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Eric Berne is known for coining the term ‘strokes’. He explained it as a basic unit of recognition. It was believed that human beings were born with an innate stimulus hunger. Experiments in the 1940s suggested that infants failed to thrive in environments where physical stimulation was limited. This hunger for touch develops to become a hunger for recognition in social and intimate relationships.
These were the types of strokes that Eric Berne described.
Internal strokes (strokes we give ourselves)
External strokes (strokes we give to others)
Unconditional strokes (strokes for being)
Conditional strokes (strokes for doing)
Positive strokes (strokes that communicate okayness)
Negative strokes (strokes that communicate not-okayness)
Claude Steiner is known for theorizing the ‘stroke economy’. He suggests that we can be restricted by the parent ego state in five main ways:
don’t give strokes when we have them to give
don’t ask for strokes when we need them
don’t accept strokes if we want them
don’t reject strokes when we don’t want them
don’t give ourselves strokes
These five ‘rules’ reinforce a culture of scarcity as opposed to how limitless strokes can be given and received. I once encountered someone from a chaotic household and that led to him making an early decision to “trust no one to care.” His script beliefs were entrenched in ideas of stroke scarcity and that happy interactions were close to impossible. I invited him to take on a little experiment for the week. He would try for 7 days and every morning to smile at one person on the way to work on the bus. To his astonishment, people smiled back! There were no threats, exchanges or bartering. The strokes were limitless.
TA literature describes the ‘stroke filter’ as a contaminated Adult ego state process where the person chooses to interpret positive strokes as negative ones. This maintains their particular life position.
What are STROKE PROCESSORS?
This write-up suggests a clear way to facilitate for clients to understand how their life scripting (early decisions about themselves and the world) might affect their Adult ego state functioning. The Adult ego state might be processing strokes in 4 different ways:
Processing the intended stroke as much more important or significant than intended. An individual could take a simple greeting smile from another as a sign of sexual flirtation. Or an individual could take a piece of Adult negative feedback as a Critical Parent insult.
Brian was regularly playing some ‘kick me’ games at dance night clubs. His eyes would scan the room for attractive women who would respond to his smile. He would interpret each smile as a green light for close contact dancing or an invitation for intimate conversation. Often the women would interpret his behavior as inappropriate.
Processing the intended stroke as less important or significant than intended. An individual could downplay a compliment or ignore the significance of a negative complaint.
Sam had an ‘under-achieving’ life script. His early decision to not succeed led to him to perpetually discount his personal intelligence and abilities. Each time a colleague complimented his ability he would minimize its significance in his mind. “They are just being nice.”
An individual could take a negative stroke and interpret it as positive or take a positive stroke and interpret it as negative. For example, an individual could take a compliment as a reminder of how they are not-ok.
Susie was constantly nervous about her appearance. Nothing ever felt enough for the world- even if she was told otherwise. She always had makeup on even when she went to bed. Her husband tried to tell her he loved her but all she could think was- “he wouldn’t love me without the makeup.” “Don’t be you or else…”- she continually told herself. Her husband’s unconditional positive strokes were converted as conditional strokes and further processed as negative strokes.
An individual could select the strokes they want to absorb and the ones they want reject.
Grace, an employee, got her first employee appraisal and all she chose to hear were the negative strokes. She decided she was a terrible worker even after her manager had a ton of positive feedback to offer.
Bringing these ‘stroke processors’ to the awareness of the client can be effective for decontaminating the adult ego state. It can allow for an exploration of the life script, early stroking patterns and early decisions. It can more importantly, be an invitation for clients to make new autonomous decisions about how they want to ‘process’ strokes in the here and now.
Submitted by, Cheryl Leong, MFT www.cherylleong.com