The Psychology Of Relationships
Substitute Feelings and Bad Memories Collections
(or, as we call it in Transactional Analysis, Rackets and Stamps)
The following concept taken from the theory of Transactional Analysis is useful, even if the language is a bit obscure.
The principle of substitute feelings (or rackets in Transactional Analysis) is fairly straight forward. Generally, we talk about four main basic feelings: angry, sad, scared and happy.
We will avoid more complex emotions like shame or disgust at least for the moment. As children we express angry, sad, scared and happy feelings quite spontaneously.
However, some of us learn as children in our families of origin that some emotions get us more attention or rewards than others.
The opposite holds true too. Some emotions may even be completely repressed in a family. What happens then is that we learn to substitute one emotion for another. Here is an example:
Let’s say in Joe Blogs’ family of origin, scare and fear were, for some reason, encouraged as emotions. Perhaps both his parents were slightly shy people, and he was an only child, for whose arrival his parents had waited for a long time.
Because his parents were slightly timid, and because they were over-protective of him as their only child too, he got a lot of attention and reassurance when he felt scared, because his parents could relate to him feeling scared and it meant he stayed close by. Also, his parents expected the world in general to be a scary place so he started to feel scared of it too.
On the other hand, his parents really struggled with his anger or adventurousness. They could not understand it and felt threatened by it. He got no validation for his aggressive impulses. In the end he “stopped feeling” anger as much as he could.
However, the emotional energy of “anger” had to come out in some way, and because fear was acceptable, angry feelings got diverted into feeling scared instead.
Today, Joe Blogs still feels scared a lot of the time. His scare feels authentic and real to him, but someone from the outside might wonder what he can possibly be so scared of.
Additionally, when he gets into fights with his partner, he backs down at the first sign of any disagreement. He might feel very scared, rather than angry enough to protect his own interests.
Today, he might miss out on being assertive and getting what he wants from life, because he cannot sustain anger as a positive emotion to protect himself and challenge the people around him.
He might also not be that great at sex, because he doesn’t stay with his own desire and passion.
So, to repeat the idea about rackets: A racket feeling is a familiar emotion, learned and encouraged in childhood, experienced in many different situations, which is unhelpful for adult problem solving. In the wider sense a “racket” could be a whole internal or external process by which a person interprets or manipulates her environment so that she or he ends up confirming their world view (which won’t be an I am ok, you are ok life position!
Also have a look at script). For example, a person may go into temper tantrums when things don’t go their way. They feel hard done by and experience feelings which are familiar from childhood, but are far too exaggerated a response for the present situation.
Rackets are learned patterns. They substitute one feeling or internal or external process for something else which was there before hand. The earlier expression was the spontaneous one and as such could contribute to the solution of a problem situation.
So, for example, anger is a really good idea when you need to protect yourself. Fear or sadness might exacerbate the situation. The racket is repetitive and often inappropriate; and as in our example, it can work either way around: Can you imagine how unhelpful it is when your partner gets angry in response to your tears, rather than supportive or sad about how you are feeling?
A racket is therefore generally inappropriate and manipulative, although the person who feels it feels it for real and won’t be able to see that.
Rackets really come out big time when a couple starts arguing. Each person will be drawn into their favorite protective mode when they feel threatened or challenged. Unfortunately, rackets just keep us stuck. There is a mismatch of emotions, which then do not add up to the resolution of an issue.
For example, say one partner, Andy, feels insecure about the relationship. He feels like John will leave him for someone else. He expresses his scare to John, who gets into his anger racket (about how he always has to take care of everyone just like he had to with his mum).
Andy experiences his partner’s anger as doubly hard to take. First of all, it does not validate or sooth his fear, and secondly he is already feeling scared and his partner’s anger just makes his fear go through the roof. John gets more and more angry as Andy gets increasingly scared. You can finish the scenario in various ways, but they are all unpleasant or unproductive.
As you can see the original spontaneous emotions are much more useful as they communicate about the real issues. (It would be better if John could get angry with his mum’s neediness, which he experienced as a child, not with an adult request for some reassurance.)
Another variation on the racket theme are “stamps” or collections (hence stamps as in stamp collections!) of bad memories, which some people tend to keep. It’s as if people have a tendency to keep events which turned out badly, in their heads. Whenever something else happens that isn’t good they go over the first experience too and the list or collection gets bigger and bigger.
When they have collected sufficient “stamps” they can “justify” their anger or whatever outburst they have in store, even if the current situation doesn’t really warrant it. Some people collect stamps for just a day, others keep them for years before they cash them in as part of a long term game.
It’s easy to give an example of stamps, I am sure we have all experienced it or done it. Imagine you are “collecting” a sense of resentment with your partners, because he or she isn’t doing enough around the house.
You end up not saying anything, maybe because you want to keep the peace or you prefer stewing over it. Then, in the end your beloved doesn’t do the washing-up like you expected them to, and you feel fully justified in having a really good go at them, starting to recount all the stuff they have neglected doing over the last few days (or months, or years!).
The best thing to do with a collection of bad memories is to let them go. Do whatever you need to do to set the scales right, but then let it go. Don’t go back to it next time you have an argument about something completely different and dredge it all up again.
The same applies to racket feelings, though they are much harder to change as they’re difficult to spot on your own. However, you can ask yourself the questions:
What other things can I do or feel in this situation?
Would any of it make more sense than what I am doing or feeling now? In additions, consider what the rackets you learned in your family were.
Can you see yourself still doing them now? Emotions can be hard work, but life sure is easier when they are authentic and real.