“Strokes” in Transactional Analysis (I)

strokes, baby, mother, fingers, psychology, psychotherapy, Transactional AnalysisFor people who aren’t familiarized with the technical concept of strokes from a transactional analysis (T.A.) perspective, the first thing that might come to mind when hearing the word could easily be related to a cerebrovascular accident. Fortunately, this is not the topic of this article.

So what are “strokes”, then? According to Eric Berne (1971), the founder of T.A., “a stroke is a unit of recognition”. To clarify things even more, here is Woollams and Brown’s definition (1978): “A stroke is a unit of attention which provides stimulation to an individual”.

Based on research (Spitz, 1945) – and common sense – every person needs physical and psychological stimulation. Berne states that “a stroke may be used as the fundamental unit of social action”. As for the choice of the word “stroke” in itself, Berne chose it based on the infant’s need for touching. Growing up, we learn to seek other forms of recognition to compensate for the lack of physical touch that was available to us during infancy.

There are 2 big categories of strokes: positive strokes and negative strokes. These can be conditional, or unconditional.

As we have already established, one major aspect that drives us is our need for strokes (recognition). As getting positive recognition is not always possible, we have to choose between getting negative recognition – strokes – or no recognition at all. It’s easy to realize that negative strokes seem more appealing than feeling as if we are not being seen at all. In this way, a child who doesn’t receive enough positive strokes will develop behaviors that will at least attract negative strokes. Does this begin to sound like a familiar reality?

Going back to “conditional” and “unconditional” strokes, there have been many debates related to whether there is such a thing as an “unconditional” stroke or not. Originally, Berne stated that the unconditional strokes are related to what you are, while the conditional ones are about what you do. It’s rather easy to see why some people argue that unconditional strokes don’t exist, since there is a large group of folks who state that “what you do defines who you are” or that “acting means being”.

How about some examples?

Unconditional Positive strokes: “I love you!” “You’re wonderful!” “I like you!”

Unconditional Negative strokes: “I hate you!” “You’re an idiot!” “I don’t like you!”

Conditional Positive strokes: “You look pretty!” “You’ve done a great job!” “Well done on taking the exam!”

Conditional Negative strokes: “Your work is unacceptable!” “You are stupid for getting fired!” “Your clothes look dirty!”

Of course, strokes can be classified in a number of ways by differentiating between verbal and non-verbal strokes, physical or psychological strokes or internal (self-praise and other ways of self-stimulation) and external ones (the ones we receive from others).

After briefly covering the concept of strokes and their types, let’s take a look at the “stroke economy” and “stroke filters”.

“Stroke economy”

The concept of “stroke economy” was presented for the first time by Claude Steiner, who was a friend of Berne’s, in his book called “Scripts People Live” (1974). He offers a picture of the way in which society has created a system to control and compete in the giving and receiving of strokes in a children’s story called “The Warm Fuzzy Tale”.

In this story he talks about a family where warm “fuzzies” (positive strokes) were given freely until a witch tricks them into believing that they will run out of warm fuzzies. The family starts to refrain from giving warm fuzzies, and as this phenomenon extends through the community, people’s backs start to hurt badly and some people even start to die. The witch’s intention was to sell her potions and salves, so she didn’t wish for people to die. With this purpose in mind, she invents cold “pricklies” (negative strokes) to keep people alive, but unhappy so they would continue on buying her potions and salves. After a while, the children discover that they can’t run out of warm fuzzies, and they start offering them freely once again, inviting the adults to do the same.

“Stroke filters”

“Stroke filters” are mental filters that people unconsciously wear all the time. These filters only allow a part of the strokes to reach the person, while they completely block some and distort the others. For example, if a girl considers that she is beautiful, but not very intelligent, the filter will allow the beauty-related strokes to pass, but will block or distort any positive strokes regarding her intelligence.

To sum it up, while the term is only one of the many great inventions of transactional analysis, and it seems a simple idea in the beginning, there are many aspects and discussions related to it, which can’t be all covered and chewed on in a single sitting. So we’ll talk more on this subject in the following days, presenting more interesting information and an exercise for you to try out.

Until then, for more information on strokes and T.A., there are plenty of titles available in physical and electronic format. Some of the titles include “Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy” (Eric Berne, 1961), “T.A. Today” (Van Joines & Ian Stewart, 2012), “Games People Play” (Eric Berne, 1962) and “What Do You Say After You Say Hello?” (Eric Berne, 1972).

What is your experience with strokes, stroking and being stroked? How do strokes impact on you and those around you? How do you deal with positive and negative strokes? Do they motivate you or do they make you want to hide under a rock?

Read the second article about strokes here: “Strokes” in Transactional Analysis (II)

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16 thoughts on ““Strokes” in Transactional Analysis (I)

  1. Thank you for this, I look forward to reading more of your posts on TA – it’s fascinating and so far makes more sense to me than any other model.


    • I’m really glad to hear that! And I’m glad it makes sense to you and that I managed to explain it in an understandable way. 🙂 There are a few more T.A. articles coming soon, hopefully you’ll enjoy them just as much.


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    • Could you tell me more specifically what you’d like a reference on? Towards the end of the article there is a list of titles that contain all this information and talk about it extensively.
      If you mean the René Spitz reference, here’s the reference: SPITZ RA. Hospitalism; an inquiry into the genesis of psychiatric conditions
      in early childhood.
      You could also find this YouTube video interesting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VvdOe10vrs4

      Please let me know if this answers your question.


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