In the book Games People Play, by Dr. Erick Berne, M.D., he explains what he calls “strokes,” or social exchanges. It has long been known that people require social interaction with other people and that this is a biological requirement for life itself in some cases. In orphanages, children whose basic physical needs are met, but who are not held and cuddled, literally die from a condition called “failure to thrive.”
The term “stroke” can be used as a general term for any intimate physical contact, but in practice it may take many forms, including conversation and recognition of another’s presence. In Dr. Berne’s opinion, “any social intercourse (even negative intercourse) is better than no intercourse at all.” [Parenthetical explanation added.]
He says that in experiments with rats, it didn’t matter if they were handled gently or shocked with electric shocks, they received many benefits from the “strokes” over rats that were not “stroked” at all.
The purpose of social contact revolves around somatic and psychic equilibrium. It relieves tension, helps avoid noxious situations, procures strokes and maintains the established equilibrium.
We (humans) have a stimulus hunger and “strokes” help us avoid emotional starvation, which can lead to biological deterioration. Even the most hardened prisoners and convicts need strokes—they fear and dread the punishment of solitary confinement above all others.
In Games People Play, Dr. Berne explains the theory called “Transactional Analysis” which is used to visualize human interaction, both healthy and unhealthy interactions. This is represented by an “Internal Parent, an Internal Child, and an Internal Adult.” These are symbolized by P, A and C.
The P, or internal Parent, is composed of the “shoulds and should-nots” that you internalized from your primary caregiver as you grew up. The “tapes” inside the P can be both negative and positive, or nurturing and critical, such as, “You are so stupid” or “You are pretty.” These “tapes” are absorbed and believed without any “editing” by the internal Child.
The A, or internal Adult, is the rational part of you that says for example “two + two = four.” There are no emotional components to the internal Adult.
The C, or internal Child is made up, not of “childish” things, but is the part of you that is creative, loving, wondering and fun loving.
Our internal Child needs strokes and stimulation, and the job of the Adult is to meet those needs. Unfortunately, sometimes the Adult works on faulty information derived from the internal Parent. Therefore the Adult doesn’t do a good job of finding what the Child needs.
The Child may be continually punished or put down by the internal Parent, so is in continual pain or confusion about what he (or she) needs or wants to be happy.
If our upbringing has been nurturing, we will have a more nurturing Parent who will not continually “beat” our internal Child. We will have a nurturing Parent who will comfort our Child when it is scared, lonely, etc. If we have had a more Critical Parent implanted in our soul and mind, then our Child may feel that he is “Not OK” and continually seek ways to receive strokes that may be negative, but … better than no strokes at all.
Have you ever noticed that when you are around a two year old and you get on the telephone, the child immediately begins to try to get your attention? If pulling at your leg doesn’t work, or climbing in your lap, it won’t be long before a lamp goes over and breaks. The child has learned even by age two that they want attention and if “positive” behavior doesn’t get it, knocking over the lamp sure will. It may be negative behavior, but it does get your attention. Even negative strokes are better than no strokes.
Learning how to get positive strokes, and not resorting to negative stroke behavior, is a life-long learning process, especially if you grew up having difficulty receiving positive strokes from those closest to you.
Psychopaths learn how to give FAKE positive strokes to hook us in. Strokes that we accept at face value as positive, and come to depend on. Later, when we are addicted to the strokes from our own personal psychopath, the strokes turn negative and painful, but we are so addicted to receiving strokes from this “super stroker,” that, contrary to any messages from our internal Adult saying “Hey, there’s something wrong here,” we put tape over the mouth of the Adult to shut him up.
Or, our internal Parent, if it is more critical than nurturing, reminds us that we deserve these negative strokes because we are not worthwhile individuals worthy of respect.
Transactional Analysis also uses the “Triangle” of Rescuer-Persecutor-Victim. We and the psychopath learn to play the “triangle game,” changing chairs like a game of musical chairs. One day the psychopath is our Rescuer, and we are the Victim, then the next day we Persecute their role as Victim, and on the third day we Rescue their Victim, only to start and stop the “music” on an almost daily basis.
“Games” are unconscious maneuvers in which roles are accepted, the “triangle” is utilized, and there is a “pay off” at the end for all parties playing. Dr. Berne, in Games People Play, describes these “games.” He also shows us how we can stop playing “games,” which preclude intimacy, and get off the “triangle.” Some of the names of the various games are very descriptive, like, “Let’s you and him fight.” Other games are “Why don’t you, yes, but …” “Alcoholic,” “Cops and robbers,” “Let’s pull a fast one on Joey,” “Look how hard I’ve tried,” and my all time psychopath’s favorite, “If it weren’t for you.”
Transactional Analysis may not explain everything about the human psyche, but it does go a great ways in making our inner and outer world understandable in a simple language. It gave me a way to think in an orderly fashion about the “internal dialog” between my Critical Parent tapes and my Child. It gave me a way to use my Adult to nurture the Child inside me and to hit the MUTE button on the critical Parental injunctions that kept me from insisting on respect and reasonable treatment from those closest to me. It helped me distinguish the fake positive strokes from the real positive strokes, and helped me to decide that I can stroke myself, and don’t have to depend on negative strokes to survive.
Books I would recommend for further reading are:
Games People Play by Dr. Erick Berne, M. D.,
I’m OK-You’re OK by Thomas Harris M. D.\
Scripts People Live, by Claude M. Steiner.