What keeps people stuck

Monday, May 9th, 2011, Written by jackrosenberger

A problem that many individuals in therapy and therapists often have to confront is the issue of why do people stay stuck in their symptoms. These symptoms can range from the mildly annoying to the truly life threatening and despite this, some patients stay wedded to their symptoms as if they were wedded by the Pope! What gives? Why do people stay attached to their symptoms? It is my belief that people (for the most part) do not want pain and suffering in their lives. Yet somehow their symptoms can plague them for months, sometimes for years. So what’s the underlying reason for all this?

It has been my experience as an analytic therapist that what keeps people attached to their symptoms is some kind of payoff – a gain that they get for having them. But what they are unaware of is a “secondary gain”; it’s hidden in the unconscious mind. People are often taken entirely by surprise when in therapy they realize why they have had to live with symptoms for as long as they had.

This is really important for the following reason: NO ONE is to be blamed for the secondary gain that other people can sometimes pick up on in the behavior of their loved ones. Even if this secondary gain is obvious to other people, it can remain a mystery to the person with the problem. And yes, it is a problem. Even if people seem to be enjoying some aspects of their symptoms, in reality their symptoms are keeping them from enjoying life and becoming their true selves. Thus, symptoms and even the secondary gain that sometimes attend to them are in reality not an expression of anyone’s genuine identity.

From this understanding, we can identify two important lessons:

  1. It does no one any good to nag someone about their symptoms – even if they seem to be enjoying life. Nagging, no matter how long or intensely practiced, has never gotten anyone to give up their symptoms. Not once.
  2. If you know someone afflicted by any kind of psychological or emotional symptoms, what they most truly need is the insight into why they have their symptoms and secondary gain. Thus, if they are in therapy, they need to persevere no matter how painful it might be.

For those who are trying to support those in therapy, try to hang on to the fact that their loved ones are making progress. Even if the process takes some time, remember that letting go of things that even had the appearance of working takes work and courage. In this way, therapy is truly a community action, and never occurs just with or by a single individual.

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