The Porcupine Dilemma: A Fear of Intimacy
Once upon a time there was a German philosopher named Arthur Schopenhauer. He noticed a sad dynamic that often develops as humans endeavor to be close to one another and sought to describe it with the following parable:
“A number of porcupines huddled together for warmth on a cold day in winter; but, as they began to prick one another with their quills, they were obliged to disperse. However the cold drove them together again, when just the same thing happened. At last, after many turns of huddling and dispersing, they discovered that they would be best off by remaining at a little distance from one another. In the same way the need of society drives the human porcupines together, only to be mutually repelled by the many prickly and disagreeable qualities of their nature.” – Arthur Schopenhauer‘s Parerga und Paralipomena
This porcupine parable seeks to illuminate the challenge so many people experience in seeking out and building intimacy with others. Just like the porcupines, most people desire closeness, to share and enjoy in mutual warmth, but their own characteristics can cause harm and force a distance between them. Many of us are afraid of being hurt by an intimate partner’s “prickly and disagreeable qualities” or fear hurting them with our own. Perhaps we even begin to believe those prickly quills define us and prove we are not worthy of love. This fear leads us to build walls, keep our distance and even give up on the hope of ever having mutually beneficial intimate relationships. Without intimacy though, any of us can feel sad, lonely, even incomplete. Tragically, many people find the potential pain that lives in uncharted intimate territory more frightening than the dull ache of feeling isolated.
Even one of my favorite Japanese anime series, Neon Genesis Evangelion has an episode titled “Hedgehog’s Dilemma” and has this to say on the matter: “The nearer we get, the deeper we hurt each other.”
I would argue that this is a solemn oversimplification. While it is inevitable that we humans will hurt each other, somehow, at some point, the more intimate and vulnerable we become, that hurt does not have to be profound. There are ways we can protect each other from our “quills” so that the harm done is minimal and mendable.
I am not trying to minimize or dismiss the very real pain an individual feels if they are rejected, judged, abandoned, controlled, etc. However, there are lessons all of us can learn about how to fear intimacy less and embrace it more, lest we become what Schopenhauer described as “a man who has some heat in himself [who] prefers to remain outside, where he will neither prick other people nor get pricked himself.”
The only guaranteed way to truly protect yourself from never feeling uncomfortable or hurt in the context of an intimate relationship is to never get close enough to anyone to have an intimate relationship. None of us are perfect and even the most loving, supportive, considerate partners will make mistakes and hurt feelings now and again. This isn’t a bug so much as a feature of relationships. Pain-free perfection can act like a vacuum, inside of which we are stifled – we never learn and we never grow.
The bottom line is, we must risk getting pricked in order to be intimate, but I promise you it is worth the risk. Still not convinced? Then let this previous post of mine try to persuade you why intimacy matters.
If you know yourself to be afraid of intimacy give some thought as to what the true root of your fear is. Often times at its core it is not actually intimacy you fear, but rather rejection or engulfment.
We have a tendency to create anxiety-producing, “what-if” scenarios in our head and then treat them as fact instead of fantasy. These scenarios stop us dead in our tracks before we can even begin to get close to someone. What if we let someone close and they reject us? What if we make ourselves vulnerable and we are deemed unlovable or shameful? What if our deepest insecurities are proven to be truth? Or what if we are coerced, manipulated, totally engulfed and lose ourselves in the process of being intimate with another?
These fears are not total delusions, but they are not inevitable either, and they definitely are not acceptable excuses for consigning ourselves to a lifetime of loneliness. It is totally possible to keep your autonomy intact while having healthy intimacy with others. It is also possible to survive rejection and actually come out the other side better off. It is harmony between our own autonomy and intimacy with others that we all should strive to achieve. Although that balancing act is going to look different for each porcupine or person.
But trust your gut! There are times when it is possible your fear of intimacy is not generalized, but a fear of being intimate with a particular person. Use your best judgement and trust your intuition, especially if the fear of intimacy you experience with a person is triggered by red flags, controlling behaviors, or other forms of abuse. Sometimes there really is a reason to be afraid of intimacy. Too often people (but especially women) are discouraged from trusting their intuition when they don’t feel safe with someone, because it is seen as rude, or might embarrass the other person, or we’ve been trained to label our own feelings as irrational nuisances rather than the important insights they are. The porcupine dilemma is about being afraid to be intimate with people you do feel safe with, trust and want to be close to, not forcing yourself to ignore your own legitimate doubts. You don’t have to be intimate with anyone you don’t feel physically/emotionally safe with or don’t trust. Period. End of discussion.
When it comes to intimacy some of us have a tendency to fixate on the potential pain and forget about all the potential pleasure. There are ways to inoculate yourself though, strengthen yourself so you’ll be able to process the pain and recover when it happens. One of the best things you can do to make yourself better equipped to embrace intimacy is to cultivate a love of yourself. If you love yourself then you won’t be driven by a need for others to love you. You won’t compromise on your core convictions or settle for relationships that are detrimental to your health and happiness. You are more likely to exude a confidence that will attract companions who like you for who you genuinely are – people who respect you for the same reasons you respect yourself. Then it becomes more or less irrelevant and secondary whether or not certain people like you – because you like you! This doesn’t protect you from pain entirely, but it will make you resilient. It will bestow you with the ability to comfort and console yourself – to know that whatever comes your way, you will be okay.
And how do you go about learning to love yourself? As I said in a previous post, “Building intimacy with yourself […] can be achieved through cultivating a healthy curiosity about yourself, courting yourself as you would a new lover, getting to know yourself and experiencing the person you are rather than the person you wish you were. If you can learn to appreciate the person you are then you will always find yourself in satisfying company.”
This of course assumes that you are loving yourself in a secure, confident way, not a narcissistic, self-centered one. I’m talking about building security in yourself, understanding your own values and knowing when and when not to compromise with others. This does not mean behaving like an unapologetic, stubborn jerk who only cares about himself. Honest self-reflection and an ability to hear feedback from others are essential skills and no one achieves healthy intimacy without compassion and compromise. Love is dynamic and requires dedication from everyone involved.
Another thing that could help alleviate our porcupine-ness is taking romantic love and partnership off of the pedestal society has placed it on. Contrary to popular belief, eros is not the epitome of love. There are many different types of love and they can all be nourishing. Your family, friends and other platonic connections are just as important and can be just as much a source of satisfying intimacy as romantics ones. Attempting to get all your needs for intimacy met by one person is wildly unrealistic and is a setup for frustration and disappointment. Different people and different types of relationships feed different parts of ourselves, thus variety helps us to be balanced and satisfied.
Intimacy is frightening for all the same reasons it is fulfilling. It makes you vulnerable. It reveals your authentic self. It requires you to communicate what you need. It allows you to be seen and accepted as you are. Its provides you with companionship through the pain and messiness of life. You get to build trust and mend it when it is damaged. All of these are monumentally important lessons to learn and experiences to have. They open us up to getting pricked, but ultimately they bring warmth and joy into our lives.
Join me next time as I write about self-love and how to cultivate it.
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