Feeling good… the need for strokes!

From our earliest beginnings, in utero, we depend on another person. We are born needing and seeking contact, with an innate sense that we can’t survive without it. Throughout our lives we receive this contact through various types of verbal and nonverbal communication:

  • a smile
  • a hug
  • praise for something we do or who we are
  • a challenge to something we do or who we are.

In transactional analysis, these modes of contact are called strokes. Eric Berne described strokes as ‘a unit of recognition’ one person acknowledging another by way of act or speech.

Types of strokes:

  • positive and negative
  • verbal and nonverbal
  • conditional and unconditional.

Telling someone that we love them is an unconditional positive stroke (the ultimate one, in fact) whereas telling someone that we love their cooking is a conditional positive stroke. The former strokes the person’s entire being whilst the latter strokes one aspect of their being. Conversely, telling someone you don’t like their cooking is a conditional negative stroke and telling someone you hate them is the ultimate unconditional negative stroke.

Throughout life this communication develops our personality, informs our sense of self-worth and defines our beliefs in ourselves, the world and others. Depending on the type of strokes that we receive before adulthood we end up in one of four life positions, as defined in TA.
If the strokes we receive through childhood are appropriate to our age and stage of development and are a balanced mix of positive and negative, as needed, then we are likely to grow up with a sense of I’m OK, you’re OK. In TA, this life position describes a balanced emotional and cognitive outlook on life.
However, if the balance of strokes has veered too far to the positive, contained too many negatives or been an inappropriate mix, then we are likely to struggle with a fair sense of self and the world.
Those brought up with too many positive strokes might hold the life position of I’m OK, you’re not OK, and struggle to see the others point of view, having developed an over inflated sense of their own self-worth.
On the other hand, children who receive too many negative strokes (or not enough positive ones) can grow into adulthood believing others to be more important than themselves; this life position is called I’m not OK, you’re OK. Alternatively they might hold the life position of I’m not OK, you’re not OK with little hope for themselves and seeing little good in the world at all.
Strokes are important forms of contact that helps us connect with each other and feel alive.
So try to give your family and friends one conditional and one unconditional positive stroke every day, and don’t forget to stroke yourself! 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Newcastle upon Tyne NE3 & Newcastle Upon Tyne NE18
Written by Nicole Addis, DTC. Dip. MSc UKCP reg. Psychotherapist Supervisor /Trainer
Newcastle upon Tyne NE3 & Newcastle Upon Tyne NE18

Nicole Addis is a UKCP registered counsellor and psychotherapist. She currently runs Peel Psychological Consultancy, a private counselling service and is actively involved in running workshops and seminars to promote workplace well being and self development.

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