Tickling requires empathy. It’s a psychological game (in a positive sense). One can’t tickle oneself; tickling requires a partner and, like most human interactions, when done the “right” way it’s a give-and-take.
Tickling is fun! It’s enjoyable. And some people suck at it–or refuse to do it (or do it right) at all. Like many enjoyable experiences, the main point of tickling is to induce laughter–and to have fun while giving or receiving the tickling.
Tickling doesn’t take much effort, and it can build trust and intimacy between people. It tends to be an interaction between children, or between adults and children. Adults who tickle each other tend to be friends, romantic partners, or potential romantic partners.
“Flintstone! Get in here on the double and tickle me!”
“Yes, Mr. Slate!”
Tickling can be a healthy or unhealthy interaction, depending partly on the psychological condition of the person doing the tickling. It can be done the right way or the wrong way. People can mess it up or even accidentally hurt whomever they’re tickling. It can even be used to abuse another person.
Tickling, then, can be a sort of barometer for a person’s psychological health.
I’ve experienced several kinds of tickling or ticklers. Interestingly, only one of them is what I consider to be psychologically healthy.
1. The excellent tickler. This person enjoys tickling and being tickled. He or she knows how to tickle–where to focus one’s efforts; how to find the best “tickle spots”; which techniques to use; and when to stop. This tickler was tickled as a child in a healthy manner…or wasn’t, but has recovered the natural childlike ability and desire to engage in tickling. The excellent tickler understands the psychological dimension of tickling, including the fact that physical contact isn’t always necessary to induce laughter while tickling.
2. The doofus. This person wants to be a good tickler, and even tries his or her hand at it (quite literally)…but sucks at it. The “doofus tickler” botches it somehow, messes it up, or accidentally causes pain while “tickling”. The doofus doesn’t understand the psychology behind tickling, but still is willing to give it a shot…but his or her tickling isn’t really fun for the other person.
3. The faker. This person also doesn’t understand the psychology of tickling, but also doesn’t really want to do it. Tickling isn’t enjoyable to the faker, but, for the sake of the relationship, he or she pretends that it is. Fake tickling isn’t really fun or enjoyable, though.
4. The sexual tickler. With sexual or romantic partners, tickling can lead to sex or be an early part of foreplay. It can help one or both partners “get in the mood”–precisely because healthy tickling fosters trust and intimacy between people. For the sexual tickler, though, tickling is intended to lead to sexual interaction. Whether the other person knows it or not, tickling for this person is a calculated way to create physical closeness and induce trust and intimacy (falsely, as it were) in the other person so that the tickler can use it to make a sexual advance.
5. The torturer. This is a sadistic tickler. Rather than tickling to have fun, laugh, and strengthen trust and intimacy, the torturer uses it to dominate and inflict pain on the other person. The torturer enjoys not the tickling itself, but the suffering that sadistic tickling causes. With this person, tickling might appear to begin quite “normally” (to the unfortunate target), but it quickly descends into sadism: holding the target down, tickling “too hard” and digging into soft areas; ignoring the target’s pleas to stop; and even “tickling” until the victim cries or soils his or her pants. (The latter seems to be a goal of some sadistic ticklers.) The torturer was likely “torture-tickled” as a child and now “tickles” sadistically in the same way that other abused people become abusers. Sadistic tickling is abusive. It is a violation of another person–indeed, it is torture.
6. The non-tickler. This person doesn’t enjoy or like tickling or being tickled–and may even say that he or she “hates” being tickled. The non-tickler was likely tickled by a sadistic tickler as a child, probably more than once. Having lost much (or all) of the joy in the laughter and bonding that tickling fosters, the non-tickler associates “fun” with pain…and probably enjoys other pleasant activities less, too. This person was a target of abuse–torture, no less–in the name of “fun” and as a result has experienced emotional trauma from tickling.
Psychology of Tickling
Many children and adults love to be tickled, but only to a certain point. Beyond that certain point, tickling stops being enjoyable and becomes (psychologically, if not physically) painful. Why is this?
The physical-and-psychological “game” of tickling involves consenting to a certain degree of vulnerability to another person. One (theoretically) willingly allows the intrusion of someone else’s body into sensitive and soft parts of one’s own: mainly the belly, sides, armpits, and neck. Indeed, the armpit is the quintessential “tickling area” in our culture.
These areas are not “public-access” body parts, like the hands, forearms, upper back, or shoulder areas are for some people. “Tickling areas” are semi-private parts of the body, normally reserved for close associates and trusted intimate partners. One does not publicly touch a stranger’s belly, sides, armpits, or neck (or, for that matter, touch these parts of anyone but the closest intimates without permission).
Moreover, these areas are vulnerable to harm. The soft tissues of the “tickling regions” are among the easiest body parts to damage through assault. They are the parts (along with the face and genitals) that we protect when we assume the fetal position or roll up into a ball to avoid physical trauma.
These are also semi-sexual areas. A spouse or romantic partner might affectionately touch his or her mate on the neck, side, or belly. Touching these parts of a child’s body is normally, “properly” reserved for close family members, same-age playmates, and medical professionals. It can be alarming to a parent when a stranger touches one’s child in these areas–even (or perhaps especially) to tickle the child.
[IMPORTANT NOTE: Tickling a child without the prerequisite relationship might be a way for a pedophile (in this case, a pathological variety of the “sexual tickler”) to get close and gain access to a child. The excuse to a suspicious parent of “Aw, I’m only tickling her! See? She likes it!” can be the doorway that grants a pedophile access (if the excuse is accepted) or denies it (if rejected).]
When we consent to being tickled, we are handing over a degree of power to another person–for a specific purpose (mutual enjoyment) and period of time (until either one of us says we’re done). If that power is abused, particularly if we are helpless to avoid or overcome that abuse, we suffer emotional trauma. “Too much tickling” can be a personal violation.
On the other hand, observing the “rules” of tickling teaches us some valuable lessons. The main “rules” of tickling might be as follows:
1) Don’t tickle too hard.
2) Stop when the tickled person says to.
3) Don’t tickle inappropriate areas of the body.
4) Be nice.
Following these “rules” teaches us about trust, vulnerability, respect, personal boundaries, consent, and cooperation. Tickling is itself practice in these domains of personal interaction.
Healthy and Unhealthy Tickling
A psychologically healthy person is likely to be an excellent tickler. He or she can tickle (with respect) and be tickled (with vulnerability). In my opinion, it is developmentally important that a child NOT be abused by tickling. Such abuse can affect the child’s ability to trust others, be vulnerable, and even to enforce his or her own personal boundaries against violation.
By the same token, someone who abuses the “tickling game” is showing a lack of respect, disregard for consent, and willingness to take advantage of someone else’s vulnerability.
Observing how someone tickles can reveal much about that tickler’s psychological health. So can observing how willing they are to be tickled. If the person tickles like a “doofus” or fakes it, he or she has likely been “torture-tickled” before. If someone effectively uses tickling to abuse others, that person likely has other issues that cause harm.
Of the six “tickler types” listed above, a Narcissist is likely to fall in types #2-6. Unable to understand the psychology of tickling, he or she will tend to either suck at it, fake it, use it as a sexual advance, use it to dominate others,, or avoid it altogether.
Non-Narcissists might also fall into these categories, but a Narcissist will not be an excellent tickler–because the “game” of tickling requires empathy in order to do it well. Empathy is one psychological game that the Narcissist is not able to play.