If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we feel well when others notice or appreciate us. And vice versa, we feel uncomfortable when, for example, a friendly “Hello” on our part remains unanswered by the other person or is not reciprocated.
This goes back to a primal human need for care. As newborns, we need physical caresses; as we grow older, we learn to cope with non-physical care as a substitute. This non-physical care can be both positive and negative.
This can be most easily observed with children: if they don't get enough attention, they first try to attract positive attention from adults by doing things for which they expect some form of reward. When these actions don't lead to the attention they long for, they rely on actions that are unlikely to please adults. For example, they become disobedient, loud or destroy things. This is when they finally can rest assured that there is some form of reaction from adults, usually in the form of a scolding. They have thus achieved their goal of being noticed, because, from a psychological point of view, negative attention is better than no attention at all.
According to psychiatrist Eric Berne, fulfilling the need for recognition, attention, or simply being noticed is essential for each of us to survive – at least from a psychological perspective. If this is the case, we should assume that each and every one of us will do everything to receive the level of recognition that is necessary for him or her personally.
Unfortunately, our upbringing and societal norms get in the way. Psychotherapist Claude M. Steiner coined the term "Stroke Economy". He describes that we unconsciously follow five rules that are very unfavorable for our individual Stroke Economy:
- Don't give strokes even if you want to.
- Don't ask for strokes when you need them.
- Don't accept strokes even when you want them.
- Don't reject strokes even when you do not want them.
- Don't give yourself strokes.
Instead of following the above unconscious rules, which are unfavorable to our mental health, we should rather take the freedom to deal with recognition in a way that is good for us. This means the following:
- Give strokes that you want to give.
- Ask for strokes you want or need.
- Accept strokes, especially praise, when you are happy about it.
- Don’t accept strokes or feedback when you do not want it.
- Stroke yourself, because self-praise doesn’t stink, it’s sincere!
Of course, the fourth aspect does not mean that we should not deal with negative feedback or criticism, because then we would not be able to improve. However, there is a big difference between conditional and unconditional feedback.
- Conditional feedback, i.e. related to a context or a specific situation - whether positive or negative - helps us to assess ourselves and improve if necessary. For example: “In your last presentation, I particularly liked the fact that you gave many practical examples.” Or: “In your last weekly report, you used a lot of foreign terms. I'm afraid that our readership will not be able to understand all the points.”
- Positive unconditional feedback is usually quite nurturing. For example: “I'm glad you are with me.” Negative unconditional feedback, on the other hand, is destructive or even toxic, for example: “You are a hopeless case.” As a responsible person, of course, you should never give such unconditional negative feedback. However, in case that toxic feedback is given to you, then the fourth aspect comes into play: You may refuse to accept feedback if you do not want it or if you feel it is not good for you. This form of 'not wanting it' can also occur with positive unconditional feedback. Think of a situation where one person gives unconditional positive strokes to another person and at the same time the trust relationship between the two people is disturbed.
Each of us has their own "stroke history" which began in childhood. This history influences the way we respond to strokes given by others today, or in what form and how often we give strokes to others. This fact often makes our interactions with each other seem very complicated. We notice this in both professional and private contexts.
Our "stroke histories" are characterized as follows:
- If we have received a lot of conditional positive as well as negative strokes, most likely a solid self-confidence has developed and we are able to make a valid comparison of our external image and our own image. If we are used to such conditional strokes, we can normally accept it well today and process it in a way that is valuable for us.
- If we have received a lot of unconditional positive attention, we are very likely to have good self-esteem and know what we are worth as a human being regardless of any dedicated effort or performance.
- If, on the other hand, we have received a lot of destructive unconditional negative feedback, then this is very likely to lead to low self-esteem, which is compensated for by a behavior that is strongly performance-driven, or by other drivers.
In a nutshell: When working with colleagues or living together with partners, we should always keep in mind that each person needs a different amount of care and attention due to his or her personal "stroke history" and that each person handles it differently, both when receiving and when giving strokes. In addition, with this text I would like to encourage you to take good care of your own personal stroke economy, because it is okay to ask for strokes when we need it.
This text first appeared in my newsletter 'Innovation on Wednesday'. It is published every other Wednesday. For subscription click here