When Symptoms Serve the System

There’s something in psychology called “secondary gain.” This refers to what a person is actually getting out of doing something, even though it’s irrational. You can also call it “subjective gain” or, as I sometimes do, “the symptom serving the symptom.” Common example: Getting sick. Some people allow themselves to get sick, or at least feel perverse pleasure at getting sick, because it’s the only time they ever get attention. It’s also a way to take a break they never allow themselves when well. Martyrs or chronic self-sacrificers also like to get sick, because it’s a way for them to be waited on, for a change. I once saw somebody at her father’s funeral bursting with happiness, literally fighting back smiles, not because her father had died, but because she was showered with attention from consoling friends and relatives. This was a person starved for attention, for various reasons, and who was prepared to get it any way she could. Still another example are the parents who keep their youngest child immature by bailing him out of financial problems or even substance abuse. Why would parents do such a thing? Usually because they want to still feel needed, or maybe not be left alone with a spouse they no longer love (which would happen if the immature child grew up and left the nest). Secondary gain is one reason why I claim people always have reasons for what they’re doing. No, the reasons are not always rational or even consciously identified; but they exist. One purpose of psychology and psychotherapy is to help people uncover what’s really motivating them, beneath the surface. Self-awareness and understanding of your motives, even your illogical or self-defeating ones, will set you free.