Behavioural Change: The Benefits That Keep You Stuck


Changing your beliefs and behaviours can be difficult. Yet some people seem to manage just fine. Why is that? Sometimes it’s the hidden benefits that keep you from progressing.

We all have that one behaviour or belief about ourselves that we’d like to drop like a hot potato. And as we continue to exclaim that it’s time to let it go, we keep holding on to it more and more tightly; and with the complete awareness that we’re slowly but surely burning our hands. We know that keeping the hot potato in our hands prevents us from picking up something we’d enjoy much more. We know that the hot potato doesn’t serve us. We know that it’s time to change. And we continue to hug the potato.

It is at those times that we may look at our friends who managed to quit smoking overnight or those that seemed to be able to initiate a complete lifestyle change in the blink of an eye with a mix of awe and envy. “When did they develop special powers and were elevated to “superhuman” status?” We wonder while we’re promising ourselves to drop the potato, squeezing it even more tightly.

Well, I am sure your friends are terrific, but I am also sure that the change did not happen in as miraculous a fashion as it may appear to you. In fact, I’d like to pose to you the notion that maybe – just maybe – they’ve simply crossed a threshold; a threshold that may just be around the corner from where you are at, currently.

Let me share an experience with you. A client of mine, let’s call him Jack, came to see me with high levels of presentation anxiety. Every time Jack was asked to present at work, which was at least once a month, he would start feeling nauseated, suffer from insomnia, his legs would start shaking and so would his voice. In short, he had a terrible time just knowing that at some point in the near future he would have to present. Whilst carrying a big smile on the outside, Jack was scolding himself on the inside: telling himself to get it together and to man up – in a slightly less polite way than I just described. The closer the clock moved towards presentation time, the worse it got and finally, his digestive system would join the party and Jack had to lock himself into a cubicle.  I guess I don’t need to explain what happened next: you get the gist of it.

When Jack shared his story it reminded me of the time(s) I desperately tried to quit smoking. As a heavy smoker, my breakfast was a combination of nicotine and caffeine and so were my lunch and dinner for that matter. Over time, however, I started feeling the effects: lungs clogging up, fingers blistering, turning yellow and a constant feeling of being dirty on the inside. Then the cough set in. I guess you get the gist of this one, too. So I decided to quit and I quit – a lot of times, unsuccessfully.

So why is it that so many people can “quickly” overcome their limitations or unhealthy behaviours and others, like my client and I, tear their hair out in the process? Of course, the answer depends on the person and their subjective experience, but I’d like to highlight one reason that I found to be a key driver in behavioural change. And this reason is quite a simple one: the good stuff that comes with bad behaviour. In other words: the hidden benefit of your current behaviour, which –in some professions – is also referred to as secondary gain.

Sometimes people go “Huh?” When I say this, so let me explain. Everything we do has – at some level – a positive intention. Take fear, for instance. Which of you loves the feeling of fear? Some of you will shake their heads and say “Thanks, but no thanks”; others might even fear the feeling of fear. If activated at the right time, however, feeling fear can be extremely beneficial. If, for example, you’re walking into a room and a wild, hungry lion is sitting on the sofa, watching the latest episode of “Game of Thrones”, then – fearfully – slamming the door shut (from the outside!) is a fantastic response. Hence, the positive intention of fear is to protect us from real harm.

This given, please entertain me for a moment and accept the premise that each of our behaviours has a positive intention. However, sometimes we may not be aware of this positive intention, hidden benefit, or so-called secondary gain. So even though we may know the root cause of a problem and even though we have healed the root cause, we bounce back into the undesired behaviour because we are still getting goodies from it.

Still with me? Let me return, in that case, to my smoking experience. My smoking had nothing to do with being cool or fitting in. Well, that’s actually not entirely true because I realize now that the only time my mother and I ever really bonded was over a cigarette. We didn’t have a lot in common – but we smoked together, giggling like school girls, hiding around the corner so that dad wouldn’t see us. It was our thing. Just her and I. By quitting I felt I was breaking that bond; the only bond I had with her.

As a coach, I would typically explore alternate ways in which new bonds could be created; healthier ones. In this case, however, the creation of a new bond wasn’t possible because my mum had passed away some years earlier. In such a situation, one way forward is to create a more compelling benefit for the new behaviour than the goodies you get from the old behaviour. It took me a while, but I got there.

Similarly, my client, Jack had a very good reason for holding on to his presentation anxiety. When all his attempts failed, I asked Jack a simple question: “What’s the good thing about feeling anxious?”  An alternative question could have been: “What would you lose if you stopped feeling anxious?” In this case, the first one worked a treat: “Oh,” Jack replied without missing a heartbeat, “I like being slender. Feeling anxious keeps me slim because even though I eat a lot; when feeling anxious, I don’t gain weight because my digestive system takes care of that” (and again: I am putting this in a more polite way than he did).

Aha! There it was. Staying slim was the hidden benefit of feeling anxious. In this case, we were fortunate enough to quickly find multiple and healthier ways that allowed Jack to meet his desire for staying slender so that it wasn’t preventing him from addressing his feelings of anxiety any longer. In fact, once the hidden gain was out of the way, we were able to resolve the feeling of anxiety within a very short span of time.

Sometimes it takes a bit longer; sometimes a break-through can be achieved in a matter of minutes. And while these reasons might sound silly to you – they weren’t for us. Yours might be a different one, such as: “If I am too relaxed in an interview, people might think I don’t take this opportunity seriously” or “If I don’t have relationship problems, then my friends won’t pay as much attention to me”.

The point is that, if there is something you would like to change and you haven’t been able to achieve this change yet, then a first step is to ask yourself: “What is the good thing about [name of behavior/belief]?” or: “What do I lose if I let go of [name of behaviour/belief]?”

Take it from there, sport, and decide whether or not it’s time to drop the hot potato and pick up something you would enjoy more. If you do, there will come the point at which your friends look at you and think: “She has superhuman status” or “He has developed special powers”. That’s when you, too, have crossed the threshold and your next adventure awaits.

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