This concept is something I wish I'd absorbed decades ago... and so I'm sharing it because I think it has the potential to help so many people including other therapists, family, care-givers and perhaps even someone who is struggling with their healing and wondering why. It's something called "The Secondary Gain".
A LITTLE STORY
On a recent training for complementary care in oncology, I was discussing case studies with the teacher. She related a story to me about how she and her team had created a product that was able to relieve pain for their patient but had discovered from one of the carers that the patient wasn't using it. When this was investigated, it was discovered that there was resistance to use the product and have less pain, because the family member that had moved in to help care for them would then be able to move out and the patient would need to take next steps towards healing and independence with modified support.
The Secondary Gain. It's a bit like leaving a window open for whatever may be ailing a person, be it physical, mental, emotional or spiritual, so that the support, attention and focus on them in what is perceived as "positive" will continue. For many people, the care and attention that can come with an illness or need for healing is so great and so meaningful, that to lose it is too painful to deal with, so they may ignore, repel or simply "forget" to take on their part in their recovery.
This can also present as say, someone who has weight loss goals, but other members of the family are also obese. To reach a healthy weight, they will need to make total lifestyle changes that will also effect their social life. If it was family tradition to eat a large meal together every Sunday, including lots of homemade sweets, this may have to change or be modified, causing feelings of hurt, fear, rejection or even anger. If one person in the family makes lifestyle changes, the others may subconsciously feel threatened and subtly "block" the one trying to heal their life with emotional manipulation. In this case, the secondary gain is retaining "safety and support" within the system rather than find independent means to heal.
As a last example, I've had many clients pass through my doors over the years, especially in the early days, who were very 'hooked' on the attention, new groups of friends and sense of identity it gave them to be on a spiritual path. However, rather than look at it as an internal process of self-reflection and connection that required some healing, it would become an endless quest to "heal", rehash their history of pain over and over again and remain perpetual victims. Their next healing crystal, energy session or workshop became a type of badge to show their dedication to spiritual development - while all it was really doing was keeping them firmly rooted in what I once heard Caroline Myss call, Woundology (victimhood). To truly heal, is an inward and personal process that requires support, but not a fan club.
EMPATHY VS RESPONSIBIILTY
As a therapist, and especially as a highly empathic one, recognising and addressing the secondary gain has been a long road and something I struggled with because of not wanting to "let people down". My attitude used to be that I really needed to help the people coming to me for healing and that if they weren't doing the heavy lifting 100% themselves, well I could take over 10% of that...or 20...or...you know... all of it... In my first year practicing energy work circa 2012, I would come home utterly exhausted, headaches, stomach pains, the works. I was, at least in part, unconsciously taking on other people's burdens instead of assisting them to do so themselves. I felt responsible. They trusted me, so I needed to help them, right? (wrong).
YOUR STUFF - FIRST AND ALWAYS
So often, people are called into healing work and the emphasis on their own healing, establishing good boundaries and just how much effort and work it takes to maintain this (it's not a one-time thing!) is glossed over. Maybe there is a chapter or a few pages dedicated to it in manuals and trainings. As far as I am concerned, it's the big thing if you have felt called to work in a healing profession, as a carer, or are in a personal dynamic where you notice people often look to you for help. One concept that really baffles me are books talking about self-protection that instruct therapists to use talismans, cleansing energies and even prayers and deities to protect them, but don't address at ALL how the person can heal the fact that they are a "match" for this stuff in the first place. In short, it's like coating yourself in armour but still being the willing 'cheese for the mouse' underneath. Trust me, cheese under 10 layers of sweaty armour is going to stink!!
BOUNDARIES AND GOALS
I now have a much clearer process for asking clients and patients what their goals are and checking in regularly. When I see that goals aren't being met, I question it together with them and sometimes let them know that I'm unable to help them any further and refer them onwards. The thing is, secondary gain still has roots in deep pain, and there are times where I'm not qualified to help that person address it. This is also about recognising scope of practice and knowing when you're not the best person to help. Ignoring that won't help them, and it will exhaust me. I've learned to trust that I've done my best and keep my professional and ethical boundaries in tact. As the teacher recently said to me - you always do your best, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes you do nothing, and people get better. Remember that their healing was never about YOU!
I only wish that I'd been able to more deeply grasp this earlier in my career as it would have spared me a lot of exhaustion, migraines and worry. If you are a therapist, carer or work in service, I encourage you to reflect on this and ensure that you've got a mentor and/or systems in place to take care of yourself and your boundaries.
And if you're a person who has been struggling with a particular issue for a long time, "tried every therapy" and still seem to be in the same situation, first know that you're a very brave soul for continuing to seek your own healing. It takes a lot of courage to do that. Write down your goals and reflect on what it is that you might have to give up or what causes you the most fear when you think about being truly at peace and independently so. Whatever comes up in your reflection...are the true gems to your freedom and the right therapist or healer can support you to face them.
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