STEINER’S STROKES – Developing awareness of our stroking habits

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My psychotherapy training is in Transactional Analysis, which includes cognitive behavioural tools, psychoanalytic techniques and relational approaches. The founder of Transactional Analysis is Eric Berne. He worked closely with Claude Steiner who also did a lot to develop our theories and therapeutic methods. I was drawn to Transactional Analysis by Berne’s theory of Ego States which are its foundations but I absolutely loved Steiner’s writings which come across as very down to earth and just make sense.

Steiner’s biggest contributions are in his development of script theory and emotional intelligence. He is also known for his development of Berne’s theory of strokes. Essential to Transactional Analysis is the analysis of transactions between people and within an individual’s internal psyche. According to Berne, we all experience certain “hungers” and one of these is the need for physical and mental stimulation.

These ideas had been verified in 1945 by Spitz with his famous research on babies reared in a children’s home. The findings being that babies reared in a children’s home, despite being fed well, kept clean and warm, were more likely to experience physical and emotional difficulties than children brought up with more human contact. The conclusion was that the institutionalised children lacked stimulation, especially physical contact.  From this idea that babies need touching, cuddling and stroking, Berne developed the concept of Strokes; he argued that as grown-ups, we still crave physical contact as well as other forms of recognition of our existence.

Put simply, a stroke is a unit of recognition.  Strokes can take the form of a smile or a frown, a criticism or a compliment. They can be positive or negative, verbal or nonverbal and conditional or unconditional. Any transaction between people is an exchange of strokes. Most transactions involve both verbal and non-verbal exchanges, with the possible exception of written communications.

Analysis of stroking patterns isn’t as straight forward as it may seem at first.  For example, a ‘hello’ or ‘how are you’ are generally thought of as a positive strokes, yet when accompanied with a forced smile or a look of disdain, they can become quite powerfully negative.

One aspect I found interesting in my training, was to learn about the Survival Quotient. This idea is that strokes are necessary for human existence and when people can’t obtain positive strokes, they will settle for negative ones because they need any strokes for survival. Steiner explains that taking negative strokes is like drinking polluted water when it’s all you can get. This explains what is now more common knowledge and thought of as children obtaining attention through bad behaviour. Funnily enough, what prevents us as adults from obtaining positive strokes is usually a habitual pattern or lack of knowledge in how to get what is really most nourishing.

The Metanoia institute where I trained boasts experiential teaching methods, which for this profession I think is essential. I can therefore vouch not just on how clients have benefitted from awareness and application of understanding of how they give and get strokes, but how important it has been for me personally. In a strokes workshop for example, one could be invited to look at how easily we give positive or negative strokes and the impact the practice of this dynamic has on others and our relationships. Or how challenged we might be by taking positive strokes or how we handle negative ones and the effects that these habits have on us. In my own case, learning how to eventually stop rejecting or avoiding positive strokes as well as how to give myself more positive strokes has been very useful in my journey to become less critical and more loving and accepting of myself. An exercise in learning to ask for the strokes that we most deeply and desperately needed was found to be a powerful by all the students participating in my group.

Focusing on strokes is a really effective way of changing one’s relationship with others and our place in the world. It is one of the simplest methods available to help us change repetitive patterns as we learn how we are organising our experiences through the discounting, or encouragement of certain strokes.  Increasing our awareness then allows us to consciously bring about meaningful and beneficial change. Knowing how to get, or stop filtering positive strokes, leads one to feel better about themselves.

Berne and Steiner write that given the fact that control of stimulation is far more effective in manipulating human behaviour than brutality or punishment; strokes are a tool of social control. Therefore developing awareness on our stroking habits can also liberate us from repressive aspects of our conditioned personalities. Steiner passionately developed his theory of the Stroke Economy, aiming to help people overcome what he called ‘Lovelessness’.  He says that ultimately, feeling OK depends completely on the strokes we get. Like Steiner, I believe in helping clients ensure they get the healthy stroking they need to combat depression.

I like to share Steiner’s famous Warm Fuzzy Tale which is a short story introducing his theory on the Stroke Economy and the relationship between stroking and wellness. In truth to his style of warmth and generosity, it is freely available on www.claudesteiner.com.

Claude passed away earlier this year. We are told by those close to him that his final words were “Love is the answer” and “I am so lucky”. The European Association of Transactional Analysis commented that “He left us a legacy of the moral and human duty to care about people, society and especially of all marginalized groups. He was a man of great heart and mind, who introduced to us the concept of emotional literacy.”