My client "Laura" had a massive case of hypochondria, which of course made her think she had a massive case of everything else. She spent ghastly amounts of time researching diseases, checking for symptoms and subjecting herself to medical tests she didn't need.

For "Helen," every day brought catastrophe. In a typical week, she was mauled by her dog, sued by an angry neighbor and scalded by a pot of spilled soup. People liked Helen, but nobody wanted to stand too close to her.

"Jody," a model turned designer, had iron self-discipline in every respect—except one. A few times a week, she'd prepare an intimate dinner for four, and eat it. Alone. Though she hated being 60 pounds overweight, Jody couldn't stop bingeing. On the surface, these three problems seem to have little in common. But all three of these women were living in the same vicious cycle, driven by something psychologists call "secondary gains." Pursuing secondary gains is like beating your head against a wall because it feels good when you stop—a painful experience is linked to something that feels better, and to get the good feeling, you subconsciously repeat the pain. In Laura's case, hypochondria filled her mind so completely that she never thought about her loveless marriage to a promiscuous, cruel man. Timid Helen never asked anyone for anything, but in a crisis she didn't have to—people spontaneously offered her attention, affection, and help. Jody's time as a model had been incredibly stressful; gaining weight robbed her of her job and its prestige, but also spared her its pressures.

These women were genuinely suffering, and they had no idea they were in hot pursuit of these secondary gains. When I asked them, "What advantages do you get from having this problem?," they looked at me as if I'd asked them to stab themselves in the eye. If you're getting secondary benefits from repetitive, frustrating issues of your own, you might also be unaware of secondary gains motivating you at a subconscious level. All you know is that the same damn thing keeps going wrong. To free yourself, you need to find a way out of the pattern.

Right now, bring to mind any unpleasant experience you keep having. Maybe you constantly catch colds, get into fender benders, fall in love with jerks or spend your rent money buying little bags from someone named Razor. Once you've thought of your issue, imagine what life would be like without it. Your first thought is probably, I'd be so relieved! But take some time. Be honest and thorough. Really picture going through a typical day without your illness, addiction or negative behavior. You may realize that such a life might be a little—or a lot—more challenging than you initially thought.

When Laura imagined a day without her hypochondria, she ran right into the reality of her awful marriage. "If I hadn't been so obsessed with my health," she admitted, "I would have left him already." When Helen pictured life without drama, she felt deflated. "Everything would be so boring," she said. Jody felt surprisingly ambivalent about being thin enough to model again. "I can see myself standing there while photographers criticize my body," she said. "I'd be worried about aging, competition—I hated all that!"

bad habits
Illustration: Julia Breckenreid
Now, these women probably wouldn't have been able to identify their secondary gains without help. An objective opinion is useful, because what's obvious from the outside of a secondary-gain pattern is often invisible from the inside. If you don't have a coach or a therapist, try asking a friend or a relative, "What rewards do you think I may be getting from my most frustrating problem?" If the answer makes you want to slap the person, it's probably accurate.

Even if you don't have a clear picture of your secondary gains, luckily there's a powerful way to begin breaking the pattern. After coaching dozens of people caught in secondary-gain cycles, I noticed that the needs being met through suffering could be lumped into three basic categories: freedom, kindness and rest. These three things can be the keys to breaking through repetitive negative patterns.

Of course, each of us has unique circumstances, but in general, our culture doesn't allow us the freedom, kindness and rest we need. Instead, it treats humans like engines of productivity rather than biological beings. Consider hunter-gatherers (a group that included all humans until relatively recently). Anthropologists have argued that some hunter-gatherers worked less and had more free time than more "advanced" societies. One study revealed that certain African Bushmen, despite living in a demanding climate, worked about two and a half days a week.

But since the Industrial Revolution, employees have been expected to punch the clock and work throughout the day. According to Boston College sociologist Juliet Schor, between 1969 and 1987, the average American's work schedule increased by 163 hours, the equivalent of an extra month per year. Nowadays, many of us consider constant connectivity essential to staying competitive. The demands of homelife are also more concentrated for modern humans compared with our "primitive" forebears. Throughout most of human history, domestic tasks like childcare and cooking were communal activities, not something one or two adults tried to accomplish on their own.

Why do we have time to do so much more than our ancestors? We're cutting back on R&R. In 2006, the American Journal of Epidemiology reported that a sample of middle-aged Americans slept about six hours per night, down a full third from the nine hours most people reported in 1910. We also ignore our bodies' ultradian rhythms, cycles of activity and rest that alternate about every 90 minutes during the day. Researchers suggest that our bodies may function better if we work no longer than 90 minutes at a time. But good luck asking your boss for that schedule.

Defying our biology to meet robotic ideals of productivity sets us up to become desperate for relief. If an unrelated problem indirectly supplies our needs for freedom, kindness and rest, we'll tend to have it repeatedly. The way to change this isn't to stop needing what we need—that's like demanding that fish live on dry land. After helping many clients deal with secondary-gain cycles (and going through a few myself), my motto is "Cave early." Break the pattern by giving yourself as much freedom, kindness and rest as possible—starting now.

Many people think this will lead to wanton selfishness and the breakdown of civilized behavior. The truth is just the opposite. Think about it: When you feel free, loved and rested, you're far more benevolent, far more likely to offer support to other people. It's when you're suffering and exhausted that you become unavailable, focused solely on your own needs and how to fulfill them. If you're following me, try this secondary gain–busting strategy: Designate a period of time (ten minutes, half an hour, a weekend) in the near future as a "freedom session." During that time, set yourself free to do anything that feels kind and restful. Take a nap. Curl up with a novel (you don't have to read it). Wander around outside. Talk to yourself the way you'd talk to a tired best friend. If anxiety or self-criticism arises, take a deep breath and bring your focus back to kindness. You can have your self-destructive neuroses back after the session.

Laura, Helen and Jody didn't see how freedom sessions could relate to their problems, and they feared running amok, committing crimes, losing their very humanity. But because they were desperate for change, they agreed to try the method. Soon, they all reported that during freedom sessions they felt less worried, driven or accident-prone. They got a taste of the relief they'd thought would come only after they conquered their dysfunctional behavior.

This started another cycle—a virtuous one. During Laura's freedom sessions, she finally felt safe enough to acknowledge the unhappiness of her marriage. When she gave herself permission to start divorce proceedings, her obsession with illness began to diminish. Once Helen had her own kind attention, she didn't need drama and chaos to gain the attention of others. Almost as if by magic, her life began to grow more peaceful. And Jody realized that as a model, she'd given herself virtually no freedom, kindness or rest; her glamorous job had felt like a prison. When she promised herself she'd never go back to that life, her bingeing gradually became less trancelike and involuntary, and eventually it stopped altogether.

Offering yourself freedom, kindness and rest may not sound like a courageous revolution, but it is. It takes unusual honesty just to accept that you might be getting secondary gains from your problems. And it takes monumental integrity to meet your own needs when doing so contradicts your socialization. But if you dare to begin this quiet insurgency by freeing up time to treat yourself with compassionate attention, problems you thought you'd never beat may well begin to weaken, and some will disappear entirely. You will have gained a direct route to what you once accessed through dysfunctional suffering: the peaceful, gentle, powerful rhythm of your own right life.

Martha Beck's latest book is The Martha Beck Collection: Essays for Creating Your Right Life, Volume One (Martha Beck Inc.).


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