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  • Mary Kalbach

When You Have Everything to Gain from Holding on to the Pain


The problem with letting go of many of our pains or problems is that we have something to gain by holding on to them.  This is called secondary gain.  We generally hold on to these difficult things because letting go of them interferes in some way with our core values.  


Whenever I teach about the concept of Secondary Gain my clients have an immediate “aha” moment.  What I love about EFT is that we have an easy way to correct for this problem.


Let me set up a few examples to illustrate how this works:

“I want to quit smoking” - Suppose you come to me because you’d like to kick the smoking habit.  You know it’s bad for you and your family hates that you do it, but you just can’t let go of those smoking breaks,  as much as you’d love to be able to gain back your physical health.


In many ways, smokers get self-care really right.  Think about this - when the going gets tough, what does a smoker do?  She excuses herself, goes outside in the clear air and takes a break from the tension and stress!    And nobody gives her any crap for it because they recognize that a smoker *has* to smoke in those more tense moments.  This makes keeping that smoking habit a very desirable thing to do, ironically enough, because the smoker values herself enough to tend to her self-care.


What if...whenever emotional tensions get high, it were culturally acceptable to tend to our inner lives and simply walk outside, breathe deeply and take a mental break without needing an excuse like smoking?  A smoker would suddenly have very little to gain by lighting up a cigarette.  She would no longer need to use her smoking habit as an excuse to take care of her emotional needs and it would become much easier to lay aside this unhealthy habit.


“I’m so angry all the time” - this is a common issue for people who have experienced childhood trauma.  They become accustomed to being in a constant state of “fight” reaction as they respond to  the need to release the excess adrenaline and cortisol coursing through their veins. Of course carrying around this anger - and randomly expressing it - is very damaging to self and others.

Someone who has experienced traumas consistently throughout his childhood is going to place a high value on seeking a feeling of safety.  The trouble with this is that there is a strong sense of safety to be found in the familiar. And what is familiar to someone attenuated to traumatic experiences?  Pain and chaos.  This person has everything to gain in terms of internal safety by holding on to that anger, and nothing to gain (from his point of view) by letting it go.  No matter how much he wants to, it is extremely difficult to let go of something which has served him so well for so long.


“My back has gone out” - Often times we can sense that physical pain serves us more if it stays with us than if we were to shed it and feel healthier.  


I know a person who has frequent problems with her back “going out”.  It’s an interesting physical problem because there isn’t much medical solution for it except to prescribe muscle relaxers and pain pills.  Clearly, this problem is more related to emotional and mental stress that lives in her back muscles, than it is to an actual medical condition.


This woman has a history of childhood traumatic experiences, which led her into a chaotic and problematic marriage.  Reviewing her history, there is a clear pattern of her “back going out” at times of high emotional stress in her life.  This physical pain then gives her a reason to stay home and lay flat on her back for several days at a time during the most stressful times of her life.  Unlike the smoker, she is terrible at self-care, and feels guilty if she does not have an extreme excuse to give herself a breather in life.


Like the emotional chaos that is difficult for the angry man to let go of, this woman thrives on the physical chaos, within which her “back condition” allows her to live.  She feels strongly - whether or not she consciously realizes it - that she has nothing to gain by stripping away this physical pain and laying bare the emotional pain underneath it.


I challenge you to ask yourself what you personally have to gain by holding on to that bad habit, that strong emotion, or that physical pain?  With a little courageous self-reflection, you may find that you, too, are holding on to a negative because it holds some positive gain for you!


Pain - whether it is emotional or physical - is always the body’s way of expressing a need.  Like an attention-hungry child, the longer we ignore it, the louder and more persistently it yells.  Sometimes we need to see a doctor or therapist to make sure we are safely tending to that need, and sometimes we just need time for some gentle self-nurturing.


In Clinical EFT, we always begin with what is called the Set-Up.  For the Set Up, we tap on the side of the hand point while repeating a Set Up statement three times - “Even though I have this [state the specific problem] I deeply and completely love and accept myself. “


Starting with this statement allows both your pain and your acceptance of yourself to co-exist.  It takes away the demand that says “I cannot become whole until I let go of this pain”.


This reflects a beautiful mindfulness technique in which we acknowledge difficult emotions without judgement .  We simply allow them to exist in the same space as self-acceptance. And the existence of these difficult emotions does not ever need to negate the presence of self-love.  When we are tapping, the pain and the self-love can sit together, bounce off of each other, simply allow each other to just be there within us.


If I were to tell my clients “You have to stop smoking now” or “this anger makes you a terrible person - calm down” or “your back doesn’t really hurt, you’re just being silly” then the natural survival impulse will be to dive deeper into those hurtful actions, not to let them go.


But when I can tap with these clients and we join together in saying things like “yup, I can be a smoker and a good person too” or “I’m really angry and it’s acceptable to feel what I feel” or “my back hurts and I need to feel this pain right now and that’s ok” then the process of releasing the secondary gains become full of kindness, gentleness and self-acceptance.  That inner resistance begins to sense that it is safe to melt away.


It is the work of tapping through the points that we begin to gain insight into how these two can co-exist.  As we tap and are mindful of the words we use to describe this internal struggle, our minds and bodies are able to let go of the conflicting messages as something dangerous or frightening and simply accept that they are.  Together. Two conflicting ideas resting against one another. And generally after acceptance, comes insight. With insight, comes peace.


And that, my friend, is a peace you can attain!

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