Are you a worrier? Do you stress about money, health, your relationship? Do you suffer from chronic pain or high blood pressure? Do you experience panic attacks or social anxiety?
Most people deal with some kind of recurring stress or concern. These issues tend to limit our experience in various ways, lead us down certain paths we otherwise wouldn’t have chosen. So let me ask you this: If you could drink a magic potion and all of your anxiety suddenly vanished, how would your life be different? Would you change jobs, move to another city? Would you leave your relationship, sing at an open-mic or finally start yoga classes?
Therapists use the term secondary gain to refer to hidden “benefits” that sometimes accompany an unpleasant condition. Jill suffers from an intense fear of flying. This is especially inconvenient, as Jill recently completed her MBA and planned to take a job requiring a lot of travel. Although she had flown most of life without a problem, as Jill neared graduation, she began having panic attacks while flying. Now she is frustrated and confused, unable to take her dream job despite her hard work in graduate school. She feels factors beyond her control intervened at just the wrong time, standing between her and success.
A therapist might question if Jill’s core anxiety was really about flying. Deep down, does Jill feel she’s not fully qualified for her first “adult” job? Or since the job is on the opposite side of the country, does she dread moving away from her friends and family? If Jill’s flying anxiety is intense enough, it essentially “makes the choice” for her.
A lot of people feel more comfortable dealing with relatively concrete obstacles like fear of flying than they do more slippery issues involving self-esteem or family dynamics. Some people can admit to drinking excessively–but not to feeling depressed. Others insist they “just have a low sex drive,” rather than dealing with long-brewing resentment toward their partner.
If Jill’s flying anxiety is really mostly about flying, then various solutions can help her move through this obstacle. Medication, meditation, breathing exercises, a flying simulation course for anxious flyers (there is one in DFW). But if her core issue is really about avoiding her dream job due to a deeply ingrained fear of failure, none of these things will work–not for long, at least. I should emphasize that Jill’s fear of flying is very real. Her discomfort is in no way pretend. She isn’t aware that her flying issues are a stand-in for deeper challenges, nor is she consciously trying to manipulate her circumstances. For the time being, her flying phobia keeps her close to home and working at a less intimidating job.
Reconsider the things that your stress and anxiety “prevent” you from pursuing. Travel, dating, working less. Do you maybe, at some level, fear these things as well? If you’re “too busy” to date right now, do you nonetheless find yourself signing on to more and more projects? If you “need more money” before you can start your own business, do you find yourself repeatedly losing money in unexpected ways? There are no shortcuts when it comes to redirecting longstanding habits of thinking, feeling and doing. But when you are able to look self-defeating patterns directly in the eye, they can begin to dissolve. When you no longer need secondary gains to hold you back, you can immerse yourself fully into the flow of your life, unencumbered by stunt doubles and safety nets.
About the Author: James Robbins is a licensed professional counselor, published author and co-owner of Dallas Whole Life Counseling. He has over 15 years of experience helping people in various life stages that come from a wide variety of cultural, economic and family backgrounds. Learn more about his background by clicking here.