The reason why most alternative healing doesn’t work: Secondary Gain.

Via Ben Ralston
on Aug 13, 2011
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Secondary Gain is a medical term.

If you ask a doctor what it means, they’ll know. If you ask a Reiki practitioner, they probably won’t. That’s because it’s a concept that the world of alternative healing has not fully woken up to yet. I believe it’s also one of the main reasons why most alternative healing doesn’t work, and most personal development methods / spiritual practices are inefficient. *

What is secondary gain, exactly?

Secondary gain** may be defined as ‘a hidden benefit that is derived from the problem’.

The best example I can give is the one that Simon Rose (founder of Reference Point Therapy) gives when teaching RPT. It is a true story:

There was an old lady who had cancer. Despite the fact that she had expert care, and against all expectation, her condition did not improve. When asked the simple (and seemingly ridiculous) question:“What would the worst outcome of the cancer being healed” she finally replied: “I would be lonely again”.

Before the diagnosis of cancer, she had been alone. When they found out that she was ill, her grandchildren began to visit her daily. Faced with the simple choice between cancer and loneliness, she (subconsciously) chose cancer.

Don’t underestimate the power of the subconscious.

The hidden benefit to her problem – the secondary gain – was quite simply that the quality of her life was improved by the cancer because she was no longer lonely.

Other examples include:

If my bad back was fixed, I’d have to go to work”…


If my headaches stopped, I’d have no excuse not to have sex with my husband” (another real-life example!)

Why I feel this is an important issue.

Let’s face it – we all have problems from time to time. Whether physical, emotional, or psychological, challenges are a (big) part of life.

It is many people’s experience that the initial hope and euphoria – so often experienced immediately after a healing session (or therapy, or personal development) – fades, and the symptoms return. Often people believe that ‘this time I’ve really healed it!’ or ‘wow, there’s been a huge shift in my consciousness’, only to feel deeply disappointed a few days later when the symptoms, (or their usual state of mind) gradually return. Do you recognize what I’m talking about? It’s also true of spiritual practice. Many people attain ‘higher states’ of awareness through spiritual practice, only to find that they they quickly return to the original state. It can be very frustrating.

The most common reason for this is secondary gain.

In terms of healing – you may well find the root cause of your problem; you may well effectively heal it. But if the secondary gain is not released you will probably not see any long term change in the symptoms – because subconsciously you are choosing to hold onto them.

Honestly, I have lost count of the number of clients (and personal problems) whose permanent healing has ultimately come down to secondary gain.

Very often you need only heal the secondary gain of a problem in order to watch it just fall away – secondary gain was all that was holding it in place.

I’ll leave you with another example. I’m working with a client at the moment who has liver cancer. She’s 31 years old, has a 3 year old child, and the doctors have told her that there’s nothing they can do – they told her that chemo will just give her 4 months more. (Personally, I believe that there is almost always something we can do; if we know the cause of something, we can undo it).

When I began to explore the concept of secondary gain with her she gave me a list of things that were benefits of the cancer:

  • She makes friends more easily now that she’s sick.
  • Has a great excuse as to why her career is at a standstill.
  • Gets her husband’s undivided attention without having to ask for it.

I worked on the trauma of these secondary gains: making friends (she’s an introvert), having a career at standstill (she wants to work), and being assertive / getting the attention she needs (she had an issue with feeling like an ‘attention seeker’ when expressing needs and desires).

Of course, I’ve done much more than work on secondary gain with her (healing childhood trauma, work on self-esteem, strengthening boundaries, etc) but already there have been some dramatic changes: a chronic shoulder pain (interestingly, directly behind the breast that was the original source of the cancer) has disappeared; and an old breathing difficulty has cleared up.

Edit: since originally writing this, she had a blood test. Whereas in the past her blood was always weak, the doctors told her now that it is ‘perfect’ – for the first time. (This is after some very strong chemotherapy, which would normally weaken the blood further).

I’m confident that this is going to be another case of ‘miraculous’ healing. I’ll let you know.

However, the point of this article is this: every cloud has a silver lining. Even our greatest fears and worst nightmares bring us some kind of benefit, especially when they are old problems that we’ve become accustomed to.

Sometimes, we choose subconsciously to hold on to that benefit, even though consciously we may not want to.

Do you have a problem – physical or emotional – that you can’t seem to solve? Can you think of any benefit to it? If you solved the problem, what would you loose? Please feel free to leave a comment (even anonymously) and I’ll see if I can help.


Spread the love – leave a comment, share, ‘like’, Tweet, and Stumble it.

Thank you!

Related posts:

How healing / therapy / personal development just became super fast and easy!

The Emptiness, and feeling emtpy (two very different things)

* – I realize this is a controversial, and somewhat incontrovertible point: however, I believe that most alternative healing modalities and practitioners are less effective than a placebo! A great deal of scientific research has shown that placebos are around 30-40% effective. I think that if we’re really honest about our experiences with alternative healing we can say that very few healers or therapists are able to guarantee successful results (by which I simply mean permanent healing) in over 40% of their clients.
** – For the purpose of simplicity I am rolling Primary gain, Secondary gain and Tertiary gain into one.


About Ben Ralston

Ben Ralston has been practising personal development—necessity being the Mother of invention—since he was about six years old. He’s been teaching and sharing what he’s learnt along the way for a couple of decades. His main thing is Heart of Tribe retreats—whose very purpose is to help you fall back in love with life, no less. Leading these retreats alongside his woman Kara-Leah Grant—also an elephant journal writer (that’s how they met!)—they combine a deep well of lineage-based yoga teaching experience, with expertise in healing trauma and various other methods of personal development. Ben also works with clients one-on-one via Skype, writes, makes videos from time to time, and is passionate about parenting. He lives in an intentional, tribal community in the hills of Croatia, where you might find him gardening barefoot and talking to the rocks. Connect with Ben on Facebook or YouTube or check out his website for more info.


76 Responses to “The reason why most alternative healing doesn’t work: Secondary Gain.”

  1. tanya lee markul says:

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

  2. Ben_Ralston says:

    Hi Pretzel,
    Well, no, there is not always a secondary gain. Sometimes not… but I find that with skin conditions like this, there often is. Could be complex like this: you feel unattractive, so you're afraid of being rejected. It's 'safer' to have the eczema (and extra weight) because they are like a defense mechanism – you're not in danger of being rejected. Make sense?
    I've actually seen someone beat quite bad eczema just with some simple yoga (especially breathing exercises). But if was working with you I'd combine yoga, healing of trauma, and working on secondary gain. We could do it via skype if you're interested…

  3. Awesome Awesome Awesome Awesome Ben! I am a massage therapy student & also do holistic stress management consulting/coaching…and this is HUGE in both arenas…If we don't let go of or resolve what our pain is getting for us, we cannot heal. The fewer times someone needs to work with me – the better – because it means that they really dealt with their issues instead of putting a band-aid on the situation.

    This is also one of the reasons I use an acupuncturist/Traditional Chinese Dr./osteopath for myself and my family – she is going to look at everything that is going on and say, "it seems like you are holding onto anger about this…" rather than prescribing a pill for stomach issues.

  4. […] acknowledged by the medical community too! The idea is called secondary gain. According to an article by fellow Elephant Journal writer and yogi Ben Ralston, secondary gain is a “hidden benefit that is derived from the problem.” In my, no, actually, […]

  5. Bell's Palsy says:

    Your column resonates so profoundly with my situation. I am in training as a psychotherapist, am aware of secondary gains, and still trying to navigate that path in which intellectual knowledge and insight are not quite enough. Five months ago, after a very arduous process of passing qualifying exams for my doctoral program, I woke up one morning with Bell’s Palsy, with the entire left side of my face frozen. As far as afflictions go, this one isn’t horrid and certainly not life-threatening, but it is uncomfortable when it gets to the place of drooling when talking and eating and not being able to smile or close your eye. The one thing I can clearly identify is that the Bell’s Palsy has given me the permission to say “no” and actually take care of myself. Ph.D. programs are notorious for expecting you to be limitless in availability on all levels. However, when people saw my face paralyzed, my decision to practice self-care was not questioned, and I gave myself the authority to insist on that self-care. Now a new school year is starting. My bell’s palsy never completely went away, though the symptoms are managed with scorpion venom medicine prescribed by my acupuncturist. I know the riddle…Can I actually take care of myself when I don’t have facial paralysis as a good excuse?

  6. adc says:

    I found your article very interesting. So, I am now questionning, if I lost my chronic lower back pain (radiates, numb leg…), what would I lose? I truly don't know. I have a new baby and need energy and physical stamina to keep up with him. I would love for this to be gone forever, but not sure what may be keeping it with me?? It's frustrating to think that this daily pain is unconsciously of my own making.

  7. M.R. says:

    Any type of medicine, East/West, Mainstream/Alternative, etc, has Secondary Gain going on. Ditto the Placebo Effect, which I'm surprised the writer didn't mention. So, highlighting those 2 things casts doubt on any intervention, not just alternative healing. Snappy title though.

    The author bio… "The blockages caused by trauma are very easy to heal though, because they’re not really who we are, they’re just blockages…" Someone please tell him to check the 3rd sentence of his article for a wonderful, simple, powerful practice used to clear away blockages 🙂

  8. Ben_Ralston says:

    Dear M.R.
    Instead of reacting to a perceived hurt, why don't you take a deep breath, and see if there is something for you to learn here… because judging from what you write, there is much for you to learn here.

  9. Ben_Ralston says:

    I'm going to try to talk you through a healing process.
    Ok, close your eyes, take a deep breath. Feel into this back pain, and how it keeps you lacking in energy and physical stamina. Then feel – how does it make you feel to not have energy and physical stamina?

  10. Ben_Ralston says:

    Yes, look at how you feel about taking care of yourself – putting yourself first – and heal the blockage to that.

  11. […] refocused my interest in secondary gains, a concept in the medical community that, according to his article, is defined as a hidden benefit that is derived from the […]

  12. […] The reason why most alternative healing doesn’t work: Secondary Gain. […]

  13. betterdeal says:

    What a good article! I found it explained the idea clearly.

    So what do I gain from smoking heavily?

    Solidarity with other smokers
    Something to worry about instead of the things that are bothering me
    Something to pass time
    Something to do with my hands
    Something to do with my mouth
    Something that says "fuck you" to the world

    I know that I smoke a lot more when feeling weak, either physically or emotionally. I also think a lot about my most recent former lover when I feel weak, and the painful things that I experienced with her. I wonder if I see her as a mother figure or just need to process the emotions from those traumas?

  14. Ben_Ralston says:

    Hi betterdeal,

    I think that you're right about all of the above. I'd add that in my experience smoking is a way of just generally avoiding being 'yourself', being present to who you are, what you feel. (I also used to smoke, a lot).
    if you really want to give up, devote some time to 'making friends with yourself'. Strengthen your self esteem, learn to love yourself. I can help you give up very much. See website for details.

  15. […] refocused my interest in secondary gains, a concept in the medical community that, according to his article, is defined as a hidden benefit that is derived from the […]

  16. LISA says:

    Wow, that felt like a light bulb moment.

    I had a fall down a flight of stairs about three years ago, subsequently I was incredibly battered & bruised & broke my big toe. Wanting to believe that was the only damage I’d done, I got on with things, completed my yoga teacher training a year or so after & carried on, despite feeling the occasional dullness & tension in my sacrum.

    Now, I’ve since grown my business & my practice has slipped due to the hours I’ve been putting in at work & the twinge in my back has progressively become worse over the past 6 months, I’ve also been having trouble with ovarian cysts & the latest, a possible endometriosis which feels horrid.

    My fear now is that perhaps there’s some attachment to not being ready to have a baby yet. I’m dedicated to driving my soul purpose & work forward & I’m not ready or prepared to let that go & devote my body & my life to a little one just yet. 

    I really don’t want to have any form of surgery & feel like I’m waiting for the light to be shone on the root cause of this problem that has been getting progressively worse & now affecting me more than being just in my spine but by moving further into my body.

    I tried cranio sacral therapy a while back & that released some tension but didn’t heal it entirely, I just want to know what I can do, as I want to believe I can heal myself through this & heal myself through this as I’m in knots over it emotionally & physically.

    It’s funny, going from trying to be strong & not make any fuss about what happened to now being so exacerbated with it that I feel like I’m helplessly clutching at straws.

  17. cathywaveyoga says:

    This article scares me. it sounds like you are saying that people will be healed from essentially everything if they heal their emotional issues. Its simply not completely true. And this can carry much guilt to people who are suffering from one thing or another, regardless if your miracle reiki woul dhela them or not.

    You also titled it with the reason why most alternative doesnt work.. maybe you mean the reason why most healing does nto work. Please dont diss alternative healing just for yellowish journalism shock factor.

  18. Jenni Robinson says:

    I came across your blog and enjoyed your insight about medical and health related topics. If you decide that you would like to expand your social media presence or find more health answers, I would highly recommend as a platform for high quality health information.

  19. ofarrmr says:

    I’ve suffered from anxiety intermittently since my 20’s (I’m now 37). It seems to come back when everything is going well(almost like sabotage)! I suffered both antenatal and postnatal anxiety/depression which hasn’t really cleared, despite drugs, counselling , homeopathy and shear willpower and my daughter is now 3. This article makes me wonder whether my anxiety seams to have some secondary gain to me. How would you suggest I figure it out?
    Thank you- I want to start living again instead of just surviving.

  20. Jools says:

    Tnx Ben

    Chronic health issues, self limiting beliefs & subsequent frustration at both. Time to finally lay it all to rest?! …may I email u?

  21. Micah says:

    Hi Ben,

    I’m curious about the types of alternative healing modalities that you find are less effective?


  22. Will B Young says:

    Although written quite some time ago, this article just showed up on my Facebook news feed. The information about secondary gain and how it effects healing is useful. Many alternative healing practitioners may well not be familiar with the term… and some may not be familiar with the phenomena. Your assertions about the ineffectiveness of alternate modalities may well be accurate as concerns those who are not considering the effect of secondary gain but, in my experience, that would be a minority of practitioners (at least with regard to Reiki and other energy healing modalities in my area). Although my Reiki Master Teacher did not use the term “secondary gain”, the concept was covered thoroughly and, because the term was familiar to me from many years as a court reporter before I discovered Reiki, I was able to give her the correct term for what she was teaching. Certainly all of my students are well versed in the significance and impact of secondary gain.

    Your assertions about the effectiveness of Reiki and other similar energy work may well be true regarding those practitioners who are not familiar with secondary gain and how to address it but, in my experience, it is not at all true otherwise. My success rate and that of other practitioners that I know is well above that of conventional medicine, much less the placebo effect… even with clients who have spent years in therapy without significant progress and those whose medical doctors tell them there is no hope. Indeed, it often seems to me that it is the doctors and therapists that have real issues with secondary gain since they have far more to gain from their patients illness than from their wellness.

  23. Sandi says:

    Please realize that your healing concept does NOT hold the monopoly on recoveryAs a certified clinical chaplain,acareer in hospital nursing, and a reiki master,I resent the fact that you easily criticize reiki ,yet you employ the same 'discovery' of disease origin and secondary gain as do I. Alternative medicine practionners like myself are very well aware of the complex roots and secondary gain of disease so let us NOT choose one modality of healing over another but applaud the methods that can lead to HEALING should the patient truly desire HEALING .

  24. Miles Summerton says:

    You don’ t really understand alternative
    Medicine. Secoundary gain is always there but it is only part of the picture. Please stop making out that the you have the answer to every bodies problems and that this thing you have come up with is better than all the
    Therapies put together. Aqupuncture, Massage, Homeopathy and many more are
    Valuable and effective. Also there is enough
    Misunderstanding of Holistic medicine without you saying it is all pretty much ineffective. Please think before you say something.

  25. Mkearns says:

    I don't understand why the author specifies that ALTERNATIVE HEALING doesn't work due to the effects of secondary gain.
    Traditional allopathic medicine is just as susceptible to the effects of people having a "secondary gain" motive.

    Again, why does he point at alternative medicine?

  26. Fiona says:

    What felt like the most devastating thing was said to me when I was very ill and had tried so many things to try and get well, was from a reconnective practitioner at a time when I was frightened, I was so ill and because of that my life was falling apart. She said oh you don't want to get better. Many years later and many therapies later I found a 'vibrational medicine' practitioner who treated me for severe chemical poisoning. I then found I was living in a house that was geopathically stressed, had a nasty energy attachment which took some skill to leave. Benefits??? Loss of friends, isolation, hostility from family, loss of work and money, loss of years of life. Be very very careful what you say to someone in a vulnerable state, you could do a lot of harm.