the perceived benefits of change.

How Secondary Gain Manifests

Following are some common examples of how secondary gain manifests in everyday life:

1. Attention and Sympathy Needing Emotional Support:

Some individuals derive secondary gains from receiving attention or sympathy when facing challenges. Maintaining a status quo that elicits support from others can be more appealing than navigating the uncertainties of change.

This is very common, and you’ll definitely have encountered it. Think of that friend, family member or co-worker who keeps complaining about their current situation. You give them countless solutions, but they do nothing.

That’s because, deep down, they don’t want to change. They want your attention and validation. That’s secondary gain in action.

2. Avoidance of Responsibility:

Secondary gain can manifest as an avoidance of responsibility. Remaining in a familiar, albeit detrimental, situation may absolve individuals from facing the challenges and expectations that come with change.

3. Identity and Self-Image:

Change may threaten established identities or self-images. Secondary gains can include the reinforcement of your perceived role or identity, making it difficult to let go of familiar behaviours that contribute to your sense of self.                                

4. Fear of the Unknown:

The comfort of familiarity, even if it involves negative patterns, can be a powerful secondary gain. The unknown aspects of change may evoke anxiety, making you hesitant to venture into uncharted territory.

Our subconscious mind would rather keep us in known pain rather than potential pleasure.

Examples Of Secondary Gain

Manifestations of secondary gain can vary widely and may be subtle, making them challenging to identify. Here are examples of how secondary gain can manifest in different aspects of life:

1. Health and Illness – Attention and Sympathy:

A person may experience secondary gains by maintaining an illness or health issue. The attention and sympathy received from others, as well as the avoidance of certain responsibilities, can serve as hidden rewards.

2. Workplace Dynamics – Avoidance of Responsibility:

In a professional setting, an individual might resist taking on new responsibilities or leadership roles. This avoidance allows them to avoid added stress or accountability, providing a sense of comfort and security.              

3. Procrastination – Avoidance of Failure or Success!:

Procrastination can be a manifestation of secondary gain when an individual avoids taking action to prevent the possibility of failure or even success. The secondary gain is the temporary relief from facing challenges or potential setbacks.

4. Victim Mentality – Attention and Support:

Maintaining a victim mentality can be a source of secondary gain. By portraying themselves as a victim, they may receive attention, empathy, and support from others, reinforcing a sense of importance.

5. Weight and Body Image – Avoidance of Judgment:

An individual may resist making positive changes to their diet or lifestyle to avoid potential judgment or criticism. The secondary gain is the avoidance of societal expectations, which provides a sense of control. It can also be an avoidance of being seen.

I’ve had clients who have lost significant amounts of weight but subconsciously have been uncomfortable with the attention that their new appearance has brought about and so quickly begin to put the weight back on.

6. Social Dynamics – Fear of Rejection:

Some might resist expressing their true opinions or desires in social settings to avoid rejection. The secondary gain is the avoidance of potential conflict or disapproval, maintaining a sense of belonging.

I discussed the DNA-based need for social acceptance in my previous article, which you can read here.

Identifying these manifestations requires a deep self-awareness and an honest examination of your behaviours, motivations, and the perceived benefits of maintaining the status quo.

It is essential to recognise that secondary gain is largely unconscious, and exploring these patterns can be a crucial step toward personal growth and positive change.

N.B. In the extended video version of this article, I discuss strategies for identifying secondary gain.

Overcoming Secondary Gain

1. Acknowledging and Accepting Hidden Motivations:

The first step in overcoming secondary gain is awareness. Acknowledge and accept that hidden motivations may be influencing your resistance to change. Understand that it is a natural part of the human experience.

2. Exploring and Confronting Fear of Change:

Identify and explore the fears associated with change. Whether it’s fear of failure, loss of identity, or uncertainty, understanding these fears allows you to address them consciously.

3. Reframing Perceptions:

Challenge and reframe your perceptions about the benefits of maintaining the status quo. Consider the long-term consequences of not changing and visualise the positive outcomes associated with embracing transformation.

4. Setting Small Goals/Incremental Progress:

Break down the change process into small, manageable goals. Achieving incremental progress allows you to experience success and gradually shift the balance of perceived benefits toward the positive aspects of change.

5. Building Support Networks:

Cultivate a support network of individuals who encourage and empower you to embrace change. Share your goals with trusted friends or family members who can provide emotional support and accountability.  

A coach or therapist such as myself can also help you identify your secondary gains and support you in designing a workable plan to overcome them.               

6. Visualising Success:

Utilise visualisation techniques to picture the positive outcomes of change. Visualising success creates a mental image that can counteract the fears associated with leaving the familiar behind. It also helps build strong neural pathways in your brain, making the new behaviour or habit easier to stick to.

7. Mindfulness Practices:

Engage in mindfulness practices to foster present-moment awareness. Mindfulness can help you detach from automatic responses rooted in secondary gains, allowing for more intentional decision-making.     

8. Celebrating Achievements – Reinforcing Positive Change:

Celebrate your achievements, no matter how small. Recognise and reward yourself for making progress, reinforcing the positive aspects of change and creating a positive feedback loop.

The Wrap-Up

Overcoming the grip of secondary gain requires a nuanced and introspective approach to personal growth. By unravelling the hidden motivations, exploring fears, and implementing practical strategies for change, you can embark on a transformative journey.

Embrace change not as a daunting challenge but as an opportunity for self-discovery, resilience, and the creation of a more fulfilling and authentic life.

Remember, the path to change may be difficult, but with self-awareness, support, and a commitment to personal evolution, the power of secondary gain can be harnessed for positive transformation.

Again, in the extended YouTube version of this article, I discuss strategies for identifying secondary gain (the things that are subconsciously holding you back). You can watch it here.

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Finally, as always, thank you for your continued support.

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