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Primary Gain

Dr Jeff Stoker

Sometimes when a person gets stuck in their problems it is because having those problems benefits that person and this then causes a reluctance to change, this effect is often due to a phenomenon called Primary Gain.

Primary gain is often referred to in medicine as primary morbid gain and psychiatrists have used it to describe some of the behavioural and psychological motivators that a person has in their illness. Yet in simple coaching terms we can think of it the following way;

Primary gain is something we do to gain pleasure and or avoid pain.

A simple example of Primary Gain might be how you could stay in bed if you are unwell just because it feels better to stay there, put your head under the pillow and feel sorry for yourself is a far better alternative than getting up and taking on the day feeling out of sorts. Primary gain is the reward you receive from doing one thing or avoidance of pain from not doing the other.

Often primary gain is very primitive we are programmed to go towards something our body needs and away from things that could do us harm, think of the pleasure you get eating something that tastes good coupled with the avoidance of hunger. 

Behind primary gain is a distorted thinking effect called the Reward and Punishment Bias which is an inbuilt survival response that naturally wants to drive us away from harm and towards something good. Often we fall into this reward-seeking and pain avoidance behaviour without even noticing we are doing it, and because of this it’s easy to see how it can persist as bad habits that can even lead us towards addition.

The first thing you can do to help yourself when you notice you are affected by primary gain is to notice it is happening and then you can consciously make an effort to change your behaviour. However, the real problem arises when the primary gain of having a problem means it’s less painful to stay in your problem rather than facing the hardship of doing something about it.

Do you really want to stop eating those treats, or do you really want to go for a run in the cold and the rain, sometimes the quick easy rewards are sometimes all too tempting and primary gain can confound us in our problems? 

With primary gain in mind, ask yourself this; perhaps there is something in your life that you are getting a reward from doing now, yet you know that it’s just making that problem worse in the long run, or is there is something you really need to confront in your life now but you are avoiding it because of the pain it will cause. 

Do you stay in bed with your head under the pillow? or do you get on with life? 

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About the author

Dr Jeff Stoker

Clinician, writer, educator, speaker, and problem expert. Helping people to think better, to solve problems, and get their lives unstuck.

Winner of the Coaching and NLP in Healthcare Award at the 2018 ANLP International Conference.

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