A Heart-Centered, Emotional Literacy Technique, Using Transactional Analysis,  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, intimacy and the common good.

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:

“…love 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 surgery—that has greater  impact on our quality of life, incidence of illness and premature death from all causes.”

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” Berne 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 Reich’s concept of the “sex economy,” which he defined as the intentional squelching of sexual exchanges among German youth for the purpose of promoting conformity to Nazi doctrine. 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:

  • Don’t give strokes you would like to give.
  • Don’t ask for strokes you would like to get.
  • Don’t accept strokes you would like to accept.
  • Don’t reject strokes you don’t want.
  • Don’t give yourself strokes.

These rules are enforced internally and externally. Internally, by what we, in transactional analysis, call the Critical Parent. The Critical Parent is an ego state and as such it represents a network of ideas, acquired in childhood which deeply affect love of ourselves and others. These ideas include the rules of the stroke economy and they can be seen as ingrained neural networks that shape every emotional experience according to an archaic blueprint.

The rules of the stroke economy are set down by restrictive social mores and enforced by way of the social disapproval of those who violate them. 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 economy’s 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 psychological “games” to obtain recognition. Just as starving people will eat rotten food or people dying of thirst will drink salt water people are willing to accept damaging toxic strokes when stroke hungry. 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, (2000) Thomas Lewis et all 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 creating a state called “limbic resonance.” This mutual modification is most powerful for the young infant who is fully open to developing and setting down patterns of loving.

While loving patterns or bonding ties are set in childhood, later relationships in which the person establishes a limbic resonance with another are capable of restructuring a damaged bonding structure.(Bowlby, 1969). 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 transactional analysis, “human potential” workshops. 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 far more profound level than expected; frequently, workshops participants left the experience with a dramatically enhanced, “oceanic” loving feeling. From my experience over the last forty 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.

I have encountered intense resistance to 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 don’t 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. This and other emotional literacy training techniques are explained in detail in Emotional Literacy: Intelligence with a Heart (Steiner 2003)

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 rebuilding a person’s innate, instinctual loving capacities. Like a highly sophisticated diet regime in which we learn what 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 that is aimed at neutralizing the influence of the Critical Parent and the feelings of unworthiness that are so often associated with stroke starvation, these exercises can transform the quality of a person’s 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 people’s 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—giving, accepting, asking for strokes as well as giving oneself strokes and rejecting strokes we don’t want, 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 of releasing it from its bonds and nurturing it as it grows.

Each and every one of us can relearn 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

Bowlby, John. Attachment and Loss. 1969. New York Basic Books.

Lewis, Thomas, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon. A General Theory of Love2000. 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. “Hospitalism,” The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child I,International Universities Press, New York, 1954

Steiner, Claude. Emotional Literacy: Intelligence with Heart. 2003. Fawnskin California. Personhood Press.

See also The Warm Fuzzy Tale for a fairy tale illustrating the facts of the Stroke Economy.

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