Welcome to the first instalment in the TA Tools series. Over the next few weeks I will introduce some of the basic teachings of transactional analysis (TA) and share how we might use these ideas to better understand ourselves and those around us.
Today’s tool is Strokes.
We crave strokes from other people. Strokes are described as a ‘unit of recognition’, so this could be anything from a smile or a wave to an Oscar nomination or Olympic medal. These strokes don’t have to be positive either, a punch in the face is still a stroke, albeit a painful one but the person doing the punching has at least noticed you and has a story about you.
Stroke theory puts forward the idea that any stroke, positive or negative, is better than no stroke at all. This offers a possible explanation for why people may not remove themselves from abusive or toxic relationships. Being alone without strokes may be more frightening than tolerating violence or humiliation.
We want to know that we exist, that we have an impact on those around us. To be starved of contact with people can be a form of punishment; children get sent to their rooms when they are misbehave and prisoners get moved into solitary confinement. Many studies have shown long periods of solitary confinement can have a devastating effect on mental well being. We just aren’t very well equipped to deal with a lack of stimulation.
We all have our preferred strokes and we tend to be affected by what we allow to penetrate our ‘stroke-filter’, which means some strokes may just bounce off us. For example, someone who is convinced they are physically unattractive may not be able to hear a stroke offered by way of a compliment on their appearance. Likewise, if you are proud of your career achievements, an accolade in this area may go right in and light you up.
Quite simply, we pay attention to the strokes which match the image we hold of ourselves. This may be where we get stuck. If you are struggling with feelings of low self worth, you may only be able to recall the negative strokes you received throughout your life. Any recognition of your worth by those around you gets blocked out by the stroke filter and an opportunity to make a positive shift towards worthiness is missed.
One of the ways a therapist might work with stroke theory is by giving plenty of recognition to you as a person, where you are now. Recognising whether you are hungry for strokes is important. If you are not receiving adequate recognition, you may seek it out in destructive and unsatisfying ways. You get lost in a cycle of feeling hungry for something but being unable to satisfy it. This can spiral into addictions and other self-sabotaging patterns.
By learning how to obtain satisfying strokes, you bolster the way you feel about your place in the world and start to create a more connected, meaningful and happy experience of life.