Secondary Gains


Ever feel stuck and frustrated in a situation you want to change, but nothing seems to work? Sometimes this happens when we know the things we are “supposed” to do for self-care, mental health, or to find healing, but repeatedly find ourselves not doing those things. We suffer with the status quo, yet do nothing to change it. Other times this may happen in relationships, feeling the crazy making cycles repeating over and over, like a merry go round we want to get off of but can’t seem to find the exit.

When you feel stuck & frustrated, it’s a good opportunity to reflect on possible secondary gains. A secondary gain is a backdoor benefit that you receive from keeping the status quo. For example, a child that repeatedly gets in trouble may feel frustrated about constantly being punished, but not do anything to change her behavior. There may be an unconscious benefit of attention, even negative attention, that she receives from acting out. Perhaps a part of her is worried that if she stops acting out, she’ll stop getting attention. Sometimes the same happens in order to preserve relational dynamics. A child may act out in the family so the parents have to join together, unconsciously the child is preserving the marriage connection by providing a problem for the parents to solve.

As adults, we do similar things unconsciously. Perhaps someone stays just unwell enough to get the care and attention from others in their life. Some put up with behaviors in relationships that stand against values because of feeling terrified of being alone. Others fear succeeding for how that may impact relationships or change their life. Coming to terms with potential secondary gains can be difficult, but also provide the freedom to work through dormant fears that may be keeping you back from truly thriving. Identifying secondary gains may open the door to deeper self-awareness and the ability to write a new story.

If you’re feeling stuck, here are some helpful questions to think through. How may I be benefitting from keeping things the same? How would getting better impact my relationships for better or worse? Is there any part of me that is afraid of the change that could occur if I got well/this situation changed? What does that part of me need in order to move forward?

Externalizing the Problem

Our language is important in how we conceptualize our life, our identity, our struggles, and our successes. Often we can join ourselves with our struggles in our language, enveloping those issues into our identity. This happens subtly, like saying “I am depressed” versus “I’m struggling with depression” or “I’m feeling depressed today.” Language can reveal if we are operating in guilt (I did something bad) or shame (I am bad). These subtle shifts in how we narrate our story can help us externalize our problems, thereby highlighting our strengths, resilience, and ability to write a new story.

Beginning to externalize the problem is all about separating ourselves from the issue. Externalizing language asks questions of the problem like, in what context does that _____ usually occur? What types of things happen right before _____ takes over? What does _______ tell you to do? For example, rather than saying “I’m depressed,” you may say “Depression really got me today,” or “I really gave into Depression’s tricks last week.”

Externalizing problems is not about abdicating responsibility, instead it’s about becoming responsible agents of our own narratives. This process of shifting our language helps us move back into the driver’s seat. Instead of things happening to us, we become active agents in our own story, accountable for our responses to events that happen. We can move from a problem-saturated narrative where we feel powerless, to a story that we choose to rewrite, highlighting our ability to resist our problem areas, celebrating our growth, and noticing our competencies.

What does your language indicate about how you conceptualize your struggles? How may it help to externalize issues to get back into the driver’s seat? What struggle can you externalize in your life now? How would you like to rewrite your story?

Tools for Emotional Regulation


When we feel emotionally overwhelmed, we often will leave our window of tolerance, which is the place where we can comfortably cope with emotions and situations that come our way. When we operate outside of our window of tolerance, we may be hyperaroused (flooded, over activated & anxious) or hypoaroused (shut down, dissociating). It’s important to have some tools that will bring you back into your window of tolerance and eventually expand your window of tolerance. One of our best weapons for emotional regulation is a tool we always have with us - our breath. There are a number of ways we can use breath to help us soothe when we feel activated. Breathing helps access our parasympathetic nervous system rather than continuing to live in our fight, flight or freeze sympathetic nervous system. Here are a few simple exercises for you to try when you feel emotionally overwhelmed.

Root Breathing
Remove your shoes, either standing or sitting, and notice the connection to the earth through your feet. Scan your body, imagining roots expanding feet deep into the earth, continuing to grow and expand to give you support. Imagine breathing in nutrients, strength, and calm from the roots, exhaling out any tension. For a guided recording, click here.

Self-Compassion Moment
Recall an unpleasant experience and notice how you feel in your body. Say out loud to yourself “This is a moment of suffering,” validating the painful moment rather than minimizing it. Say out loud to yourself “I am not alone in my suffering” and imagine others who may have gone through something similar. Finally, wonder “May I be kind to myself?” Think about what it is you need to hear to make you feel comforted, and say that to yourself aloud. For a guided recording, click here.

R.A.I.N. Breathing
In a moment of distress, breathe deeply and mindfully notice the following:
Recognize what’s going on
Allow whatever is going on to go on
Investigate with curiosity (what are the negative thoughts, where do I feel that in my body?)
Needs - Nourish yourself, what do I need?
For a guided recording, click here.

Tactical breathing
This is a breathing technique used to help you focus, not for relaxation. It’s a great tool for when you feel emotionally flooded, stressed, triggered, or need to re-direct your thoughts. Imagine tracing a square, inhaling for four counts up one side, holding for four counts across the top, exhaling for four counts down the other side, and holding for four counts across the bottom. Continue for a few repetitions, adjusting as needed.

Butterfly Hug
Place one hand on your shoulder, right below your collarbone, and cross the other on the other side. Slowly tap your hands on shoulders like a butterfly flapping its wings. As you tap slowly, breathe deeply and think of a positive memory, peaceful place of comforting person.  

5-4-3-2-1
Name 5 things you can see in the room with you.
Name 4 things you can feel (“chair on my back” or “feet on floor”)
Name 3 things you can hear right now (“air conditioning” or “tv”)
Name 2 things you can smell right now (or 2 things you like the smell)
Name 1 good thing about yourself

Somatic Experiencing
Place one hand under the other armpit next to heart, the other holding shoulder as you breathe slowly and deeply. This self-hug feeling can help self-soothe and provide a container to hold emotions. Similarly, practice placing one hand on your forehead, the other on your heart. Notice physical sensations (warmth, heart rate, mind/heart connection).

Using Essential Oils
Place one drop on hands, rub and smell for grounding.

Celebrating Mini-Milestones

Life traverses various seasons, some joyous and light, others dark and difficult. Regardless of the season you’re in now, it’s human nature to zoom in on the difficulties of a day or week and filter out the positive. It can feel natural to celebrate the big milestones in joyous season, but it takes more discipline to celebrate the little, everyday milestones that go easily unnoticed.

We are often our own worst critics, quick to offer praise to others while beating ourselves up for small mistakes. Taking the time to celebrate growth, big and small, can help reorient your perspective toward gratitude, honor your growth and progress, and help you be on the lookout for good news. This shift in perspective may also reframe the way you engage with or interpret your difficult seasons.

For example, if you’re in a difficult season in your marriage, take time to celebrate the small moments that go well: conversations that felt connecting, using your tools in conflict, a fun date night, handling a parenting situation on the same team, etc. Reinforcing these positive moments helps give encouragement to both you and your partner that you are progressing and working hard and appreciate the effort being put in. If you’re struggling with depression, take time to celebrate when you choose to reach out for support rather than isolate, when you have a good week, when you choose to exercise, etc.

Celebrating these mini-milestones can be simple - a high five, an encouraging note, giving yourself a small treat, scheduling some pamper time with a friend, going out for ice cream or coffee, etc. You may even record these mini-milestones in a journal or diary, intentionally choosing to remember and honor the progress, especially on days you need the reminders or encouragements.

Take some time to reflect on your current season of life - is it one that is primarily light and joyous, or perhaps one that feels draining and hard? How do you feel about celebration? What mini-milestone can you celebrate this week? How may you encourage someone else when you see their milestones?

The Power of Affirmations


We are often our worst critics, judging ourselves more harshly than we would others. It is often easier to extend grace and compassion to friends and family than it is to ourselves. The messages we tell ourselves often perpetuate lies that root from shame, our negative core beliefs. Things like “I’m not good enough. No one loves me. Everyone leaves. I can’t rely on other people.”, etc. Healing these negative core beliefs takes great intentionality. One great way is to practice affirmations.

Affirmations are simply positive truths about ourselves. An affirmation concisely speaks truth about who we are, challenging the negative core beliefs that may be loud in our head. These affirmations can cross out the messy first draft left behind by shame & replace it with a more true, more helpful draft.

Sometimes affirmations can be general, like “I am loved” or can be more specific to a situation, like “I can handle this”. Write your affirmations specifically to areas of yourself and your life that need that extra support and tune-up. Find yourself beating yourself up over small mistakes you make socially? Write affirmations about your belovedness, connectedness, support from others, etc. Working toward a big test? Write affirmations toward your preparation, your ability, your strength, your confidence. Struggling to hold onto hope in a difficult season? Write your affirmations about your confidence that you will be okay, you can handle this, you will get your happy ending.

I encourage you to give it a shot - even this weekend. Think about a difficult spot in your life now, it may be self-esteem, family, relationships, infertility, grief, loss, fear, lack of hope, a trial, etc.. Now challenge yourself to write 25 positive affirmations. Here are a few to get you started:

  • I am strong.
  • I am loved.
  • I am doing the best I can with the tools I have today.
  • I can handle this.
  • I can trust myself.
  • I am resilient.
  • I choose hope.
  • I will be okay.

When you have your affirmation list, commit to reading your affirmations out loud over yourself daily. You may even record yourself speaking these affirmations slowly, then listen to the recording as you fall asleep each night. Practicing affirmations may feel strange at first. We are often not used to speaking kindly to ourselves. Negative shame messages are usually deeply ingrained and can feel much louder than the soft whisper of a positive affirmation. Keep at it consistently, with practice and discipline the affirmations will eventually start to feel more true and take up more space in your head.

Shame Messages: Negative Core Beliefs


Shame & guilt are universal emotions that we have all experienced. The best way to distinguish between guilt & shame is this -- guilt says “Woops, I did something wrong, I did something bad.” Shame says “I am bad, there is something wrong with me.” Small differences in language, hugely different meanings. Guilt is an uncomfortable feeling when something we’ve done, or not done, doesn’t measure up to our values. Guilt is usually specific to the experience, can be helpful and adaptive, and motivates us to change and grow. Shame, on the other hand, is the devastating feeling that there is something wrong inherently with who we are, thus making us unworthy of love and connection. Shame is typically consistent over time and experiences, a stable belief about who we are. Shame tends to be toxic, not adaptive, and is associated with depression, bullying, eating disorders, addiction, aggression, violence, and suicide.

Usually our shame messages, or negative core beliefs, develop early in life from family rules (be seen not heard, don’t be a burden, we don’t share hard feelings), family roles (the performer, the jokester, the all-star kid, the troubled kid), or from early childhood pain (abuse, bullying, family ruptures, trauma, etc.). Negative core beliefs often act as a magnet attracting evidence that supports its belief, but repelling contradictory messages. For example, someone with a negative core belief of “I’m unlovable” may have that message reinforced when a boyfriend cheats on them as a teenager, or can’t find a roommate in college, or when they feel lonely at a wedding in adulthood. These early wounds become tender buttons that get pushed in our adult lives. For instance, if someone yells at me or I feel I’m “in trouble” today as an adult, I will often feel exactly the same way I felt as a 2nd grader when I got in trouble for talking and had to pull a card in class.

We work hard to avoid feeling shame, and often turn to hiding places to numb out the uncomfortable feeling. We may use food, TV, technology, exercise, alcohol, substances, sex, porn, control, shopping, gambling, people pleasing, busyness, gaming, work or anything else to protect ourselves from feeling shame. Learning to recognize our cycle, like reaching for the ice cream after a stressful day or controlling the household when feeling afraid, can help us replace those numbing behaviors with more healthy coping. Instead of pouring another glass of wine, pick up your journal, call a friend, go for a run, or sit and meditate. Taking the time to identify our negative core beliefs can help us notice when they get triggered and use affirmations to remind ourselves of truth. Instead of spiraling into negative self-talk about being unlovable, someone may think “That’s old stuff. I know I am beloved, I am perfectly imperfect just as I am.”

Ultimately, as Brene Brown says, vulnerability is the secret superpower to fight shame:

If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can't survive.

How can you fight shame today? Healing your shame may help impact your family for generations.

The 3 Essential Parts of Forgiveness

Recently my church community has been focusing on forgiveness - what does it mean that we are forgiven and what does it look like to be a forgiving people? It’s a challenging process, and one that’s been rattling around in my head quite a bit recently. Forgiveness has often been something I've had to work at, perhaps you can relate. Sometimes we feel stuck, and forgiveness seems an impossible task. Other times we can be too quick to offer forgiveness, dismissing the pain the wound has caused. Either way, how in the world are we to forgive?

I am a bit of a Brene Brown groupie (if you haven’t seen her TED talks or read her books, make that top of your to-do list). Brene outlines 3 crucial steps to forgiveness:

1. Acknowledge the pain.
The very fact that forgiveness is necessary depends on there being some breach of relationship, pain, wounding, disappointment, or betrayal. If we are to truly forgive others, we first must acknowledge that we were wronged and feel the pain that was caused. (The same is true in offering apologies, another topic for another day.)

2. Let die.
Of an already difficult process, this is arguably the most difficult step. Letting die means grieving the loss of the relationship as it was. Sometimes letting die means choosing to bury our loss, pain, anger, power, or being right. According to Brown, forgiveness always involved grief and in forgiveness we will "die a thousand deaths". This part of the forgiveness process takes great sacrifice, and it may be a step we need to return to and choose again and again, putting to death the parts of us that want to continue to punish, withhold, and use our pain as a shield or weapon to oppose the other. This grief and burial of something old may make space new life to be born. Other times it may be a loss without the continuation of the relationship.

3. See new life.
Burying and grieving what used to be can create fertile soil for new life to be born. The pain that required forgiveness in many ways means that the relationship may never be the same, it is truly something new. Sometimes embracing this new life can bring hope, joy, and beauty from brokenness. This may be a reconciled relationship, or it may be new life in a different way. I loved the reminder in my church that recognizing the new life is a task only for the forgiver. When others step in to point out new life may (i.e. “I know it was painful, but look at all the good that came from it!”), it may feel minimizing or patronizing. But when the forgiver can genuinely see new life sprouting after acknowledging their pain and grieving their loss, the new life may even be sweeter than the old.

When we walk through the difficulty of extending forgiveness to others, it can truly free us from being tethered to our pain and anger, and it can revolutionize the way we receive forgiveness as a sacrificial gift from others.

Brain Power


Our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are intricately related, so changing one aspect can often create a chain reaction in the others. In particular, the way we think has a profound impact on the way we feel and behave. For example, if I wake up on a Monday morning and stub my toe on my dresser then spill coffee all over myself in the car, I may say to myself “Nothing ever goes my way! Today is going to be a horrible day!” That declaration can become a self-fulfilling prophecy and I may start unconsciously hunting for other bad parts of my day that confirm my belief. As I rehearse this thought that “today is a horrible day”,  I’ll probably start feeling irritable and it may affect the way I behave towards my coworkers. Perhaps I retreat and isolate, get quiet, or respond shortly to my husband. As I act out my bad day thoughts and feelings, others may respond to my negative behaviors, thus confirming my thought that today is horrible to begin with. Whew! You can see how this can spiral… Image if I had been able to hold a more positive, hopeful, or realist thought about my day like, “Well that was certainly not how I wanted to start the day, let’s hope I can turn this around!”

The same cycle can be especially true on a deeper level - the way we think about ourselves.  Our core beliefs (either negative or positive) can become a magnet, attracting evidence that fits with the belief and rejecting the evidence that doesn’t quite connect. For example, if a young woman internalizes the message that she is stupid, she may often feel inadequate, unimportant, lack confidence, and become anxious or depressed. Living out those feelings and thoughts may result in her not engaging in the classroom, fearful to assert her opinion or ideas in the workplace, or anxious in group dynamics. She may be passed up for promotions or receive poor grades in the classroom because of lack of participation. The core belief magnet attaches on to these negative experiences, saying “See! I told you so!”, but ignores times she gets praised for her creativity, gets good grades, or complimented on her work ethic.

Healing comes through confronting these distorted thought patterns, whether shallow or deeply personal, and replacing them with the truth. How might your thinking be impacting the way you feel and act? Could this be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy loop? What negative or critical thoughts have you given squatting rights to in your brain?

If you're feeling stuck in negative thinking, contact me today to see how you can make some positive changes in your life.