How Secondary Gain Fuels Alcoholism

While you may not know it by this name, secondary gain exists in alcoholism, whether we like it or not. Secondary gain plays a huge role in addiction, and, can be a significant contributor to denial and likelihood of relapse once sober.

Simply put, secondary gain equates to: what specifically alcohol is achieving for you, personally, as a “side-benefit”. If they go unchecked, these side-benefits can later morph into the main reasons we’re using alcohol at all.

But, there are ways to understand these underlying factors in our addictions, and undo the damage done. Let’s take a look.

While denial exists to protect our access to the coping mechanism called alcohol; secondary gain is more like – “what benefits am I getting from alcohol, that I may not have thought of?”….and what issues do those point me to?

How Secondary Gain Fuels Alcoholism

Consider the key questions:

  • How has alcohol served me?
  • How has alcohol not served me?

What has alcohol helped me do? What feelings does it help me achieve, that I’m unable to achieve  in other ways? What situations does it help me cope with, and what feelings am I running from, in those scenarios?

I could be drinking because…

  • When I have a drink, I feel “more worthy” or “good enough” again.
  • When I have a drink, I feel more important or respected
  • Or, when I have a drink, I feel more lovable, accepted…. or like “what I say matters”.

At one point in our lives, having a drink was ONE way to cope, but for the alcoholic in us, it quickly became the ONLY means to cope, because of these secondary benefits it gave us.

So we’ve learned over time, a survival strategy belief, for instance:

  • “the way to feel good enough again, is to drink”
  • “the way to feel worthy again, even in the face of outside stressors, is to have a drink”
  • “the way to feel like I matter again, is alcohol”
  • “the way to feel competent again, is to drink”

It’s clear therefore, that we’re using alcohol as a means to quell the underlying self-esteem beliefs, like “I’m not good enough”, “I’m not worthy”, “I’m not important”, or “I’m not acceptable”.

Do you recognise these underlying themes in yourself? In your behaviours when stressed?

Now, if we address these underlying core beliefs, therapeutically, (instead of with alcohol) is it clear  to you that there would be much less need to even turn to a coping mechanism at all?

These are the core elements of self – the highly individual, person-centered elements, that we must understand about ourselves, beyond the group support mechanisms such as A/A, N/A, mutual aid support, etc. Often these are discovered and explored in private rehab settings, such as the folks over at alcohol rehab Scotland.

These elements of secondary gain are the underlying drivers behind the addiction – that sit underneath the addiction. It is the fear of these underlying issues surfacing, untempered, that then drives the patterns of denial, and keeps us in the cycle of addiction, without ever truly understanding *why* we feel the way they do.

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So…How to break the cycle of alcoholism using this understanding?

  • Using the questions above, take the time to consider what secondary advantages alcohol could be giving (or have given you previously) in your life
  • To help this along, try to identify common patterns in your trigger situations, “I always turn to alcohol in _____ situation;” “I always feel like a drink when ____ happens”. What might you be trying to avoid, or gain, in these situations?
  • What feelings does alcohol bring to the fore in these situations, that weren’t there before? What does alcohol help you feel in these situations?
  • When you *do* have a drink, what does it make you/get you/get for you?
  • Now consider the mirror opposite – e.g. when you’re tempted to drink, and you don’t drink, what feelings surface at that point, that weren’t there before?
  • Now using your answers from the above, fill in the blanks: “What makes me ________ is drinking alcohol”; and “The way to feel _________ is to drink alcohol”
  • Usually, the blanks in the above are your core issues and core beliefs which need attention, to change the pattern of the addiction in your life.
  • Finally….stop blaming yourself for the small relapses – but instead – use them to help you truly know yourself, and your addiction, better. Examine what led to the binge or relapse, what you were trying to cope with at the time – and understand that these moments point you to the underlying issues – and as such – are a huge help in overcoming alcoholism in the longer term.

Often times the issues revealed from this exercise are deep core issues, self-esteem blocks, or specific traumas from the past, that need professional mental health assistance.

Just as in our step work, they require us to face our issues directly, accept responsibility for them, and accept that we have a human tendency to choose a negative behaviour over a positive one, whilst in the darker clutches of addiction.

But moving through these issues, getting the third-party help and fellowship we need, and making consistent progress, no matter how little, will ultimately result in us simply no longer needing the coping mechanism we once did….because the underlying truth has been faced.

Now, let’s be realistic, there’s much more to maintaining abstinence and long term recovery than just these issues….but, when we add this self discovery to the bigger picture of mutual aid support, sponsorship, and other mental health care tailored to individual needs – then recovery can feel much more realistic, and one degree more achievable. And that can make all the difference.

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