What Does Your Favourite Food Say About You?

by Rawia Liverpool on July 23, 2018

Shortly before the commencement of module two, during my exciting journey of learning Transactional Analysis, our trainer, Rosemary Napper, asked us to go back in time to when we were six or seven years old and recall what was our favourite food. We were then to bring enough of this favourite food to the training session that weekend to allow each member of our group to taste a small portion. We were not to talk or discuss this amongst ourselves beforehand and wait till the designated day and time when we will share this food together in a planned exercise.

I was intrigued. In module two we were going to explore in more detail The Child Ego State. Shortly after reading Rosemary’s WhatsApp instructions I immediately rubberbanded to the age of six years old. I was living with my paternal grandmother, whom I called Teita, in Tripoli, Lebanon. Two memories came to mind connected with two of my favourite foods from that time.

My first memory was of Teita making us Riz Bil Haleeb (the Lebanese take on rice pudding). I remember that it took an awfully long time to make and involved endless standing by the stove and stirring the milk, rice and sugar mixture for hours on end. My two cousins, Teita and myself would take turns to stir the pot, each of us putting in their share of the work, while chatting about nothing and everything. This went on until the mixture thickened and Teita was satisfied that it was the right consistency. At this point Teita would take half of it and pour it equally into ready set dessert bowls, which will be cooled down first at room temperature then in the fridge. The other half she would then pour into a round metal tray and bake in the oven until golden brown. In the meantime we were allowed to scrape and eat bits of the delicious sticky pudding that clung to the pot after all these hours of stirring. It was heavenly delicious!

My second memory was of waking up early in the morning to a faint sweet smell that wafted into the bedroom from the kitchen. I would get out of bed and, like someone in a trance, would walk and follow the trail of smell into the kitchen where I would find Teita standing at the stove and dipping her right hand into a gooey batter that she had prepared the night before, and squeeze a ball of it through her fist, scooping the ball with a spoon with her left hand and lowering it into in a pan with hot oil where it would sizzle for few minutes. Once the ball turned golden brown Teita would scoop it up with a slotted spoon and dip it in sugar syrup before it was finally set on a serving plate. These were called Awamat, a word that literally means floats, since the balls were airy, light and crispy. They were to be eaten while still warm and tasted out of this world! This also took some time, during which I would watch Teita skilfully do her job while chatting to her amicably. Soon my cousins would wake up and we would all sit together and enjoy these sweet dumplings made with love.

Remembering those two favourite foods and playing those memories in my mind’s eye like a movie, brought on an unexpected flood of tears. It reminded me of what a loving, nurturing and giving woman my grandmother was and how much sharing and caring happened while we cooked and ate together. I wondered whether my love of sweet things, especially if they were home made, had anything to do with these childhood experiences.

The day came when we were finally allowed to reveal, talk about and share our favourite foods from the age of six or seven years old. Not so surprisingly we shared more than just food. We shared also sensitive memories with a huge emotional content that brought on floods of tears or roars of laughter. For some of us the food symbolised a statement about our individuality and personal freedom. For others it linked to family dynamics, conflict and even rebellion. For some it was about health and vitality, and for others about love and connection. The huge range of emotions that were connected to our favourite food amazed me.

Interestingly, later that evening, my daughter and I met and ate at a restaurant nearby and to my amazement I had no desire whatsoever to have a dessert. Surprising because I almost always want to have dessert. I usually skip the starter and sometimes half of my main meal in order to sample the dessert. Not wanting to have a sweet treat that evening was extremely unusual for me, and it made me think whether there was any connection to what we explored in that exercise about our favourite food earlier that afternoon.

For as long as I remember I had a sweet tooth. I love to discover and taste desserts or sweet treats from around the world, especially if they are home made. There is a feel good factor involved for me in this ritual. I only understood this feel good factor when I did the exercise with the group under the guidance of our group leader Rosemary. I understood that somehow on a deep emotional level my love for sweets was entangled with my feelings of being loved, cared for, nurtured and protected by my grandmother. A mouthful of homemade cake was a dose of Teita’s love. I also realised that in my life I was and still am demonstrating similar behaviour to Teita’s around cooking and sharing with my loved ones. My chocolate brownies have been baked and shared a hundred times and more, on many happy occasions and with many family members, friends and acquaintances. I am spreading the love.

What to eat or not to eat was never an issue for me until I reached menopause and discovered that the upheaval in my hormonal balance meant paying close attention to what I put into my body. This meant not being able to indulge in eating sweet things the way I used to. My head understood this but my soul struggled with it. After doing the exercise in module two, I had a deeper understanding of the reasons behind my struggle. This understanding helped me gain more control over the amount of sweet treats I consume. It was no longer a struggle but a conscious choice. I wonder how many people out there have such an emotional connection with food and what exploring that connection will mean to their lifestyle.

Therefore I invite you to do the same exercise. Take a moment and go back in time to when you were six or seven years old. What was your favourite food then? How did you eat it? When did you eat? Did you eat alone? Or did you eat it with others? What do you love about it? Do you still love it and eat it in the here and now? You don’t need to explore this alone. You can do it with friends and have them also bring a sample of their favourite food. Taste theirs and let them taste yours. Share the stories, memories and discoveries connected with your favourite food. Explore and have fun together. Who knows what you will discover and what changes this might bring into other aspects of your life.

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During my second module, studying Transactional Analysis at TA Works with Rosemary Napper, I learnt about Strokes. This newly acquired knowledge gave me so much insight into the way we conduct our relationships with others and with ourselves.

So what are ‘Strokes’ exactly?

 Eric Berne defined a stroke as a unit of human recognition. The word stroke came about after Rene Spitz observed through a study he conducted that infants reared with a lot of physical stimulation fared better than infants who were deprived of such stimulation. The word ‘stroke’ refers to an infant’s need for physical stimulation. As grown ups we still crave such physical stimulation but we learn to substitute other forms of recognition in place of the physical. Therefore, a stroke can be a smile or a frown, a nod, a look, a hand gesture, a spoken word, a compliment, or a touch. As humans, we desperately seek strokes from others. Berne called this need “Stroke Hunger.” Hence, we do what we do in life in order to be stroked and we learn about ourselves from the strokes that we get.

Types of Strokes

Strokes can be positive, experienced by the person receiving them as pleasant or pleasurable. Strokes can also be negative, experienced as being painful. A stroke can be verbal or non-verbal. A smile is a non-verbal stroke, but saying to someone, “Have a good day” is a verbal stroke.

Strokes can also be unconditional or conditional. Unconditional strokes are those directed at what you are, your being. Conditional strokes are those directed at what you do or accomplish. When you say, “I love you” to your son/daughter you provide him/her with an unconditional stroke. When your child wins a race at the school sports day and you shout,” Well Done!” you are providing him/her with a conditional stroke because you are referring to something they have done or accomplished.

Unconditional strokes are a very rich kind of strokes and children who grow up in an environment where they receive a lot of positive unconditional strokes really thrive. The same is also observed with adults who receive a lot of positive unconditional strokes. On the other hand, negative unconditional strokes are extremely harmful since they convey the message that the recipient is not OK. If a person is subjected repeatedly to such a pattern of strokes early in childhood, he/she can end up with a negative impression of self and can have low self-esteem and self worth.

Conditional positive strokes recognise something we do and can fulfil an important need. It is necessary for parents to give conditional strokes as it helps guide a child to what is acceptable or unacceptable behaviour. However, as the name suggests, they are given on condition. Therefore, if a person feels that in order to get the positive stroke he or she has to do certain things or behave in a certain way or the stroke is withdrawn, then the stroke can become limiting because the relationship becomes more about pleasing the other and, therefore, less spontaneous. For example, a child who only gets recognition for doing well at school might perceive that he/she are only loved by the parents when they do well at school and that the love might be withdrawn if they fail.

The above are all examples of external strokes, those we receive from others. In addition we can have internal strokes, those we experience within ourselves like fantasies, self-talk, self-praise or self-criticism and other forms of self-stimulation.

The ideal scenario is to always receive positive strokes. However in reality that is not the case, and so we are sometimes faced with the choice of receiving negative strokes or no strokes at all. Usually our hunger for strokes means that receiving negative strokes is better than no strokes at all. This links to why children who feel unheard or unseen by parents misbehave in order to get attention, even if it is negative, as any attention is better than no attention at all. It is good to mention here that stroking reinforces the behaviour which is stroked.

Rosemary has an interesting way of representing these different types of strokes by using playing cards.

We have:

-Positive Unconditional strokes for Being-The Hearts

 

 

-NegativeUnconditional strokes for Being- The Clubs

 

 

– Positive Conditional strokes for Doing- The Diamonds

 

 

-Negative Conditional strokes for Doing- The Spades

 

Listening to Rosemary explain all that about strokes, got me thinking about all the stages in my life and, hence, I started reflecting on the kind of strokes I received growing up. I also thought about the “here” and “now” and the kind of strokes I give and receive as a partner, a mother, a work colleague, and a friend. I also wondered about the kind of strokes other people close to me have enjoyed or endured in their lifetime, and what was the effect of that experience on their way of relating and communicating. Furthermore coming from and having been raised in different cultural backgrounds I also wondered on the influence of culture on strokes. I realised that, growing up, I received more strokes for doing than being and that hunger that I had for receiving strokes for being made me the kind of person who gives lots of strokes for being. It also had an influence on my good performance at school and being generally “a good girl” because it got me the recognition strokes I craved even though they were conditional rather than unconditional.

Take a moment and think about your childhood. What kind of strokes did you receive growing up? Was it for being, doing, both or none? Then come back to the present and reflect on the kinds of strokes that you give to and receive from those in your circle. What is also of interest here is what kind of strokes do you give yourself? See what you can learn and discover and perhaps even change.

The next thing we did in this module was the following exercise, which I also urge you to do, because it will reveal even more about your relationships. Rosemary asked each one of us to think about a particular person with whom we have regular contact, at work or a personal level, and reflect on the kind of strokes that we give to this person. We were asked to represent this by holding a deck of cards of various suits that best reflected those kinds of strokes in our left hand. Next we were asked to reflect on the kind of strokes that we in turn perceived to receive from that person and again represent this by holding a deck of cards with the various suits that best reflected those strokes in our right hand. Then we took a look at the deck of cards we held in each hand and made comparisons. We discussed our findings in groups of two. So go ahead and think of a person in your life and repeat this exercise. Now take a look at the cards you are holding in each hand and compare them. What do you learn about the way you relate to that person?

We can’t talk about strokes without mentioning the work done by Claude Steiner in this area. Steiner suggests that while we are growing up, our stroking habits are greatly influenced by our parents who pass on the following unwritten rules about the exchange of strokes:

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

Steiner refers to these rules as The Stroke Economy. I mentioned the influence of culture earlier on and here my attention is drawn to the last point “Don’t give yourself strokes.”, because I notice that some cultures particularly encourage it and other cultures frown upon it and discourage it.

Gaining knowledge and becoming aware of our habitual patterns of exchanging strokes can be greatly beneficial. For example, developing awareness of why you might find it easy to give strokes for doing but struggle to give strokes for being, or why someone might have a tendency to accept or tolerate negative strokes or why some find it difficult to ask for the strokes they need, can be enlightening. Making sense of all this can be freeing and can enhance the quality of our relationships with others and with the self.

I will end with what Steiner writes in his book, Emotional Literacy:

“One of the most important discoveries I made in 20 years I have been teaching emotional literacy is that by systematically breaking the rules of the Stroke Economy and providing people with a steady diet of positive strokes, people’s hearts will automatically open. They will experience loving feelings they have not before experienced and the effect will spread out from them to their families and friends. I have seen many people (myself among them) develop their loving capacities over time, simply by giving strokes, asking for strokes, accepting the strokes they want, rejecting the ones they don’t want, and giving themselves strokes.”

So take some time to figure out your stroking profile. Use the game cards to help you discover what you can keep or change in order to communicate and relate more effectively with yourself and others.

 

 

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