The Benefits of Being Sick: Are You Being Honest About Your Suffering?

The Benefits of Being Sick: Audio Version

The folks at the Diabetes Council were kind enough to make an audio version of this article, read by Holly Houston (sadly I can’t claim that lovely voice). If you prefer to listen, rather than read then here it is!

The Benefits of Being Sick: Plain Old Written Version 😉

This is such a difficult topic because our culture likes to make things all “bad” or all “good” but the truth is, there are many social benefits of being sick and sometimes it’s hard to get well if you’re not willing to really look that whole concept in the face. For the most part, nobody actually wants to be sick.  There are some rare exceptions with psychological diseases, but at the end of the day most people want to be healthy, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t benefit in some way – usually some entirely unconscious way – from being sick.  When there are benefits of being sick, sometimes they can become an obstacle to truly getting better – simply because somewhere in your subconscious mind you aren’t ready to let go of whatever it is you’re getting out of being ill. It’s easy to generate a lot of judgement about this and to immediately recoil from the idea that people might have unknown motives even for suffering, but the fact of the matter is that your brain is more highly evolved than you can possibly imagine.  If your brain finds a way to get what it wants, it isn’t necessarily going to stop and ask for permission from your rational mind – it’s just going to go ahead and get what it wants and give your rational, thinking self a nice story (I’m sick – I have to stay in bed) to hold on to. Never underestimate the power of the human brain, and certainly don’t fall for the illusion that “you” – the part of you that you hear thinking in your head and that makes up all sorts of reasons why things happen – are actually the one in control.

Illness is a huge, multifactoral beast. Sure, there are plenty of colds and flus and simple things that you get because there is some kind of germ or bug going around. Although when you really look at them, even the simple things might not be so simple.  Why is it that some people go down with a particular flu and some don’t? Sure there are lots of arguments about immunity and previous contact with that virus. No question those things matter, but what about the convenient fact that often the people who get sick are the ones who really need to take a break? Or the ones who haven’t let themselves rest? Sure – their system is weakened from overwork, that is probably true, but it might also be true that being sick is a socially acceptable reason to stop, to rest, to take a break, to not be at work, and to actually give your body the sleep it’s been missing.  When you get into complex or long-term illness it’s a whole different animal.

The benefits of being sick. Image from © Shannon Matteson | Dreamstime Stock Photos

The benefits of being sick. Image from © Shannon Matteson | Dreamstime Stock Photos

I want to say here that I am NOT trying to imply that people are fabricating illness in any way – absolutely not. When you get sick you actually get sick and for people who are chronically ill, they’re actually ill and not because they want to be. Still, if you don’t look at the benefits of being sick then sometimes that can become a barrier to becoming well, simply because your body isn’t willing to give up the benefits if you haven’t changed your life to incorporate them naturally. Let me start with an example – this is a pretend client that is based on literally hundreds of real clients I’ve seen in the same position:

“I’ve always been healthy and I was a really energetic person – I was always able to go above and beyond for everybody. I worked in a corporate setting and was in a high stress job but I really loved it, I loved the challenge and the business.  Everything was great, but when I had my second child it felt like everything suddenly shifted.  That child is a little more demanding than the first was and generally needs more of me and I just started to feel drained.  Now I’m on a leave of absence from work and I really don’t know if I’ll be able to go back because I feel worn out. My joints hurt, I’ve become sensitive to so many different foods it feels like I can hardly eat without something disagreeing with me.  My sleep has suffered but all I want is more sleep. I can get up to fix breakfast for the kids but that just wears me out and I have to spend the next few hours resting or watching TV or trying to recharge.  I feel pitiful – just getting up to make breakfast shouldn’t be all I have in me for the day.”

I can’t begin to tell you how often I’ve heard variations of that same story. I was an uber-achiever until this thing happened and now I can’t keep up at all. I am forced to rest, to hold back, be home with my children, to not work, to constantly recuperate. No doubt this person is actually exhausted and actually has physical dysfunction – possibly autoimmune disease or mixed hormone failure. Absolutely. In reality those things are happening and need to be addressed. But what about possible benefits?

Primary Gain – The Benefits of Being Sick

Primary gain is a concept in medicine that looks at exactly this idea – that being sick does come with some advantages, even mixed in with all the obvious disadvantages, and that those advantages are a factor in healing. Primary gain deals mostly with the psychological benefits of being sick, which are typically entirely unconscious. These are the psychological perks of being ill that nobody actually notices or talks about, but that you may have a hard time giving up. Examples of primary gain might include:

  • If you’re not performing the way you think you should, being sick can reduce some of the feelings of guilt and inadequacy.
  • If you deeply believe that doing things for yourself is “selfish” or have a negative judgement about it then sometimes being sick is the only acceptable reason to allow yourself to care for yourself appropriately.
  • Being sick might actually encourage your partner to be more supportive, more caring or more nurturing.
  • Being sick is a valid reason to not do things that you might not want to (but probably think you should).
  • Being sick is a legitimate reason take breaks.
  • Being sick is a real reason to stay home more with the kids.

These are big obvious examples – but there are thousands of tiny gains that can be individual to each person and aren’t always obvious to them or to anyone around them (these are kind of obvious – but the best examples I could come up with this morning). Often in the healing process if we don’t address this issue, then healing gets stalled out as soon as we run into this wall. If we took the above example patient and re-balanced her hormones and addressed autoimmunity, chances are we’d get her to a great place right up until she started taking on too much again, because that’s her basic nature.  She’d pick up all of her old obligations and no doubt over-perform to make up for feeling guilty about being sick and inevitably land in a crumpled heap on the office floor despairing because she relapsed. I’ve seen it over and over and over again. People charge right back into the old way of being without examining what it was that their body was trying to tell them with the illness.  What was the benefit of being sick and how can they keep that without the sickness?

Of course it’s easy to talk about, but in real life this comes down to some incredibly hard transformations and evolutions as a human. Maybe it means letting go of the deeply ingrained belief that you only have worth based on what you produce. Or the feeling that your job is to take care of others (only others – anything you do for yourself is “selfish”).  Maybe it means confronting ideas from your faith about how good people suffer, or how suffering is a penance. Maybe it means sitting down with your partner and having the tough conversation about ways to change your circumstances so you can stay home with your children more. It could mean looking at your life and seeing if you’re still on the path you want to be, or if you really wanted to be an artist but your family thought that was a soft option. These issues are at the core of who we are, who were were taught to be, and are always the biggest, scariest and most challenging to actually work though.

Secondary Gain – The External Benefits of Being Sick

Secondary gain is the idea that there are also real benefits of illness that come from the outside – from society. These are far easier to see and to deal with and include things like:

  • Missing work
  • Avoiding military duty
  • Financial gain (disability, family support)
  • Drugs
  • Avoiding jail (insanity plea, etc…)

Again, although these are more obvious, more tangible benefits, they are still largely unconscious.  Your brain is tricksy and doesn’t let you see some of the subtle motivators.

There are No Benefits to Being Sick – This is The Worst!

I know – there are people reading this who are deeply and personally offended because they feel so crappy and have been struggling for so long to get better. I know that, and here’s the thing – it is 100% true. Being sick sucks in so many ways, but that doesn’t mean it has to be all black or all white – there are almost always shades of grey and sometimes looking at the grey areas can help you to examine your life more deeply, even if it ultimately doesn’t change the course of the illness at all. Here’s an exercise.  No matter how horrible you feel you can probably think of three good things that come out of being sick – even if you’re really reaching.

The Benefits of Being Sick Exercise:

1. Write down at least three benefits you get from being sick. These can be big things (like my partner is nicer and more supportive) or little things (someone else cleans the toilet).  At least three but list as many as you can think of.

2.  List three things you’ve learned about yourself and what your body needs directly because of being sick:

3. If you were suddenly 100% healthy, what would be the hardest for you to change?

4.  What are some ways you can keep the benefits of being sick but let go of the sickness? You don’t have to have concrete answers, but start the thought process.

Remember none of this is about judgement or right and wrong answers, it’s about learning something about you as a human and discovering a little more of what you need to be your happiest most functional self. Sometimes illness is the greatest teacher and you can choose to take the opportunity to grow from it. There are some benefits of being sick, but there are also ways to structure your life so that you have those benefits without actually having the sickness and finding them may help you on the path to healing.

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