What are Strokes?

by | Apr 5, 2018 | Ego States, News, Strokes | 0 comments

Strokes are one of my favourite TA topics. Firstly, by definition, a Stroke is a unit of recognition. A compliment, smile, hug, words of support and encouragement. Strokes can also be negative as in criticisms, hits, frown, however, let’s not go there. Strokes ideally need to be positive and building self-esteem.

I have a belief that if each of us would agree to give just 5 strokes a day, to any of the people around us, the ills of life would be cured. We would live in a world of loving each other. We would have no wars, no terrorism, and no violence towards others.

Sound like a good idea? Let’s try it.

4 Kinds of Strokes

Strokes are a unit of recognition and can be either verbal or physical. A person can verbally say, hello, it’s nice to see you, or physically give you a smile, hug or a touch. Children especially need recognition to survive and as adults, we never outgrow this need. Berne talked about our human recognition hunger. For those of you who are parents, I’m sure you have noticed how children need attention, and if they are not getting positive attention they will act out, in order to get negative attention. Children and adults can survive on either positive (which of course is ideal) or negative attention. To be ignored and stroke-deprived is painful and damaging to one’s psychological health.

Strokes can be:

Verbal or non-verbal e.g. Hello (verbal) or a smile or hug (non- verbal).

Positive or negative e.g. It’ nice to see you (positive) or go away (negative).

Conditional or unconditional. e.g. You did that well (conditional) or you are wonderful (unconditional).

Being and Doing strokes. e.g. It’s so nice you being here (being), or I like how you did … (doing).

I explained above differences between verbal and non-verbal. I will now show other differences.

The first and best most health-producing stroke is positive unconditional. This is a stroke for being, signifying that people do not have to do anything to earn this stroke. It is given simply for the person being present.

Examples are:
It’s so good to see you. I love your company.

The room lights up when you are here. I’m so glad you are my son/daughter.

I love you.

Gregory Institute - Strokes

These strokes build children’s (and adult’s) self-esteem. People on the receiving end of these decisions, I am OK, lovable and loved. Unconditional positive strokes need to be given abundantly. I do not believe that children can be ‘spoiled’ by giving too many of these. The only way these can be a problem is if they are given in such a way as saying, ‘You are more special than others, Others are not as good as you.’ This may create a child who feels superior and arrogant. An additional caveat is to be careful with these strokes by not to giving them when a child or person is behaving badly. When there is bad behaviour parents need to say firmly, ‘Your behaviour is not OK.’ The message needs to be clear by saying ‘It’s your behaviour that is bad, not you personally.’

I have a fantasy or vision that I hold. If all people in the world were to start giving out more positive un-conditional strokes to each other, I believe the world would be healed and peace and love would permeate the world. I suggest you read Claude Stein- er’s book, The Warm Fuzzy Tale. It’s a beautiful little book about the power of strokes.

The second stroke is the positive conditional stroke for doing. This is a stroke for complimenting or praising someone for what they have done well.
Examples are:
I like how you have cleaned your room, it looks nice. I like the good grades you achieved this term.


Gregory Institute - Strokes

You have done well with your sports, I like how you are playing well with your team.

Thank you for doing…….

You did a good job with that report/job.

These are useful strokes as they teach people how to do things well, and the person feels recognized and gratified. These encourage a person to develop and use their skills and strengths; gratification will be the result and the person will feel happy. However, if a child grows up receiving only, or mainly these, she will decide that the only time she is OK is when she is doing things, and doing things well or perfectly. She will probably become a person who is always doing and find it hard to sit down and relax. (As I mentioned above, this was true for my childhood experience.)

Recent research indicates that if children are told, ‘You are very smart,’ too often, they may start to think they have to live up to that expectation, and may fear being seen to be less than smart at something.

Remind your child (and yourself), that in order to learn a new skill we have to do it badly several times before we become skilled at it.

The best strokes to give children, according to the new research, are specific conditional. For example, ‘You scored well in that game,’ rather than ‘you were great.’ This way the child knows exactly what he/she did that was good.

Negative conditionals are also doing strokes. They are criticisms (hopefully constructive and given respectfully) for what the child or adult did not do so well.
Examples are:
Your room is not cleaned well, let me show you how it needs to be done.

Your grades are not good this term, let us work out how you can do better next term.

I don’t like how you did this report, let me show you how I like it done.

Strokes given this way illustrate to a person how things need to be done. The message needs to be, ‘you are OK, it’s only what you did that needs to improve.’

As an opposite, examples which should not be used:

Your room is a mess, you are so useless at cleaning! Your grades are bad, you are so stupid!

You made a mess of that report, you are incompetent!

This criticism belittles a person and attacks their sense of being. These negative messages are damaging to self-esteem, and a child may well decide, ‘I’m useless, stupid and I can’t do anything right.’ As he grows up he may be reluctant to do anything for fear of doing it wrong and being criticized again; or conversely,

Gregory Institute - Strokes

Not being willing to do anything unless he is sure he can do it well. This creates problems because for most people, we have to do things badly several times, we practise until we have learned to do something well. Who could drive, play a piano, cook, sew, ride a bike? etc. well the first time they did it? As mentioned above it takes making mistakes, and practice to perfect a skill.

Negative Un-conditional Strokes

Negative un-conditional strokes are destructive and hurtful and should never be given. They are negative strokes for being and personal attacks, giving negative messages that ‘your being or who you are is not OK’. However, all of us, on a bad day or moment, have said these, I’m sure, from time to time. If children are for the most part given positives they can withstand the negatives occasionally. They will think, ‘It’s OK, I know she loves me, she is just having a bad ’ Ideally when these are said, apologise as soon as possible.

Gregory Institute - Strokes

Some examples of negative un-conditional strokes are:
You make me sick! Get out of my sight!

I wish I had never had you! Get lost!

Something is wrong with you! I wish I could send you back.

These strokes destroy a child’s’ self-esteem. Children raised with repetitions of these may well grow up to feel suicidal. Those of you who may be youth workers, I’m sure will have experienced that young troubled people have had a history of being raised with these negative strokes.

If you are a person who was raised with many of these negative strokes, you need to know now that you are not bad, you are a lovable and valuable human being. The problem is with the person who gave you those strokes. It may well have been due to their own history. It was not your fault.

Children try different behaviours to test out which ones receive strokes or attention they want. The saying, ‘what you stroke is what you get,’ is true. If you give attention to positive behaviour you will get more of that.

If you stroke negative behaviour, you will receive more acting out or bad behaviour. So, as parents, as much as possible, stroke what the child does well, and who they are, rather than criticizing the negative.

Strokes, of course, need to be genuine, not counterfeit. Examples of counterfeit are, ‘The work you did was good, for a woman! That’s a nice coat, did you get it at the second-hand shop’? Some cultures have developed a habit of teasing, taking the mickey, bantering, putting others down, whatever you want to call it, and in my opinion, it is very destructive and hurtful. The recipient may act as though they are fine and can take it, and give it back; however, I have had many men and women in therapy dealing with past hurts of being teased. Often the perpetrator when confronted will say, ‘Can’t you take a joke, I was only kidding.’ The reality is that teasing and putting others down is not funny, it’s hurtful. Let us work to create a culture where hurting, teasing, bullying, is not present.

Why do we have problems with giving positive strokes freely?

The Stroke Economy
Claude Steiner, psychiatrist and Transactional Analysis trainer, wrote some years ago about cultural negative rules. Many of us were raised with rules that result in us being careful giving out strokes and accepting strokes.

These unhealthy rules are:
Don’t give strokes when you have them to give. Don’t ask for strokes when you need them.

Don’t accept strokes if you want them.

Don’t reject strokes when you don’t want them. Don’t give yourself strokes.

Adherence to these rules can cause many problems in relationships. In Imago therapy work with couples, one of the things I help people learn is how to give daily strokes or appreciations to each other.

Gregory Institute - Strokes

Most couples will say that two main problems in their relationship are poor communication and not enough positive compliments. It’s usually males who do not give strokes or compliments enough because generally males were taught to be strong and tough, and told not to show feelings.

As a powerful way of improving your relationships, I invite you to start giving out three to five positive strokes a day and watch the magic that happens. I guarantee things will improve, smiles and joy will be present. Remember to mix positive unconditional strokes with positive conditional. I am often amazed that many people find it hard to give positive un-conditional strokes, the ones for people being who they are, saying what they value personality about others. Many have not learned how to give those because they did not receive them as children. Keep in mind that our parents often did not give positive strokes because they did not receive them from our grandparents.

Berne, as I mentioned earlier, spoke about humans’ recognition hunger that is innate in all people. We need to be seen and recognized. We need to have a regular steady income of positive strokes to maintain our self-esteem, to feel good about ourselves, to know we are lovable and worthwhile.
Some people and organizations in our culture feel people who need strokes are ‘too needy.’ I have encountered this attitude when doing corporate work. Often supervisors or managers don’t give positive strokes to employees, feeling employees are too ‘needy’ if they ask for positive recognition. This is a sad state of affairs. When employees don’t get enough positive recognition at work it creates a loss of joy for work, it results in high absenteeism, poor teamwork, and a high level of people leaving. I believe that if everyone concentrated on giving positive strokes at work, to our peers, to people we manage or supervise, and to our supervisors, then joy for going to work would result. Imagine what it would feel like to say on Monday morning, ‘Great, it’s Monday, and I get to go to work and spend a day with the wonderful people at work.’ What a change that would be!

An important point, employees; remember to give strokes upward too. Tell your boss, supervisor, manager, that you appreciate them. They also need recognition. ‘Thanks for your support, for your help’ would go a long way and takes very little time.

I believe in the context of evolution that we alive now are the ones that are moving up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, (I explain this later for those who may not be familiar with his work) and can now focus on self-esteem, belonging and self-actualization. Our parents and grandparents often still had to focus on basic needs of food and shelter, and therefore did not have time or knowledge to think about the higher levels. Our focus now has moved up to yearning for a spiritual connection of some description, of moving towards self-esteem and self-actualization. We can now learn skills to give and receive strokes freely. Receiving is just as important as giving. How many of us have been taught the Stroke Economy rule, Don’t accept strokes? Messages like, ‘Don’t brag, You have tickets on yourself, You have a big head, Don’t skite!’ These result in people believing that they should not take strokes or need them. People learn to create what is called a stroke filter or shield, and thus not let positive strokes in. ‘I didn’t really do that well, it was nothing, I should have done it better, faster, you don’t really know me, I’m really not that good!’ If this has ever been true of you, learn to simply say, ‘Thank you!’ Learn to accept and take positive strokes in.

One of Eric Berne’s often repeated sayings was, ‘If you don’t get enough strokes your spinal cord will shrivel up.’ At that time, in the 60s, we thought his saying was a metaphor; however now with new advances in neuroscience, we know that there is some literal truth to this. Healthy neuro-networks and healthy psychological development are dependent on positive nurturing.

My wish and dream are that we all start to give and receive many positive strokes. If/when we do, the world will change. Start with our families, our partners, children, parents, siblings, relatives. We will then feel warm and loved, and connected. That will permeate to the rest of the world. Give strokes at work, in your community, wherever you can. One of the first things this focus does is change the way we look at people. We start to watch for what we like about people, what they are doing well so that we can give genuine positive strokes. Our minds become more positive and less critical. Often we are focused on being aware of what we don’t like, what is not going well, focused on the negative, being judgemental. As W. Dyer said, ‘Change the way you look at things, and the things you see will change.’ We could change the world, stop wars, by giving out positive strokes. Sound too far-fetched? I don’t think so. We can give it a try it has to make an improvement.

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