(Unrelated to this topic, I published a new podcast today, The Search for Truth; A Neurologist’s Perspective here.)
What are Strokes?
There was a psychological theory called transactional analysis (circ. 1950) that was somewhat of a bridge from Freudian psychoanalytic analysis to behaviorism. When I earned my degree in psychology (and a simple BS in psychology gives me no expertise) transactional analysis was ending, being swamped by B.F. Skinner and behaviorism. One of the key components of transactional analysis was the role of strokes in our mental health and while that movement fizzled out, it is worth revisiting this one concept.
The stroke is simply a positive or negative experience (words, looks, touches, etc.) that either buttresses our self esteem or harms it. Think of it as stroking your dog. If you do it softly the dog sees it as a “pet” and likes it. Do it hard, then it becomes a “hit” and the dog sees it as punishment.
I had an old professor, still with allegiances to transactional analysis, who claimed that if we all just practiced giving positive strokes to other people, mental health issues, especially depression and anxiety, within our society would plummet. I have to add the caveat that in that time, circ. 1977, the role of our biology such as genetics and traumatic experiences, were poorly understood.
In our socially-distant, electronic world that we now live in, the most that we hope for is someone clicking a “like” on something we post on Facebook or in response to an e-mail. But within that impersonal electronic world, you are more likely to get a negative stroke. Same is true in the real world. Of course the pandemic has magnified the problem and made our social interactions even more impersonal. When disagreements abound in social media contexts, the negative strokes can be brutal, with words like, “you’re an idiot, moron, go to hell,” or worse. But often the negative strokes are more subtle such as, “I’m surprised that you are still–” You can fill in the blank, but the implication is a negative one.
The Fundamentals of Persona
If you were to boil down the MO of all of our behaviors and thoughts, in my opinion, you would find the appraisal of self-value or “self-esteem” as the fundamental basis for most of our existence. Those who end their lives usually do it because–falsely–believe that they have no value in this world. The reason that people pursue money, careers, to be seen as good parents, good Christians, good any religion, or good people is from this fundamental psychological driver. Positive, honest strokes is a healthy way of increasing another person’s sense of self-esteem and becomes a powerful blocker of unhealthy self-appraisals.
The Practical Application of Strokes
This is not the first time I’ve thought about the act of giving strokes. I remember a few years ago, that I made it my ambition to give each of my patients one positive stroke on each visit. These were not phony statements. I can’t stand it when someone gives me a phony praise, you know, one that you can see right through. But I wanted to give my patients a well-thought-out praise.
For most of my patients it was easy. “I can see that you have worked really hard on this.” But sometimes, as I tried to train my eyes to notice these things I would add, “Wow, I can tell by the way you interact with your children, you are a good mother.” Now, that was no accident as many of my patients, who spent days each week in bed, felt like they were horrible mothers and wives. My comment brought many to tears. My real goal was that their interaction with me would be their best social interaction of their day. Why? Simply because I cared about these people from my heart and I wanted them to feel good about themselves . But it also dove-tailed into my goal of reducing their migraines. Patients who don’t like themselves or don’t see value in their lives, aren’t motivated to get better. I’ve found that out in my own cancer fight. There are days I want to chuck it all.
Even when I focused on giving patients strokes, I would quickly fall out of the habit. Even now, when I see the value in them, I often forget to do it. The reason is, giving strokes by nature is very altruistic and most of us, including myself, prefer to do things that are more self-centered. But imagine if we worked to create a better world, where compliments were honest and dropped like the drips in the forest just after a spring rain. Where we would not attack the person we disagreed with, but compliment them while not compromising on our ideas. “Wow, I can tell you’ve put a lot of study into this and that you are a very smart person … but I have to disagree.”
So, I encourage everyone to work their hardest on dispensing positive strokes to people. You could call it “for Lent” if you want, giving up negative comments and replacing them with positive ones. Giving up cake was ego-centric anyway. What am I saying? I suspect that most people reading this give positive strokes already, better than I do. But if you need help, here’s a list you can draw from.
I think it would make this a better world. But I have one exception to this at this moment in history … Vladimir Putin.