Narcissism and The Taboo on Tenderness.

Our culture suffers from what analyst Ian Suttie calls, ‘the taboo on tenderness.’ Not only are we discouraged from having a feeling relationship with our own ‘stuff’, we also tend to respond dismissively and defensively to others by thought, word or deed. Unspoken values inhibit the communication of intimacy and fellow-feeling.

Much of the over-emphasis on feeling and sympathy in the new age seems compensatory, as if it were being layered on, and can wind up looking like a parody of the natural, unselfconscious instinct to reach out to others.

the taboo remains in place.

It is also given virtuous clothes to wear. We call it ‘being strong’.We pride ourselves on our stoicism, the puritan spirit of reserve that  permeates our notions of what it means to be ‘civilised’. We become cynical and call it being ‘street wise’.

Such expressions of the taboo are cumulative from one generation to the next. The unmothered child cannot give what it has not been given.

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
  They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
  And add some extra, just for you.      Phillip Larkin.

In other words the taboo entrenches itself with time. Eckart Tolle agrees, social dysfunction, ‘is actually intensifying and accelerating.’

Most of the time we don’t notice this. We don’t want to. We prefer the prejudicial fabrication of how evolved and free we are. It’s a myth we need to believe in order to compensate for the inner poverty that is the underlying reality of our situation.

We think about freedom as ‘freedom from’, and congratulate ourselves on the long list that this generates, forgetting that freedom is actually about what you are free for.

Freedom is not something that can be given to you. Its what you do with whatever your portion of life constitutes.

But we don’t like that. It deprives us of the prejudicial surety that we are already ‘free’. It thrusts up at us the responsibility to be congruent with that inner knowing voice , to be what we really are, to recognise the taboo on tenderness for what it is,

life denying, soul crushing, unfreedom.

Prejudice is not just about irrational hate. It’s about the need to bolster and strengthen internal structures that have become fragile and fragmentary with the slow demise of the Principle of Relatedness that once held I and me together when we had a place in our pantheon for the divine feminine.

Prejudice is about the need to align oneself with ‘self-evident’ and therefor unquestionable truth, so that we needn’t face uncertainty, or experience the need for tenderness that might shepherd us through the unknown.

Unfortunately, deciding ahead of time how life is in order not to experience the vulnerability and groping in the dark entailed in the genuine process of self-discovery, robs us of the very freedom our certainty pretends to be.

There is a story of an Englishman who was in Tokyo on business. He asks a policeman for directions. The policeman replies in broken English that he doesn’t understand. The man replies,’ if you listen carefully you’ll hear that I’m speaking Japanese.’ The policeman says, ‘ah yes, so you are’, and promptly tells him how to get to his destination.

The taboo on tenderness, sympathetic availability, generates not only prejudice but a catastrophic failure to experience reality.

This has an unexpected impact on emotional and psychological development. Its not just a question of being out of touch with reality. Suttie makes the crucial and perceptive observation that the taboo prevents regression associated with the all important transitions we make from one stage of life to another.

These threshold moments are full of anxiety and necessarily involve a tentative three steps forward, two steps back ambivalence shot through with the need to regress and be looked after.

If there is a taboo on tenderness then the developmental need to seesaw back and forth between the instinct for self-preservation and the urge to individuate will be frustrated. The threshold will not be crossed because the environment simply isn’t sufficiently containing which then ‘acts as a positive obstacle to development and integration’.

As a culture we rarely allow the tender generosity of regressing in the face of life’s challenges that, paradoxically, permit us to cross safely from one shore of our being to another. This keeps us stuck.

We then need to compensate for this with the belief that we are special, sophisticated and frankly better than other people. The taboo on tenderness breeds narcissism.

Far from the fantasy of prejudice that evolution is simply a self rolling wheel with yours truly proudly at the helm, what we have is emotional starvation and inner poverty.

Eckart Tolle states it in even more radical terms,

”If humanity were the clinical case history of a single human being the diagnosis would have to be ‘chronic paranoid delusion with a pathological propensity to violence and cruelty’ ” Eckhart Tolle

Much of this is down to the frustration of not being able to cross life’s thresholds, made possible by tender response to the real need for containment and leaning on one another inherent in the grief of death, the anxiety of birth, the trepidation of the unknown. All of these require a gentle hand and a sympathetic heart if we are to go through the life experiences that accost our self-constructs and shake the struts of our inner world.

Without the divine feminine who presides over the instinct to reach out to one another, we grow in anxious fits and starts, stymied in our efforts to cross the rougher seas of the soul.




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Psychotherapist/writer/artist/ author of, 'Going Mad to Stay Sane', a psychology of self-destructiveness, about to come into its third edition. Soon to be printed for the first time, 'Abundant Delicious.. the Secret and the Mystery', described by activist Satish Kumar as, ' A Tao of the Soul'. This book documents the archetypal country through which the process of individuation occurs and looks at the trials and tribulations we might expect on the way. In the meantime..... Narcissisim is the issue of our age. This blog looks at how it operates, how it can damage and how we may still fruit despite it.

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