The psychology of relationships: strokes
The stroke economy
The stroke economy is a concept which was created by Claude Steiner, a transactional analyst psychotherapist, in the 1960s. To understand this section, you will need to have read the section on strokes.
The stroke economy is a concept which helps to clarify why we end up with so little warmth in our interactions and what we can do to change this.
Imagine this is the sixties. There are a lot of ideas floating about regarding power and economy, feminism, sexuality and lots of other socio-political ideas: the concept of stroke economy fits very well into this era.
Let’s start off with a stroke. A stroke is a unit of recognition. If it’s a positive stroke you could see it as a little parcel of love given by one person and received by another.
We all need strokes and a lot of us go to great lengths to earn them (like working too much, or being overly-nice to people, more than you really want to be).
However, strokes are free, they are easy to give, so why aren’t we all giving and receiving strokes all the time, which would make us all feel a lot better?
Claude Steiner said it’s because of the stroke economy, which he suggested works just like an economy based on money.
Once you make money scarce, people will work very hard to earn some so they can get their basic needs met. Indeed, one can control people by making money scarce. It’s the same with strokes, at least according to Steiner.
He suggested that we are all indoctrinated by our parents with five very restrictive rules about stroking.
This means that strokes end up being in short supply, which means that as children we would work harder to earn each one of them.
Although this is quite a simplified way of looking at it, it’s also a good metaphor for why we end up being so reticent about giving and receiving strokes when we don’t really need to be so tight about it: in reality, there is always a limitless amount we could give.
Here are the five stroking rules, which we tend to learn, which means we limit the feel good factor in our relationships drastically:
1 Don’t give strokes when you have to give them to give
Wouldn’t it be great to give all the strokes we want to give to people!
However, we often tend to hold back and not say the nice things we think about people. Then the moment passes and we never say it. What a shame!
2 Don’t ask for strokes when you need them
For a lot of people it’s a really radical concept that it would be ok for them to ask for what they want instead of having to wait passively until somebody happens to give them the right thing.
It’s ok to ask for the right words and that doesn’t mean the person who is giving the compliment doesn’t mean them!
3 Don’t accept strokes if you want them
A lot of people really struggle to take in strokes. They feel exposed or embarrassed and deflect the nice comments about themselves.
Again, what a waste!
A stroke is a gift meant for you, so take it, feel it, and remember it so that when times are less good you can take it out again and warm yourself with it!
4 Don’t reject strokes when you don’t want them
Ever thought about not taking on destructive comments from others and just ignoring them? You really don’t have to take them to heart, you can remember some good things people said to you instead.
5 Don’t give yourself strokes
Also a very radical concept! Why not be nice to yourself, say nice things to yourself and believe them?
And “stroking yourself” can also be a literal thing.
Biologically, any sort of grooming behavior raises our endorphins and we feel better. And, as this is a website about sex you might as well take it that way too!
So, let’s have a revolution! We can turn the old stroking rules upside down and arrive at ones that are much better for us:
1 Give strokes that you want to give
2 Ask for the strokes you want or need
3 Accept the strokes you get
4 Don’t accept the strokes you don’t want
5 Stroke yourself (a lot)
The new rules should help you increase your sense of warmth and your feeling of being loved and belonging. Remember to give only strokes to people which you really mean.
Fake ones hurt. (But you could give someone you don’t like a stroke on how much you like their new shoes, for example.)
Also, once you start to take in the strokes people give you and you are giving out more strokes, you are really encouraging other people to be more open and forthcoming too.
You may have to practice for a while until giving and receiving strokes becomes natural, but it’s great when you get there! And the people round you will appreciate it.