Keynote lecture at the 3rd Adolescence Health Conference at the Royal College of Physicians in London, October 2000.

By Claude Steiner PhD

Preamble; Love’s Troubles

I am enormously pleased to be speaking here in London, in such a prestigious venue to such a wonderful audience, in support of that most fascinating, beleaguered and important group of people, our adolescents.

I have come all the way from California to make a point about a subject near and dear to the adolescent heart. What I am going to speak about, is love. How very California wouldn’t you say?

The point I am going to make is that it is possible to teach, learn, relearn and enhance our capacity to be loving human beings and I will show you five specific things you can do to achieve that purpose.

No subject is as often on people’s lips, especially on the lips of adolescents, in their songs, their TV and movies, their books and thoughts, as is love. With all that interest it should be an easy subject to explore. But there is a problem: Allow me to quote Diane Ackerman from her excellent book, A Natural History of Love [1] . In her introduction she says:

“As a society we are embarrassed by love. We treat it as if it were an obscenity. We are reluctant to admit to it. Even saying the word makes us stumble and blush. Why should we be ashamed of an motion so beautiful and natural? Love is the most important thing in our lives, a passion for which we would fight or die, and yet we’re reluctant to linger over its name.”

Ackerman is speaking of romantic love, mostly the love between a man and a woman. In fact almost everything that is said written and sung about love relates to that narrow band of love’s realm, heterosexual relationships. But love in real time, in the here and now, as we feel it or fail to feel it, openly or in twisted knots, intertwined with anger and hate, toward our “loved” ones, our friends, our coworkers or ourselves, love is so often so fraught with conflict and avoidance that we are unable to discuss it freely, at any level.

For all intents and purposes love is banned from close, personal, intimate, examination. Oscar Wilde’s treacherous lover Bosie spoke of “the love that dare not speak its name.” In fact it is love altogether, all of it, that we dare not speak of, so disturbing and even frightening is it to talk about.

The only situation in which love talk is easy is when it concerns children and even there it is losing ground due to overriding fears about sexual abuse. Still, with children we can usually freely express heartfelt, sincere, love feelings. But as soon children pass into what Freud called the “latency” period the barriers go up.

Sure, the words gets used: ”Love’ya mom,”  “Have you done your homework, luv?” “I love you,” with a lilting, high minded tone. But how often does a father look his teenage daughter in the eye, face to face and from the bottom of his heart, eyes moistening, say: “I love you!” How often do a grown brother and sister embrace and without embarrassment or fear declare their love for each other?

And of those emotional warriors who wear their hearts on their sleeves and feel it a compulsive moral duty to openly love others and themselves, how many come to see their own, “excessive” emotionality as a burden; something that they have to struggle with and about, daily, and ultimately, for their own protection, at times even give up?

Of course there are those who would argue that one does not need to speak about love, that love “just is” and that, in fact, speaking about it disturbs it, spoils it, much the way a stone disturbs the surface of a moonlit pond. To them I would say that I strongly disagree.  In my opinion love is in need of help today, and we aren’t going to fix it by keeping quiet about it.

But the ban on love is not merely a speaking ban; among psychological research projects love is not the subject of the intense inquiry as often as it deserves to be. As an example the classic book about emotions, The Emotional Brain; The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life by Joseph LeDoux, [2]   fails to mention love even once in its index; this otherwise excellent book’s first chapter is called “Whats love got to do with it?” a question that is never addressed in the text. Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence [3] has twenty index entries related to anger, and only three index entries on love in Chapter One, and none in the rest of the book. A search of  the complete  Annual Review of Psychology in 1996 (23 volumes)  found no single reference to love.

The American Psychological Association has called this the decade of positive psychology which it launched with its January 2000 “Special Issue on Happiness, Excellence and Optimal Human Functioning.” [4] Scientific psychology is indeed making great strides in theorizing and researching the positive side of the human experience. In speaking of the positive human experience, it is joy, optimism, contentment and “flow” that get the attention and research; love gets lip service but is seldom discussed or investigated, in detail, by experts in the field.

Yet love is the instant antidepressant, and a proven insurance against disease and morbidity. One of the principal researchers of this fact, Dr. Dean Ornish, a Harvard educated physician, recognized by Life magazine as one of fifty most influential members of his generation, says in his book,  Love and Survival [5] :

“…love and intimacy are at the root of what makes us sick and what makes us well. If a new drug had the same impact…it would be malpractice not to prescribe it … 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.”

But enough of this barrage of evidence for the difficulties attending a serious, scientific, rational, discussion about love. I suppose I feel a bit insecure as to how I will be received when I insist in speaking about love among colleagues in serious academic circles. Perhaps, to be safe I should stick to speaking about “emoting positive affect.”

Love’s Adolescent troubles

Nowhere are these conflictual crosscurrents about love as evident as in adolescence. I recall, in my own adolescence in Mexico, how  painful a subject it was. I am sure things have improved since then but we simply would not admit to having any affection, especially for our peers. I had a best friend; he and I were practically inseparable but we would not confess our friendship even to our mothers, let alone age mates. We would have been utterly incapable of speaking of love between us, especially in Spanish were the word that corresponds to love—amor—is even more disturbing than its English counterpart. When we eventually became attracted to a girl we hid the fact in shame, lest we be mercilessly mocked by our age mates.

As to adult responses to teen love, when the heart takes off uncontrollably in an early adolescent crush, the usual infuriating, condescending response is: “How adorable, of course it will not last; I know, I’ve been there, done that.” Or if the matter becomes more serious, involving sex and or drugs, we drop our  condescending attitude and replace it with white hot alarm and catastrophic expectations.

We know how often getting pregnant and having a baby are seen by young women as an opportunity to love and be loved and how important girl’s bodies are to their love of themselves; their self-esteem. Tragically, teenage pregnancy and obesity are two of the greatest adolescence health issues.

By all accounts teen depression, suicide and homicide are serious adolescent problem in which love and hate conflate. Kipland Kinkel, the 15 year old Oregon boy who in 1998 killed both of his parents and then proceeded to go to his school and kill two and injure 25 others wrote the following, prior to his rampage:

“I need help. There is one person that could help but she wont. I need to find someone else. I think I love her but she could never love me…today of all days I ask(ed) her to help me. I was shot down I feel like my heart has been ripped open and ripped apart…I gave her all I have and she just threw it away… Every time I see (her) face my heart is shot with an arrow. I think she will say yes but she doesn’t. She says “I don’t know.” [6]

In response to an essay question about love at first sight Kipland wrote:

“Love is an evil plot to make people buy alcohol and firearms. When you love someone something is always taken away from you… it’s easier to hate than love… I don’t believe in love at first sight. But I believe in hate at first sight…(love) does more harm than good…love is a horrible thing. It makes things kill and hate.”

Not many teenagers kill as Kipland did, but his terrifying sentiments about love and hate are not unusual. “Love,” as Stevie Wonder says, “is in need of love today.”

Love’s Evolution

Dr. Paul MacLean  senior research scientist at the National Institute of Mental Health proposes that the human brain is made up of three distinct subdivisions  corresponding to three consecutive evolutionary eras.

He calls this three-part brain the “triune” brain. In the triune brain the reptilian brain is separated from the neo-cortical brain, by a structure that is so clearly of a different nature than the other two that it was called the limbic brain (after the latin limbus or border) by Paul Broca, its discoverer in 1879.

Reptilian and Limbic

The reptilian brain, first in evolutionary history, supports the basic physiological functions; respiration, circulation and so on. It also is in command of territorial and mating behavior; pecking order, defense, aggression and the emotions of anger and fear. Reptiles are not concerned with their offspring and exhibit no protective behavior repertoire towards their progeny. They will abandon or even eat their own eggs as soon as the issue from the female.

As evolution progressed and protection of the offspring became an effective survival strategy the limbic brain developed to fulfill that function. Establishing and protecting a safe territory was a function of the reptilian brain; protection within that secure territory became the limbic brain’s function.

Protection of the young required affiliative behavior based on a drive for contact and mutual recognition. This hunger for contact maintained the bond between mother and offspring and generated closely knit, cooperative groupings all of which maximized survival of the young. The principal emotions associated with affiliation is love; sadness, hope and guilt are emotions that are generated when affiliation fails, to repair the failure.

The Neo-cortical Brain

The protective social environment of the limbic brain made it possible for the offspring to be born  before its brain size was fully accomplished. Evolution of a larger and larger brain cavity permitted the full development of the neo-cortex in the present stage of human evolution. The neo-cortex permits higher functions of imitation, speaking, writing, planning, symbolic reasoning and conceptualization all of which were applied to the task of adaptation. Adaptation to the various new environments of weather, food, water and the increasing presence of other hominids within and without the tribe competing for resources and territory.

Neo-cortical thinking functions are also applied to the modulation and even modification of the two lower brains’ functions. Rational control of the procreative, aggressive, protective and affiliative drives are one of the byproducts of human brain’s neo-cortical evolution.

With the development of  extraordinary adaptability skills, survival was assured and ceased  to exercise evolutionary pressure; genetic evolution came to a virtual standstill about 40 000 years ago. At this point we were fully equipped with three distinct brains: one, the reptilian, concerned with territory, the second, limbic, concerned with protection within that safe territory and the third, the neo-cortical, concerned with adaptation.

As our genetic evolution dramatically slowed down, another form of evolution not associated with our genes but with the capacity to adapt, accelerated.  Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, called this type of evolution “memetic” as opposed to genetic. It refers to the  evolution of guiding ideas — memes — as they replicate horizontally from person to person and vertically, down the generations.

These neo-cortical memetic functions elaborated the affiliative drive into highly elaborated ideation; maternal love, love between father and mother, fraternal love, erotic love and love between members of the social group. Love has evolved from the instinct in certain animals to affiliate in groups for protection and warmth, to the highly sophisticated ideas and behaviors that we call love today,

The evolution of concepts associated with love has been accelerating since Jesus of Nazareth made love the center of his doctrine. There is a huge leap between Jesus and the bard, but Shakespeare’s contribution was equally crucial according to Harold Bloom in Shakespeare; TheInvention of the Human. [8]

Romeo  and Juliet, sixteen and not yet fourteen years old, have become an example of adolescent love in its most uncompromising form. They meet at a dance one evening, before dawn declare their undying love for each other, marry the next day, and are dead within a fortnight. This story has become a guiding idea, a “memetic” standard for romantic love.

Many in the arts have written and spoken about love eloquently enough to advance the love meme. In the sciences, Eric Berne made a major contribution to the potential quantification of love when he postulated the stroke as the unit of recognition and with the development of transactional analysis provided an method to study the exchange of affection and aversion.

The Corruption of Love; The Enemies of the Heart

I am a transactional analyst. [9] That is to say I study people from the point of view of how they interact or transact. As a transactional analyst I see all aspects of health reflected in people’s transactions. In addiction I believe, as a psychotherapist, that the royal road to recovery and health is the analysis and correction of transactional behavior.  This is especially true when working with the pathologies of  relationships and the way in which love can be heartbreakingly corrupted from its potential as a life-giving force.

Berne postulated that each person at any one point operates from one of three distinct parts of the ego which he called the Parent, The Child and the Adult. Bernespoke of  people’s need for recognition, recognition hunger and how people transact in part to satisfy that need. He called the recognition transaction a “stroke” and he defined positive and negative strokes. Positive strokes are units of positive recognition or affection and negative strokes are units of negative recognition or aversion. Both positive and negative strokes feed the hunger for recognition.

Berne also observed that people undertake certain repetitive transactional patterns which he called games and labeled them with eye opening names such as “Why don’t you yes but” or “Now I have got you, you SOB” [10]

Games are played from the Child ego state, often masquerading as a grown up and in large part to obtain strokes. Every time we start a game the inner Child is hoping to get positive recognition or strokes, yet every time we play a game that purpose is foiled, and what we get instead is negative recognition or hateful transactions. We play games because we are hungry for positive recognition or love and we wind up getting hate instead. Still, we persevere because we need the strokes. Without them Berne said, our “spinal cords will shrivel up” as shown by Renee Spitz’s classic research on hospitalism in the nursery. [11]

As is the case with every other driven, instinctual behavior the drive for recognition is associated with a need which motivates the organism to act. We know about the needs for water, food, activity, sex, and we know that being deprived of any of them will motivate vigorous activity to restore them.

Thirst and hunger are terms applied to water and food. I will be applying them to the need for recognition which I call “stroke hunger.” Years ago I came to the conclusion that people as a whole are not only periodically stroke hungry, but actually chronically stroke starved; that is to say that most people are in a constant state of stroke deprivation.

The fact is that just as we can become starved for food, we can become stroke starved. A starved person will pursue food in any form and even eat rotten food if hungry enough. Likewise with strokes; we will pursue them hungrily and if we can’t good ones we’ll settle for bad ones .

Why are people stroke starved?  I began asking myself that question in the late 60’s when I wrote a story which has since been reproduced millions of times and which has become part of the cultural vocabulary; The Warm Fuzzy Tale. [12] In that story a bad warlock whispers in Tim’s ear, telling him to beware when giving too many Warm Fuzzies, for fear that they will run out. The word gets around that there may not be enough warm fuzzies and people start holding back and before you know it there is a chronic scarcity of them.

The  result is that people start developing pains and their backs shrivel up so they have to buy the warlock’s salves and potions, which was the point of the warlock’s scheme to begin with. The story goes on and has a happy ending. I leave it to you to find out how it goes if you are interested. You can find the story on my website

In real life, what we have is a set of rules which I call “the stroke economy.” [13] This is essentially a set of five injunctions regarding strokes, as follows:

  • Don’t give strokes you want to give.
  • Don’t accept strokes you want to get.
  • Don’t ask for strokes you need.
  • Don’t reject strokes you dislike
  • Don’t give yourself strokes

These injunctions are enforced by the Critical Parent, also known in its many incarnations as the voices in our head, the harsh superego, the inner critic, catastrophic expectations, low self esteem, negative self-talk, stinking thinking, etc., depending on the therapeutic system attempting to deal with it. The Critical Parent enforces these rules by undermining our self esteem; our self-love. It tells us we are not OK, and don’t deserve to love or be loved because we are stupid, bad, ugly, crazy, sick and doomed. It threatens us with humiliation, ridicule, guilt. In short it terrorizes by with the ultimate threat; exclusion from the tribe, to be left alone to die alone in the cold, with voodoo death, with total alienation.

The murderous teenager, Kipland Kinkel’s writings provide a dramatic example:

“God damn these voices in my head. I want to die I want to be gone…I sound so pitiful. People would laugh at this if the read it. I hate being laughed at…I hate every one of you. Because everything I touch turns to shit…If I had a heart it would be gray… My cold black heart has never and will never experience true love… Why aren’t I normal? Help me. No one will. I will kill every last mother fucking one of you.”

Where does this Critical Parent come from? Why this bloody-minded, love-corrupting  presence in our innermost self?

The Critical Parent is the product of another memetic evolutionary process departing from the reptilian brain instinct for territorial and dominating behavior. It’s memetic development into a persistent system of supremacy of men over women, the powerful over the weak, of the middle aged over the young and elderly. This ancient tradition also known as patriarchy includes the domination of  the emotions and threatens people with dire consequences if the fail to keep those emotions in control. The ultimate threat is exclusion from the tribe; the loss of love from those who would protect us.  Love is a particular target of patriarchal control because in its many forms it challenges and threatens patriarchal domination. Domination, embodied in the Critical Parent, is the antagonist of love; instead of direct, empathic, loving cooperation and negotiation the Critical Parent encourages power plays, lies and secrets

These are love’s enemies, the attitudes and behaviors which undermine and corrode our potential for affiliation, bonding, cooperation and love:

Domination/Submission (demanding that every relationship have a one-up and a one-down member)

Lying (in particular about how we feel and what we want)

Competition (especially when competing for another’s love.)

Physical and emotional violence (notably when it is used to coerce affection)

Love’s Friends

What can we do to rehabilitate our loving capacities?

In their extraordinary book A General Theory of Love, Drs. Lewis, Amini and Lannon postulate that loving behaviors are determined by powerful limbic attractors which operate out of our awareness. They strongly believe that these deeply ingrained tendencies can be modified in adulthood but only through many years of intense psychotherapy in which the patient learns new relational patterns modeled by the psychotherapist.

I am proposing a more expedient, practical and affordable approach. First we need to establish a fertile social environment in which love can spring forth, powered by the genetic limbic impulse.

I have selected four attitudes opposing love’s enemies:

Power Parity. (Giving up power by the powerful, empowering by the powerless.)

Honesty. (No lies of omission or commission)

Cooperation. (No power plays, asking for 100% of what we want and negotiating)

Gentleness. (Empathic response to other people’s needs).

These alone will enable us to create helpful and fertile settings for love to flourish, but for a far more proactive approach which will actually rehabilitate love, we need to add a more advanced technique. Over the last twenty years I have developed just such a method.

Stroke City

In the late 1960’s, myself and a handful of war resisters in the mental health professions, established a RAP Center at the Berkeley Free Clinic. RAP stood for “Radical Approach to Psychiatry” and was essentially a protest movement against the abuses of  psychiatry as practiced in those days.  We started a number of “contact” groups, in which participants were taught the principles of Transactional Analysis as it applied to cooperative relationships. The most popular contact group to evolve from this work was called “Stroke City.”

Three times a week, “Stroke City” gathered at the RAP Center. For two hours in the afternoon about twenty people found themselves in an emotional oasis in which they could give strokes, accept strokes, ask for strokes, and even give themselves strokes  in a safe, protected social environment.

The leader of the group scrutinized every transaction. It was his or her job to make sure that people gave each other clean, positive strokes, unclouded by hidden or overt criticism. When needed, the leader helped the participants to correct their transactions to make sure the strokes were heard and accepted when wanted. This proactive, transactional analytic monitoring was an important improvement over the usual “human potential” and group therapy techniques already in use at the time.

We soon observed an unexpected side effect. Participants would often look around after some time and declare that they “loved everyone in the room.” Many people left these meetings with a light step and a happy, loving glow on their faces experiencing a feeling that had been previously called “oceanic” by Freud.

At first I assumed that people were just cheered up by these activities in a manner similar to what happens at a ball game in which our side wins. But upon closer examination it became clear that these exercises had a profound effect on the participants’ loving emotions. They spoke of loving feelings, of having an open heart and of a transcendent experiences of affection and universal love. What had started as an exercise to practice how to be cooperative and positive towards others turned out to affect the participants’ loving capacities in a powerful and heart-expanding way. It was then that we began to see the connection between strokes and love; how learning how to exchange positive strokes might have an effect on people’s overall capacity to love.

During these “Stroke City” sessions, as we discovered the connection between strokes and love we also discovered the pervasive activity of the Critical Parent.

The Critical Parent is especially interested in preventing people from getting strokes. Bonding and affiliation invariably weaken the Critical Parent’s control over us. Even though people need positive strokes to thrive, in Stroke City when they tried to give, ask for, or accept strokes, they often experienced extreme, sometimes paralyzing anxiety, embarrassment and even self-loathing. Some people hear a voice saying, “You’re selfish. You don’t deserve strokes,” or “This is stupid, you’ll make a fool of your-self; shut up”; others just feel anxious or self-conscious every time they give or ask for a stroke. In the face of such Critical Parent opposition very few find it easy to exchange strokes.

Even though most people enjoyed “Stroke City” and wound up feeling good, there were always a few who felt badly, left out, afraid or hurt. It became clear that they had succumbed to the attacks of the Critical Parent. To protect the participants from anything that triggered or supported the Critical Parent’s activity, I decided to start each meeting with an agreement, called a “cooperative contract,” which promised that the participants and the leader would never engage in any attempts to manipulate or power play anyone in the group. It also specifically required that participants would never do anything they did not honestly want to do and promised that the leader would not permit any transactions that came from the Critical Parent.

These contracts, designed to facilitate emotional safety and protection from the Critical Parent, dramatically reduced the number of people who felt badly after these meetings. Consequently more participants were able to enjoy the love enhancing effects of the exercise.

I continue to apply the Stroke City exercise, now called “Opening the Heart,” in the Emotional Literacy Training program outlined in my book Achieving Emotional Literacy. [14]

Love in the Streets

However in the real world, without the protection of a moderator and cooperative contract to fosters honesty, power parity and gentleness it may seem that opening the heart is an exercise in futility, bound to fail.

In fact, even though opening one’s heart in the real, concrete-jungle world is a most complex and perilous endeavor we can change our lives if we begin to give compliments unashamedly, ask for strokes, accept affection, gently decline unwanted attention and praise ourselves. We can introduce these new heart liberating behaviors in our everyday lives, on the street, at work and at home we can do this with each other and our adolescents, clients, friends and family.

At a time in which love is in need of love, is it a conceit to think that  a great deal can be done to improve our loving skills? We have to try, and I have offered you some time tested tools to that end. And, may I say, that if we devote ourselves to this task we have a formidable ally, human nature, our powerful instinct for affiliation, which given the opportunity to flourish, will thrive.

In closing, love, the innate genetic drive, is blocked by outmoded, aggressive, hierarchical baggage (also of genetic origins) and the resulting harmful cultural habits of  domination, lying, violence. Love can be freed to grow by beneficial habits; cooperation, honesty and gentleness We need only clear the way for love to grow. And then, practice, practice, practice.

I invite you at this conference to give strokes, ask for strokes, accept strokes you want and gently turn away strokes you don’t want and always be good to yourselves. Lets make the next two days warm and fuzzy for ourselves and each other and then let us then pass that feeling and what we learned on to the adolescents in our lives. Thank you, you have been a great audience!


[1]    Ackerman, Diane. A Natural History of Love. Vintage, New York 1994

[2]    Le Doux, Joseph. The Emotional Brain; The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life.

[3]    Goleman, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence. Bantam Books, New York 1996

[4]   Special Issue on Happiness, Excellence and Optimal Functioning, American Psychologist V:55 #1, January 2000

[5]   Ornish, Dean. Love and Survival  Harper Collins, New York 1998

[6]   Downloaded from   Frontline: “The Killer at Thurston High.”

[7]   Dawkins Richard. The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press 1989

[8]   Bloom, Harold. The Invention of the Human. Putnam, New York 1998

[9]   Berne, Eric. Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy. Grove Press New York 1961

[10] ———–. Games People Play. Grove Press, New York 1964

Lewis, Thomas; Amini, Fari and Lannon Richard. A General Theory of Love. Oxford University Press. New York 2000.

[11] Spitz, Renee. “Hospitalism,” The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child I, International Universities Press, New York, 1954

[12] Steiner, Claude. The Original Warm Fuzzy Tale. Jalmar Press, Torrance CA 1977

[13] ————– Scripts People Live. Grove Press, New York 1974

[14] ————– Achieving Emotional Literacy. Avon Books, New York 1997

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