Secondary gains - the hidden benefits of habits we want to break

Secondary gains – the hidden benefits of habits we want to break

Weight loss is an area that takes up a lot of peoples’ energy and attention, especially in the New Year. People join clubs and classes, or sign up to diets and meal replacement plans.

Alison* was no stranger to these, and over the past few years seemed to have tried all of them. Some had worked better than others – some quicker, some lasting for longer. But eventually all of them stopped working, and Alison returned to the weight she had been before.

And that’s the point at which she came to see me. “I’m stuck” Alison told me, “and I need you to give me the willpower I haven’t got. Every time I’m going in the right direction, every time I’m getting near my goal weight, I do something to sabotage myself. I just run out of willpower, and that’s exactly what I need.”

Alison’s answers to a few questions showed a slightly different picture though. Although she had never achieved the permanent weight loss she wanted, she hadn’t put significantly increased her pre-diet weight. Many people who diet and then stop put on more weight than they lost, and end up heavier then when they started.

Alison always returned to the same range of weight, and stayed there. From that point of view willpower didn’t seem to be an issue for her. In fact she was unconsciously able to maintain her body weight, albeit at a higher weight than she consciously wished for. What, I wondered, could the reason for that be?

There is an idea called secondary gains in the work I do with people. Broadly speaking, people can get a lot of benefits (or believe they get a lot of benefits) from habits that on the face of it they aren’t happy with. An example is with people who want to stop smoking, but can’t because they think it keeps their weight down, stops them being bored on breaks, and underpins friendships at work.

“So you’re saying it’s like an iceberg” said Alison, “with all the things I get from my weight hidden where I can’t see them?” That’s actually quite a good analogy, with the secondary gains lying hidden under the surface – you can’t see them but they’re very much there.

Alison asked me to help her, and we uncovered what was holding her back. There was a side of successfully losing weight that worried her – an area that she felt unhappy and conflicted about. It was through tackling those thoughts, and those fears, that we unblocked her unconscious fear of success. So in the end it wasn’t more willpower that Alison needed, but freeing her from the ideas that were holding her back – not just with her weight but with her whole life.

* Alison’s real identity has been protected, and she is happy to share her story.

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