“If I had to choose between pain and nothing, I would always choose pain,” says a character in William Faulkner’s “Wild Palms”. Not knowing you’re loved, having nothing, living in emotional, intellectual or sensory emptiness are perhaps worse feelings than the pain which somehow tells us we’re alive.
We hardly ever stop to think that life is a multi-levelled exchange which takes place not only economically or through communication processes, but also via stimuli, or positive or negative signs of recognition we receive as strokes, glances, gestures, explosions of anger, shouts or silences. All of these mould our inner landscapes and hence our way of understanding ourselves, of building an image of the world and of giving our lives meaning.
More than twenty years ago, Claude Steiner, after extensive clinical observation in his psychotherapeutic practice and using the knowledge he inherited from his master Eric Berne, constructed an interesting theory named “Stroke theory”. Steiner and many others have used this interesting concept to investigate the effects on human beings of growing up and living with an abundance or scarcity of signs of recognition which can be summed up in the term “strokes”.
We all know we can’t survive on bread and water alone. To survive and to grow we need affection, tenderness, strokes, glances, words, gestures and contact with others. We are social beings by nature. Right from our first and most fragile hours, human beings are the species with the strongest need to be cared for, sheltered and given affection. There are those who even affirm that we have an innate need for love and union with others. Scientific evidence provided over the last hundred years by Drs. Chapin, Banning, Spitz, Bowlby and a multitude of others shows that not only do we need strokes from others, but will actually feel so bad without them that we may fall ill or even die.
Specialists have proved after years of rigorous investigation that a lack of stroking, in the widest sense –that is, going beyond gestures or the friction of skin against skin– can cause delays in the psychological development of newborns, and even physical degeneration to the point of death in spite of having food and the necessary hygiene for survival. The hunger for stimuli has such a strong bearing on the survival of a human being as the hunger for food. When human beings do not receive the minimum necessary for our survival, we fall into illness or death, and this can happen at any age.
There is definitely a positive correlation between tenderness, caring, affect and human attention and psychological, emotional, intellectual and physical development. We are born as men and women but we become human beings thanks to strokes, gentle stimuli, tenderness, compassion, gratitude, and also the limits we need to put us in touch with reality when given with discipline that seeks common benefit.
Leo Buscaglia, in his wonderful book, “Living, Loving and Learning”, states, “In spite of the fact that a child doesn’t know or understand the subtle dynamic of love, from a very young age he or she will feel a great need for love, and a lack of love will affect his or her development and growth and even lead to death.”We also know today that the lack of love is the main cause of many of the steadily increasing psychological illnesses prevalent in the West: it can lead to anxiety, depression and neurosis, and even psychosis. Without kind treatment a fundamental need remains unsatisfied, and we cannot carry on feeling good, feeling joy, or develop without it: it’s harder to grow without love.
This extends even further if you look into it. Steiner’s ideas in his book “Scripts People Live” point in interesting directions: strokes are essential for life, he concludes. When we don’t get them an instinctive survival mechanism is activated and we start, often unconsciously, to demand them at any price. When this happens, we’re even predisposed to receive “negative strokes” rather than none at all –or, paraphrasing Faulkner again, we will prefer pain to nothingness, a slap to being ignored, sorrow to emptiness, dislike to indifference, shouts to apathy. Understanding the mechanism gives us a way to understand other human behaviour, from masochism to gratuitous rebellion. The child who repeatedly rebels without an “objective” or apparent reason, for instance, is desperately seeking his absent parents’ attention. Perhaps his aggressive, rebellious, naughty behaviour is nothing more than an exasperated cry for attention from his parents, a need for them to set boundaries, or to really be there for him.
In the 70s, Dr. René Spitz studied differences in biological and psychological evolution between children in two different institutional settings in New York. There were different ways of approaching the children in each institution, as well as different amounts of physical contact and types of nutrition. In one of them, the children were allowed daily visits, normally from their mothers. In the other one, a single nurse was in charge of groups of eight to ten children. Spitz concluded that in the first group, there was a steady tendency towards physical, psychological and intellectual improvement, whereas the second group showed an overwhelming drop in these respects.
But people who don’t receive strokes are not the only ones who suffer. It is also negative not to give them. Research at Stanford University carried out by James Gross concluded that suppressing the expression of emotions leads to high psychological, social and medical costs. According to his research, people who do not show their emotions are less happy and feel more isolated. Also, apparently, holding back from expressing your emotions does nothing to reduce them, and can even produce an increase in negative emotions such as hurt, anxiety, sadness and shame. People who tend to not express their feelings thus generally experience things more negatively and less positively. And not expressing your emotions leads to more psychological stress, too, both in those who suppress them and in those who interact with these people (in studies, the latter showed important increases in blood pressure). Holding back from showing emotion is also associated with a drop in physiological immunity.
We need others. We really do. There is a fundamental form of exchange other than economic exchange, and it is the driving force of life, an essential exchange through which we build hope and meaning in life: stroke exchange.
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