“The Porcupine Dilemma” is an analogy that traces back to the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer in the 1800s.
It describes the dilemma we humans face around the “dangers” of getting too close to one another, implying that if we seek out intimate connection with others, we get pricked and feel pain, so instead of feeling or inflicting pain, we retreat.
However, since it is our primal, human nature to need and seek connection, we do it anyway despite the inherent risk and end up living in a recurring state of connecting and retreating.
We are, all of us, porcupines to some degree or another. Our quills disguised as humor, excess weight, overworking, shyness, over involved parenting and all sorts of numbing, distracting and self-sabotaging habits we live with for the sake of “self-preservation.” We even tend to choose partners with similar amounts of quills so we can all stay put in our quill-filled zone of safety and familiarity.
But it’s a classic double bind: damned if we do, damned if we don’t—and the inherent problem is, we will. We need connection and seek out love; it’s part of our biochemistry to do so. We are hard-wired for it and even the quilliest among us will apprehensively inch out eventually and risk a bit of pricking.
So it would make sense to learn how to get pricked with grace, levity and compassion. It would make sense to learn how to rethink the pricking and give it a positive spin of value and character strengthening. The pricking is really as important and necessary to our well being as its nurturing flip side. The Yin and Yang involved here is a profound and critical lesson to grasp and learn to manage gracefully. If we don’t, fear wins and that is not a way to live our lives.
Generally, our two biggest fears related to intimacy and closeness are: the fear of abandonment and/or the fear of entrapment or enmeshment (a loss of freedom).
And here’s the most fascinating part: we will usually partner up with someone whose primary fear in this regard is opposite ours.
Upon first thought, that makes no sense, but here’s why: when we live unconsciously and struggle with self-worth, we become addicted to feeding our fears and self-limiting beliefs. We can only receive what we will “allow” at our base level. Since fear tends to run the show, that is our base level. Therefore, a “law of attraction” principle takes over and we will manifest what we fear and believe.
If we feel unworthy (usually subconsciously) of someone’s genuine desire to be with us, we will attract in a partner that will be more inclined to “abandon” us. Alternatively, and/or additionally, we will subconsciously feel the need to feed our fears around entrapment and will choose someone that “clings and pulls” on us therefore creating the classic “push-pull” dynamic.
I have personally seen this dynamic play out in my own life time and time again and now recognize it to be the number one reason for my relationship failures.
Wow, just friggin’ wow, this shit is so cool.
It’s interesting how the words intimacy and intimidate are so close in form since most of us are quite intimidated by truly authentic, deep intimacy. Our current culture has only exacerbated this problem. We are “connecting” all day long through technology, but that’s not real connection, there is no real intimacy on social media, no warm embrace in a text message and no shoulder to lean on in an email. We’re not truly being seen or heard and yet we’ve strangely come to accept this as connection. There is a “safety” in it that people respond to, but we starve for the real thing and sadly we are losing our skills for attaining it.
We also enter into relationship with our own (typically limited) comfort level around vulnerability, we toss that in with our subjective view of what intimacy means (how we will publicly define what it means is usually far removed from how we are actually living it), and voilà: a tenuous concoction of confusion.
Something deeper and meatier is usually not even part of our thought process; we’ve given up on the possibility of something more profound and substantial with our partners. We are either terrified to heighten the experience by truly opening ourselves up or we simply don’t yearn for it; it’s not even on our radar.
Instead, we’ve settled for intimacy of the Kraft Mac and Cheese variety. An artificial, plastic tasting, temporarily gets the job done, type of “comfort food connection.” We live together (or not), get our work done, talk about our day a bit, have sometimes good, sometimes not so good sex, eat meals together, visit with friends or family and then do it all over again week after week never seeking to push ourselves or our partnerships beyond the routines we’ve settled into.
Part of the fear is that if we allow ourselves to feel as much as we humans are truly capable of feeling, without a shut off valve ready nearby, well, holy shit, we might just drown in the potential flood we sense (underneath our quills), we are capable of unleashing.
By letting fear control the shut off valve, we can keep the wolves at bay and the demons quieted down; after all, we can’t wrestle with what we don’t acknowledge. So, we have comfort zone sex, comfort zone meals, comfort zone TV time, comfort zone vacations and comfort zone conversation. We are actually drowning, just quietly, little by little over time, suppressing our truth, denying our potential and capacity and settling for far less than we deserve.
This is not intimacy; this is a typical marriage.
If we choose to deepen the intimacy level in our lives then we first need to face and acknowledge these fears we hold. By acknowledging their existence and then taking a good hard look at how they’ve been playing out in our lives both past and present (concrete evidence here will reinforce and strengthen our awareness), we can begin to lessen the hold they have over us.
We can’t go deeply with another without this examination, without entering our cracks and caves and exploring where our intimacy fears come from. True, deep intimacy can only come from exposure, awareness, courage, vulnerability, raw truth and authenticity. We are all “broken” in some way and our cracks require our attention as if they are young children in need of TLC.
This work is powerful and incredibly liberating towards healing our divine selves.
As usual, our capacity for self-love is the critical component here.
Radical self-love and the courage to be seen…
Self-love begets compassion, empathy and understanding. When we love and accept ourselves for exactly who we are right now, we are automatically in a better position to act from love rather than fear. We can ask for what we need more easily, speak our truth and offer compassion, empathy and understanding to our partner.
When we learn to accept ourselves in a kind and loving way we inevitably feel more courageous to make choices that support our healthy sense of self worth. When we treat ourselves well, by extension, others will treat us well. There is an organic reciprocity here, an infectious, exponential, win-win dynamic.
We need to figure out how to lick our “cracks” all over like a happy dog with a loving tongue (a girl can dream) and when we feel the itchy, gnawing, stabbing sensations of fear, we must take a deep breath, question the rationale of the fear, swallow the lump in our throats and Jump! Our Warrior and Goddess selves will assist us (if we let them) to lift and carry us through to the other side of the murk. We are all so much stronger than we realize.
If we don’t practice this, if we don’t at least try, we will be regularly accumulating missed opportunities to feel deep joy, freedom, truth and love. Grace will pass us by, unnoticed.
This work will take careful attention to our internal states and lots of practice until it’s second nature. It’s really no different than any other new skill we wish to master. Most of us didn’t learn this stuff growing up, we have no fall back blueprint etched into our psychic memories to lead the way, but we do have our own internal compass that knows truth from untruth and fear from love; we just need to follow it more often despite the feelings of fear that surface.
Once we have made progress within ourselves around these challenges we can expect our abilities around intimacy to greatly expand and our desire for something deeper to be present. We will be creating a “new normal” for ourselves with much higher standards.
Intimacy reaches into all corners of our life. It is often in the little things and moments that we never think much of when they’re happening. By raising our awareness we will experience much greater appreciation for these (smaller) moments.
There is real intimacy in sharing ourselves and confiding, but it is about much more than simply revealing ourselves. The bonds of intimacy are formed when we know with absolute certainty that what we think and feel is being heard and understood.
We often tend to be passive listeners, picking up only those messages that have a direct bearing on ourselves, rather than listening for how things truly are for another. Our self-interest and self-protective mechanisms encourage us to fill in the blanks and make assumptions; I despise assumptions.
If we listen instead with empathy, with our undivided attention, with focus on the emotions being shared, the facial expressions, the body language, etc., then we can truly hear the heart and soul of another and offer our deepest level of connection.
Deep intimacy comes from sharing, receiving and giving in the most complete, genuine way possible.
When our self worth cup feels full, we are in a much better position to engage from a place of love and generosity.
As you might imagine, the mating ritual of porcupines is quite an elaborate one. They had to adapt in order to survive; they had to figure out how to get close to one another without their quills getting in the way of their mission.
As humans, we get to determine for ourselves what “survival” looks and feels like, we get to choose the level of intimacy we desire. I’d like to take a lesson here from the porcupines and trust that the greatest level of success and reward will come from learning how to get our quills out of the way.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Apprentice Editor: Yaisa Nio / Editor: Travis May