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. ARCreated says:

    actually as a hypnotherapist and reiki healer we learned and work with the idea of secondary gain….I don't know what healers you know but this is a basic tenet we discuss and work with … not news here. I think it's great that your therapy works so well with this concept as well!

  2. anony-mouse says:

    I needed to read this so much, I think this is exactly what I’m dealing with right now. How can I get help to get to the root of this? I have been dealing with chronic neck and back pain for over four months now and have been unable to surf or do many things which I love to do…and yet there is a sense of holding on to the pain and I don’t know how to get into that and move through it.

    Thank you for this piece, damn I needed it!

  3. Iwona Borawska-Cebra says:

    Great info! it is always the darkest under the lamp…. 🙂 years ago in medical school we were enlightened that practically EVERY disease can be triggered by our MIND. And then we all forgot about it! Sleepwalking through life does too much damage! Thanks sp much Ben for the reminder! 🙂

  4. Amy C. says:

    Very helpful. Thanks!

  5. sally says:

    Fully! It's so easy to forget that we are clinging, let alone remember what we are clinging to.

  6. Ben_Ralston says:

    I'm guessing you learned this studying hypnotherapy rather than Reiki though right? I know hynotherapy works with 2ndry Gain… but when I learned Reiki there was no mention of secondary gain, and I've never met a Reiki practitioner yet that knew what it was – if your Reiki teacher taught you about it though then I stand corrected!

  7. Helena says:

    thanks Ben for this post. i send you a message to premcenter about RPT yesterday. would love to hear from you.

  8. mere says:

    As a psychotherapist we are schooled extensively in secondary gain- its also another way of viewing the unconscious. This is also a basic tenet of working with addiction. Understanding what any destructive pattern, or condition, is serving is essential to lasting change. I think you really generalize here by stating that most therapies and inquiries into self development fail. Among my peers, and with clients, secondary gain is always held in consciousness. Thanks for sharing with those who werent familiar.

  9. Ben_Ralston says:

    Hi Mere, thanks for your comment. I know that psychotherapy is more than aware about 2ndry gain. And when I said that most therapies are inefficient (not fail – just less efficient than could be) because of a lack of awareness of it, I was referring to alternative therapies. Thanks for pointing it out though…

  10. Keren says:

    Hi Ben,
    Another great article!
    I am a Reiki and IET healer. I often don't consider the illness as much as I consider the person who has the illness. So although I never heard of this term per se, healing modalities such as Reiki and IET have a much higher intelligence that allows the patient to discover the root of the illness on their own. Therefore, both practitioner and patient must release the will to "know" (patient must give consent to being ready to release and practitioner must give consent to the healing modalities to heal and help move the ego aside during healing) and allow the healing to be done wherever it is needed – which very often lies within the hidden recesses of the ego-mind that is creating the illness in order to heal other wounds.
    I have had much success with both modalities but I never promise miracles and always remind the patient that alternative healing is self-healing. Without the full involvement and will of the "self" no healing will ever work whether it be alternative or traditional.

  11. Ben_Ralston says:

    Thanks Helena, I did get your email, and I tried to reply already but had a problem with my email. I'll reply to you today or tomorrow from another email address while I solve the issue.

  12. Katherine says:

    great article.

  13. Palma says:

    Very interesting article. I qualified as a hypnotherapist at the start of 2009 and we did indeed spend a lot of time on our course discussing the importance of secondary gain. However, immediately after qualifying I was diagnosed with breast cancer and have never actually practised as a therapist. Since finishing treatment a year and a half ago I have had one niggling health problem after another – these ailments always scare me as I worry that they're related to the cancer. Your article has made me realise that I should look at what I may be gaining by not feeling "fully recovered".

  14. Lotus says:

    Hi Ben,

    Great article! I have a nervous fidget that is resulting in some pretty serious health issues. Even though I try to stop, something inside of me just will not let it go. There is an addictive quality to the behavior, as far as I can sense from trying to look at it objectively. So from your advice, I will try and see what I am possibly gaining from maintaining the behavior. Thanks again!

  15. Tom Pedersen says:

    Excellent view of how powerful the individual's own will over their body really is. The DNA does respond to our very thoughts and emotions. This is true of our environments as well. It is difficult to recognize and take responsibility for our own condition experienced in life but the tremendously expansive possibilities found when comparing people's lives stands as self evident verification that we directly influence and shape our life paths and experiences directly by what we think, then do and finally experience. What empowers us to do this is not the subject here, but may well should be.

  16. Stefanie says:

    I completely appreciate this article. What I find interesting is my own experience has been nothing but the opposite. An Acupuncturist/Herbalist had me up and walking that night, after 3 months being laid out on my couch with upper respiratory issues, 3 rounds of antibiotic & 3 different Dr.'s. Any dialogue or experience I have had w/an Acupuncturist..goes without saying..the mind/body are not separate. Thankfully I am healthy and have not had to deal with many individuals that actually Practice medicine instead of just pen pushing. Thank you for this Great article!

  17. Tom Pedersen says:

    We get what we reward. When we pay people not to work, we get people not working. When we give our power to someone or anything else, we get domination of our own empowerment. We can empower our worst fears or our greatest love. Both are made in exactly the same way, with our power of choice, then by our power of intention. From that premise, it is very dangerous to us to have anything working with our own empowerment that is "unconscious" or "super-conscious". To deny the existence of this power we have is to say it does not exist. Denial, the lack of self perception, creates existence and persistence. Communication requires confronting, connecting and duplicating. It is the opposite of saying something does not exist when it does.

  18. Tom Pedersen says:

    When does anyone want to see a doctor? When do we seek the council of an attorney? Is it usually before or after something is wrong? It is predominately done after the manifestation of the problem or malady which we cannot remedy ourselves. The doctor, the lawyer is being rewarded very well. We have a medical and legal community which thrives on treating the "existence" of a malady which is there. Most often it treats only what is physically there. Rarely does it address the prevention of any malady. "Cut it out", suppress it with medications and drugs nearly as dangerous to the system as the malady itself is the standard "cure". Long before that malady existed, the existence of it was being forged into existence. The secondary effect has a primary cause. Interesting that it is called "secondary" when it actually is much closer to the primary cause.

  19. Susan says:

    while I agree with the concept that secondary gain thwarts progress, as a therapist I can offer several examples as well as other examples from my family, I don't think it is fair to link lack of progress to alternative therapies. MD doctors are just as guilty of missing this and many alternative practitioners are wise enough to see the secondary gains of illness. However there are practitioners who benefit deeply from having patients that "benefit from illness." I see the article as informative on its own without disparaging alternative therapy.

  20. Sharon A says:

    Thank you for writing such a wonderful and enlightening article. For several years I have been plagued with illness that led to depression and I have not been able to figure out why my physical and mental state has been slowly collapsing. At one point I had felt as though I gave up on life and then decided otherwise and began using Reiki and other types of alternative and traditional treatment methods; but can never seem to pull myself back to where I want to be. After reading this article on secondary gain, it all makes complete sense. I must now try to find the root of my dilemma and perhaps I can beat my battle with diabetes, depression, and COPD.

  21. anak says:

    This article was very helpful for me. Now I need to sit down and write to myself, identifying what the benefit is of holding on to my childhood trauma (subconsciously almost wrote drama) and try to break it down into little bits until I can finally dispose of it. I've known for years I use it as a means to keep relationships from never growing close. Being close to someone can more easily lead to disappointment and rejection – whereas only being "sort of" close to someone, rejection and disappointment is less intense.

  22. Ben_Ralston says:

    Hi Susan,
    I really don't mean to disparage alternative therapy. To be honest, I do disparage – so called – traditional medicine, and un-apologetically. However, I do also like people to be realistic and honest about alternative healing (of course, really generalizing now), and most of it, especially 'energy healing' is less effective than a placebo.
    Perhaps I'm wrong – perhaps the majority of alternative healers are aware of, and do place a great deal of attention on secondary gain… in which case, as i said above, I stand corrected. But in my experience that's not the case.
    All the best, Ben

  23. Sara Young says:

    This makes so much sense but I had never thought about it before. I am convinced that the death of my parents freed me up to become successful. (They are no longer around to blame for my failure). Thank you so much for this enlightening article.

  24. missbernklau says:

    Great post…I never thought about things that way. I've heard of people feigning or convincing themselves that they are ill for much-needed attention, but I never heard this term before and/or applied it to emotional trauma/issues. I definitely need to examine my own and figure out what secondary-gains there may be in not getting past them so that I *can* get past them. Thank you!

  25. ARCreated says:

    guess it depends on the teacher. my reiki guide didn't call it secondary gain…but talked of pain reward and how sometimes people don't heal because of this holding on…so we discussed how to address that with clients, it's a pretty easy fix for me having both modalities I just combine hypnosis with yoga and reiki and I get the mind body spirit connection and I have seen some amazing things 🙂

  26. Lisalynx25 says:

    As a Reiki Master, massage therapist and energy worker for many years, I am confused by the article. It has been my experience that alternative medicine places too much emphasis on secondary gain and not enough on pathogens and environmental exposure. A marriage of scientific and alternative/holistic approach to illness seems, to me, to be the best approach.

  27. tanya lee markul says:


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  28. […] came across a post on Elephant Journal the other day by Ben Ralston titled The reason why most alternative healing doesn’t work: Secondary Gain. As a Reiki Master and general advocate of alternative healing arts, this title immediately caught […]

  29. Ben_Ralston says:

    'How can I get help to get to the root of this?'
    That's what I do! Check out my website or blog (links in above profile) and send me an email. I'd be very happy to work with you and try to get you surfing again!

  30. Ben_Ralston says:

    It's a pleasure Iwona.

  31. Ben_Ralston says:

    Yes, and I have a feeling that you should also look into fear of success – I believe you are holding yourself back because you know that if you were healthy, you'd be very powerful, and perhaps you are deeply afraid of really stepping into your power and beauty?

  32. Ben_Ralston says:

    Hm, I started writing a reply that tried to help you with this directly, but it was a little too complicated. I'd love to work with you on healing the addictive behavior – if you're interested look at my webstite / blog (links in profile above) and send me an email.

  33. Ben_Ralston says:

    'What empowers us to do this is not the subject here, but may well should be'
    Great comment, thank you.
    What empowers us to do so is the fact that the body and will / mind are not in fact separate. It is not that the mind 'influences' the body. It is that the mind IS the body, and the body IS the mind. So the quality of one directly impacts the other, in the same way that the earth's atmosphere affects the earth – they are intimately connected. So too with our environment: there is really nothing that we cannot say is in some way part of us.

  34. Ben_Ralston says:

    Hi Stefanie,
    don't get me wrong – there are many great alternative therapies, and acupuncture is certainly one of them. However, there are also many therapies where the success rate is less than 30 percent, and then the client may as well go to the Dr and be given a placebo. Thank you for your comment! Ben

  35. Ben_Ralston says:

    Hi Tom,
    I think you are confusing secondary gain with primary cause – easy to do because they are similar. Primary cause is the deepest underlying instinct or feeling that causes the condition. Secondary gain is a *later* development (after the condition develops) that keeps us in the condition, even sometimes after the cause is removed.

  36. Ben_Ralston says:

    Hi Sharon
    I believe that there may be some trauma (childhood?) that has not been healed. When you say "At one point I had felt as though I gave up on life" it suggests to me that there is a deep wound that has yet to be given proper attention.
    I'd love to help you with it – if you're interested look at my webstite / blog (links in profile above) and send me an email.

  37. Ben_Ralston says:

    Fear of rejection. Did your childhood trauma involve abandonment or rejection?

  38. Ben_Ralston says:

    Pleasure Sara, thanks for the comment.

  39. Ben_Ralston says:

    Just to be clear:
    People don't consciously " feigning or convincing themselves that they are ill for much-needed attention " (if they do then it's called manipulation not secondary gain!)
    99% of the time it is entirely subconscious.

  40. Ben_Ralston says:

    Good question, and i was wondering if anyone would pick me up on it.
    I think that our clinging to illusion and the ego-mind is a sickness, and liberation from it, or enlightenment, is the ultimate state of health. Looked at from that viewpoint, you can ask youself: "what is the benefit to me of staying sick" (attached to my limited awareness and ego-centric view of the world).
    The answer is usually very easy to find. If we are free we are suddenly very far from friends, family, colleagues. Most of us are deeply afraid of truly becoming powerful and free.

  41. Lotus says:

    Hi Ben,

    I will do that. Thank you!

  42. Ben_Ralston says:

    Hi Lisa,
    I'm guessing that you are confusing secondary gain with the psychological / emotional factors that cause a problem in the first place. They are very different. The cause comes first, then the illness, then the 2ndry gain.
    But I absolutely agree that a marriage of scientific / 'medical' and holistic / alternative approaches are the way to go.

  43. Ben_Ralston says:

    "I have seen some amazing things :)"
    Cool! Here's to many more amazing things in the future 🙂

  44. Ben_Ralston says:

    Hi Amanda,
    Secondary gain does not manifest symptoms. It is not the cause of a condition, but a further (secondary) benefit that comes later.
    I must say I am very interested in craniosacral biodynamics, and while reading your comment I had an interesting vision. So, thanks, although I'm not sure yet what for!

  45. Andréa Balt says:

    This article is priceless. I'd heard this concept on the run a while ago, but you put it into perspective, making it especially useful to those of us who practice alternative therapy. I've recently worked with someone who was overweight and I can now see clearly that secondary gain was getting in the way of her weight release, although a change in her nutritional habits also did its great deal of wonder.

    I asked her to compare the pain of releasing the extra weight to the pain of not releasing it. Some interesting things came up. But in this new light, I think it would be more helpful to ask about the gain: what is the gain of getting better vs. the gain of remaining sick? That question can be more effective in pointing out what's really going on behind the curtains. Especially since the pain is usually more obvious. It is the pain that gets people to therapy. It is the gain that gets them out, right?

    Thank you!

  46. Bill says:

    I see lots of yearning in these letters. The fact that I am aware of is that people are asking for touch therapies due the fact that no one does touch them. So one possibility is that as long as there is an ailment they will always get touched or have someone to pay attention to them. I had heard this question once. What is depression doing for you or who would you be without it? So maybe the root is something that is not being directly answered but is getting someone attention that is needed.

  47. Lisalynx25 says:

    I understand what secondary gain is, not confusing it. I have found that alternative medicine has a more holistic approach to healing, including why people remain ill. In my experience, there is an emphasis on cause and 2ndary gain.

    Thanks for the reply!