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Learning to Love

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Learning To Love

A Heart-Centered, Advanced, Emotional Literacy Technique

by Claude Steiner Ph.D.

Abstract: Emotional literacy, with love as the guiding emotion, is a undeniable requirement for a healthy physical and psychological life. Transactional analysis provides the concepts (strokes, the stroke economy) and advanced techniques (Opening the Heart exercises) to teach people the essential skills required to give and accept love.

Heart-centered EQ

For twenty years I have studied the emotions. I have identified a set of skills which I have called "emotional literacy"; emotional intelligence with a focus on love and intimacy. My conclusions are presented in Achieving Emotional Literacy. A Personal Program to Improve your Emotional Intelligence. (1997)

As a transactional analyst I am interested in people's everyday attempts to connect with each other--at the grocery store or bank, in phone conversations and e-mail letters, while making love or arguing, eating at a restaurant or driving , teaching or being taught, talking to accountants or to babies. The raw data of this analysis is found in the constant stream of daily transactions between people. The particular transactions that most interest me are the positive, affectionate expressions of recognition which constitute the loving, intimate, bonding experience.

Scientific evidence strongly suggests that to maintain emotional and physical health we have to know how to relate to each other in a caring way. The undeniable evidence is that anger, anxiety and depression, on one hand, and love and intimacy on the other, affect health and recovery from illness. This findings have been elaborated by Dean Ornish MD in Love and Survival. The Scientific Basis for the Healing Power of Intimacy. (1997)  He writes:

ďÖlove and intimacy are at the root of what makes us sick and what makes us well... I am not aware of any factor in medicine -- not diet, not smoking, not stress, not genetics, not drugs, not surgeryóthat has greater  impact on our quality of life, incidence of illness and premature death from all causes.Ē

Yet, caring (love to be blunt,) which is presumed to be based on a mammalian instinct, strongly allied with survival is fraught with difficulties and is becoming increasingly difficult to exercise in our culture. Hoping to counteract these trends, I endeavor to teach people the simple, basic transactions that constitute the loving experience. This practice is based on three concepts: Strokes, The Stroke Economy and Opening the Heart.


Eric Berne coined the term "stroke" to denote a unit of human recognition. Based on the findings of Renee Spitz in his studies of "hospitalism" he proposed that people need strokes to survive, much as they need food, water and air. By introducing the concept of the stroke transaction--the exchange of recognition-- he made it possible to observe and discuss the exchange of affection or love in fine, textured detail. 

The Stroke Economy

Puzzled by the difficulties that people have when exchanging strokes I came upon Wilhelm Reichís concept of the "sex economy," which he defined as the intentional squelching of sexual exchanges among German youth for the purpose of promoting conformity. I saw a similar inhibiting trend in our culture, applied to simple affection and love, and called it the "stroke economy."

The stroke economy creates a scarcity of love and affection by imposing a set of rules that govern the exchange of strokes.

The rules of the stroke economy are:

Donít give strokes you would like to give.

Donít ask for strokes you would like to get.

Donít accept strokes you would like to accept.

Donít reject strokes you donít want.

Donít give yourself strokes.

These rules are enforced internally and externally. Internally, by what we, in transactional analysis, call the inner Critical Parent a neural network of ideas, acquired in childhood which deeply affect love of ourselves and others. These ideas can be seen as ingrained neural networks; "limbic attractors" that shape every emotional experience according to an archaic blueprint. (Limbic attractors are described in detail in A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis et al.)

The rules are promoted externally by restrictive social mores and enforced by way of the social disapproval of those who violate them. Internally, disobedience to these rules results in painful feelings of guilt, shame and unworthiness. As people--intimidated by these internal and external sanctions--follow the stroke economyís implicit rules on a culture-wide basis, the outcome is a lowering of affectionate exchanges resulting in generalized "stroke starvation". 

Stroke starved people, will become depressed and will resort to self-damaging methods of obtaining recognition just as starving people will eat rotten food or people dying of thirst will drink salt water. Eventually, harmful methods of obtaining strokes become habitual to stroke hungry people who know of no other way of fulfilling their need for human recognition. (See The Warm Fuzzy Tale for a children's story that illustrates this point).

The end result is that our innate capacity for love and its attendant  survival benefits are increasingly unavailable to many. At the same time cultural patterns of cynicism and loneliness are proliferating and standing as obstacles  to the recovery of our loving capacities and skills.

Opening the Heart

The pressing question becomes: "How do we recover our capacity to love and how do we develop our loving skills?"

In their cutting edge book The General Theory of Love, Thomas Lewis et all convincingly establish the limbic brain as the seat of the loving emotion. They write about the genetic basis for the development of love and how in a child's earliest days, when the capacity is developing, the child and the mother inhabit an open system in which their limbic connections affect each other profoundly. This mutual modification is most powerful for the child who is fully open to developing and setting down patterns of loving. 

While loving patterns are set in childhood, later relationships in which the person establishes a limbic resonance with another are capable of restructuring  the original design. Lewis et al conclude that permanent beneficial restructuring of a persons deeply ingrained limbic brain patterns is possible through long-term individual psychotherapy with a therapist who, for all intents and purposes, needs to be a paragon of limbic virtue. 

I arrived at similar conclusions by a very different path based largely on intuition and trial and error as a teacher of "human potential" workshops about transactional analysis. As a part of my teaching I devised a set of transactional exercises which I initially called "Stroke City" and which I have refined over the years and renamed "Opening the Heart." 

The exercise had the overt purpose of teaching transactional analysis while defeating the stroke economy, helping people satisfy their stroke hunger and teaching them how to obtain what they most want: to love and be loved. It turned out, however, that the exercise noticeably restructures people's experiences at a a far more profound level than expected; frequently workshops participants left the experience with a dramatically enhanced loving feeling akin to an oceanic experience. From my experience over the last twenty years I am convinced that positive lasting effects in limbic patterns can be produced with sharply focused group work  that concentrates on loving transactional behavior and the emotional consequences of it.

Elsewhere (The Meming of Love) I have described the intense resistance that I have encountered in obtaining acceptance for the notion that love can be taught not only over long years of  skilled psychotherapy, as proposed by Lewis et al but by intense, short term transactional exercises that can be undertaken in an everyday context. 

Quite simply, I encourage people in a group to personally defy the stroke economy by:

Giving the strokes they want to give,

Asking for and accepting strokes they want,

Rejecting strokes they donít want and

Giving themselves strokes.

These transactional exercises are practiced in an environment made scrupulously safe of hostility or coercion by establishing a set of cooperative agreements designed to produce a safe experience. A skilled trainer leads the exercises, sees to it that agreements are kept and helps the group to analyze the interactions, transaction by transaction. Lewis et al  write of "three neural faces of love"--limbic resonance, limbic regulation and limbic restructuring-- which are the requirements for bringing about the rehabilitation of the emotional losses of early life. All three of these processes require a secure base provided in these training groups; an atmosphere of trust and openness allowing participants the opportunity to give and take love in a setting of limbic resonance which makes "opening the heart" possible. 

Practiced over time, these exercises can actually transform people, making them more capable of giving and receiving love; they represent an advanced technique for building or rebuilding a personís loving capacities. Like a highly sophisticated diet regime in which we learn what, when and how much to eat or not eat, this stroke regime aims for similar healthy goals in our emotional lives. In conjunction with a program of meditation or other therapeutic activity that is aimed at restructuring the feelings of unworthiness that are so often associated with stroke starvation, these exercises can transform the quality of a personís life of love and intimacy.


Very likely the reader will wonder how the practice of a few transactional exercises could possibly create genuine love in peopleís hearts. I am not proposing some sort of psychological alchemy that turns a few daily transactions into gold. In my experience the loving experience is a powerful drive which will seek satisfaction and what I am promising is that these five transactions, frequently practiced in safety with as many people as possible--but with at least one other, willing and sympathetic person--will release the love locked away, inside of us. Giving and receiving strokes will lure open the prison gates, the rest is up to that irresistible power of human nature: Love.

It may be hard to believe, given the massive resistance and deeply ingrained deficits which we encounter, that such a thing is possible without years of  intense, expert help. But love is like a coiled spring ready to expand if we find a way to release it from its bonds and nurturing it as it grows. 

Each and every one of us can learn to give and take love. By systematically opening our hearts to one another in an environment of trust and safety we avail ourselves of the possibilities of our full emotional potential. That is the aim of emotional literacy training.

Goleman, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence; Why it can Matter More Than IQ. 1995 New York. Bantam Books.

Berne, Eric. Games People Play. 1965 New York. Grove Press

Blackmore Susan. The Meme Machine. 1999. New York. Oxford University Press

Lewis, Thomas, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon     A General Theory of Love. 2000. New York. Vintage Books

Ornish, Dean. Love and Survival. The Scientific Basis for the Healing Power of Intimacy. 1997 New York. Harper Collins.

Spitz, Renee. ďHospitalism,Ē The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child I, International Universities Press, New York, 1954

Steiner, Claude. Achieving Emotional Literacy. A Personal Program to Improve your Emotional Intelligence. 1997. New York. Avon Books.


Claude Steiner's website:

Continue to Part 5: Attaining Emotional Literacy

Back to Part 3: Build Emotional Literacy

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