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The Porcupine Effect: Pushing Others Away When You Want to Connect

by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.

The Parable of the Porcupines

“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... By this arrangement the mutual need...is only very moderately satisfied; but then people do not get pricked (Schopenhauer, 1851, Chapter 9).”

The Making of a Porcupine


“No, its 'pe-qul-yer'.”

“Pe-cool-ler.” Staring at the word on the page and acutely aware of all the eyes staring at me, I could feel the heat rise in my cheeks. I didn't want to blush. Now they'll know I'm embarrassed. Why do I blush so easily? I wanted to hide but I felt that the blushing was like a giant red neon sign. “Look at her. Look at her. Look at her.”

“No, pe-qul-yer.” I knew my teacher was only trying to help me. She corrected me in a kind way but I felt the humiliation of making a mistake and I just couldn't reconcile what I saw on the page with what she said. Peculiar. It looks like “ler.”

Again I sounded it out, “pe-cool-ler.”

“No, listen to me.” Listen to her. Don't look at the page. “Pe-qul-yer.”

Oh! “Pe-qul-yer.” Finally! Seemed like ten minutes but was mere seconds. I couldn't even glance around sure that I'd see my classmates staring and laughing. They couldn't be just looking at their books, daydreaming, and waiting to be called upon.

That single event caused me to be anxious whenever I anticipated being called upon to read in class. Of course, I already had a perfectionistic style so it served to impress upon me further how horrifying to make such a public mistake. I became even more quiet. Not only that, to this day I don't say “peculiar” in public. Odd, strange, weird. Not peculiar.

Seems almost silly now how such a simple childhood experience can be so traumatizing. Nobody hurt me. I don't think anybody even laughed. Perhaps I reacted so strongly because I didn't have much guidance as a child to put mistakes in perspective. Or, because of other formative experiences in my childhood. Looking back, I believe that most of my family had some degree of social anxiety. Being a child who learned well what I was taught, I learned to be a scared porcupine believing that ridicule, disapproval, and rejection were to be avoided.

Reforming the Porcupine

What changed? I can speak now in front of groups with relative ease. I don't structure my life upon the approval of others. How did I go from a terrified child to an insecure young woman to a self-assured adult? Numerous experiences influenced me but two events forever imprinted in minute detail on my brain changed my life dramatically.

My seventh-grade teacher, Mrs. Halderman, asked me to represent the school in speech tournaments. What?! How could she possibly think I could get in front of a group of people and give a speech? That was my worst nightmare! No way could I do that. “Okay,” I said. What?! Are you nuts? Why did you agree? Part of me agreed because I wasn't very good at saying “no” but, more importantly, I felt flattered that she thought I could do it. I was only one of a handful of students chosen for this new extra-curricular activity, her pet project. Somehow, no matter how scarey it was, I would do it.

The speech tournaments provided me a structured way to confront my fear. We practiced our speeches with the teacher, then with one another, and finally, we were ready for the judges. I never won these tournaments because I couldn't loosen up completely, at the most placing second or third in my category and age group, but I gained something much more important. I learned that I didn't die! I learned others were just as scared as me. I learned I could make mistakes in front of people. But most importantly, I learned that if I was afraid of something, facing it would eventually make it easier.

In a more rudimentary form without the benefit of my later education, I intuitively understood how the porcupine effect worked and I made a conscious effort throughout my youth not to create rejection through my responses. I realized I didn't have to let my fear dictate my responses to others. In high school, determined to be a different person from the shy, quiet child in grade school, I said “hi” to people first, I spoke up in class, I joined drama club. My stories at the lunch table about my foibles in P.E. were the highlight of the day. I continued this attitude in college. When I sat next to someone in class, I initiated conversation. I asked students I met to join me for lunch or a study group. I chose class presentations over papers because they were harder for me. I was an introvert disguised as an extrovert.

Gradually, I became more and more skilled at controlling my response and how other people viewed me. Still, I did not grasp at that time, how to change the underlying sensitivity. My efforts at control only caused me to be a perfectionistic porcupine to protect the scared porcupine. As a result, certain circumstances beyond my ability to control could trigger a full-blown porcupine protective response. Which brings me to the second event.

About my third year in college, I had a professor for two required courses. He was brilliant and fascinating. Listening to him describe the history of science, research, and psychology was almost mesmerizing. However, I was terrified of him. If a student asked him what he considered to be a stupid question, he ridiculed the student in front of the class. “How stupid! You're wasting my time with a ridiculous question. Look in your book.” Once, I saw him reduce a woman to tears. I decided to just do my work and keep my mouth shut which by that time was very unlike me. I usually participated quite actively in class. After that year with him and receiving my grades I knew I never had to see him again. My husband, however, the ever-rational, knowing the distress I felt even though the class was finished encouraged me to talk with him. “But it's over! I don't have a reason to talk to him.”

“Yes, you do. If you don't face him you will always be afraid of people like him.”

Of course he was right. But did that matter? So what if I avoided people like him? I could still live a reasonably comfortable life. But then, in the back of my mind, the nagging thoughts would occur: What would my life be like if I wasn't afraid? I had dreams. Would it be better for me if fear didn't stand in my way? I've always pushed the limits of my fears. How will I feel if I let this stop me? I stewed on these questions for awhile.

Finally, I concluded that a life without being driven by fear would be better. But I still couldn't do it. What would I say? What if I faced him and it turned out horribly? Actually, not “what if.” I knew it would be bad. My estimation from my experience in class was that he would ridicule me and laugh me out of his office. I couldn't handle that!

The only way I could possibly approach him was to convince myself that my goal was facing a fear and changing my attitude about letting others control how I felt about myself. The outcome didn't matter. The success was in confronting him. It didn't matter what he said or did because as soon as I confronted him I was successful. Period.

My husband tried to encourage me: “He puts his pants on one leg at a time same as you.”

“But I really don't have to ever deal with him again!”

“Do whatever you want. It's your choice.”

Problems can be handled in different ways. You can ignore problems. You can rely on someone else to solve a problem. You can pretend that it's not a problem. You can report a problem. However, ultimately, you must look at your goal and determine how to achieve it. My goal was not to be terrified of people like him. The reason being that it just didn't feel good. Nobody else could solve this for me.

I chose to face him and made an appointment to speak with him. To this day I vividly recall walking down the hallway to his office in sheer panic. I had no idea what to say to him because there was no way to prepare for the outcome I knew would occur: being laughed out of his office, probably in tears. Several times as I walked towards his office, I retreated. I stopped at the drinking fountain. I went to the restroom. What in the world was I doing? Is it really that important not to be afraid? But I also recalled what I had learned from the speech tournaments: good things could come from facing fears.

I kept repeating like a mantra: “The only important thing is that you do it. It doesn't matter what he does. It matters what you do.”

I reached his office. Probably on time as is my nature. I knocked on his door. He invited me in and I sat down. “What can I do for you?” he asked.

My mind went blank in terror. Afterward, I remembered two things from that meeting. The first is that I blurted out “I'm afraid of you and I'm here to face you!” I can't believe I said that! Can I humiliate myself anymore? But...I accomplished my goal. Can I run now?

The only other aspect of that hour long meeting I remember was him showing me his goldfish. In his work as an experimental psychologist he was examining whether goldfish could be trained to respond to colored lights.

Although I was 100% convinced that facing him would end badly, my feared outcome did not occur. Instead, I learned that when it comes to anticipating the outcome of feared situations we can be very wrong. In fact, we can be completely wrong. That wasn't my last meeting with him. He became a mentor for the statistical analysis of a research project I was conducting with another professor. And he wrote one of the recommendation letters for my application to graduate school.

Obviously, I don't know what would have happened if he had laughed me out of his office. Probably I would have been mortified but eventually would have tried to face my fears again. What I can say is that I have helped many people over the years face their fears and the vast amount of time the fear is never realized. Especially social rejection fears. However, not being rejected is not the goal. The success is facing the fear. A good outcome is just a bonus.

The fact that I didn't have a prepared speech and blurted out “I'm afraid of you and I'm here to face you” was probably especially effective in this situation. It taught me that the expression of honest feelings can be very powerful. I doubt anyone had ever confronted him so genuinely before. I also learned from this experience that I could deal with difficult people. Which was a good thing because he wasn't the last difficult person I ever met. Most importantly, however, I learned that fear couldn't control me unless I let it.

My journey occurred in a natural way initially. I was fortunate to have these experiences and others to guide me. Later when I studied cognitive-behavioral therapy I came to understand the manner in which these events changed my life. My seventh-grade teacher was similar to a behavioral therapist, encouraging me and providing me the skills to try behaviors that were fearful to me. My ever-rational husband was like a cognitive therapist, never pushing me but helping me to see a different way of interpreting the world around me. Being open to these teachers and others, albeit somewhat resistant at times, I allowed myself to learn from the experiences of life.

This series of articles is to provide you the opportunity for that same type of journey. By understanding the porcupine effect and identifying the type(s) of porcupine you are, you can begin to change your life, not by rejecting it but by gradually molding it into the shape you want it to be. First, I will describe the porcupine effect and the different types of porcupines. Then I will discuss how to reduce your sensitivity and develop more effective ways of dealing with others.

Don't expect revolutionary new ideas, however. Instead, I use the evidence-based, solid foundation of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) combined with developing a mindful attitude. What I can promise you, though, is a way of understanding your sensitivity and a pathway to change.

Are You a Porcupine, Too?

Are you prickly? When you desire contact with others do you place barriers between yourself and them? When others approach you do they bounce off these barriers? How much are your relationships affected by the ways you protect yourself from rejection? What do you miss out on in life because of your sensitivity to rejection? If you weren't concerned about rejection, how much different could your life be?

If you can envision other possibilities for your life but for the meddlesome fear of rejection, you can free yourself from the trap of the porcupine effect. A client of mine who entered therapy as a terrified porcupine told me at the end of therapy, “When I first came to see you and you asked 'What do you want?' I thought you were nuts because it was if my choices were only bread and water. Now, I see the smorgasbord spread before me.”

You, too, can feast from that smorgasbord. Life has endless possibilities for you. Learning what type of porcupine you are and what you can do about it can place you on the road to new experiences, more successful connections with others, and greater achievement.

But if you are looking for a way to get rid of fear so that you can pursue the life of your dreams, reading this can't help you. Many people initially say to me “Help me not be afraid so I can do the things I want.” I tell them I can't eliminate fear. What I can do is help them be less controlled by fear. Courageous people are not those without fear, but those not restrained by fear. If you are willing to brave the fear and open yourself to experience, you can dine at the smorgasbord of life.

Until you open yourself up to experiences, you don't know what the world has in store for you. Most people only have limited contact with the world before deciding they know what to expect. Then, they proceed in a very narrow direction or, if viewing the world through a negative filter, they protect themselves from the perceived cruelty of the world. As I showed in my example with the professor, you don't know the outcome of your actions in a specific instance until you experience it. Maybe the outcome will be what you believe. Maybe it won't. But you can't know, especially if your lens is distorted.

Risk of life: "I'm unhappy." Do nothing: "I'm still unhappy." Do something: "I feel worse." "Nothing changed." "I feel better!"

I call this the “risk of life” which presents at different times in various ways to each of us. The “risk of life” are those times when we can proceed down the safe, but unsatisfying, path or we can change course. When we turn aside from the known path and take a risk, the result can be neutral, positive, or negative. However, you already have a vital piece of information: if you are dissatisfied with your present situation, then you know not taking the risk leads to more of the same. A risk under these circumstances can only potentially improve your situation. A neutral or negative outcome means that you are still dissatisfied. Yet, with risk, a positive outcome becomes possible.

When presented with these choice points in my life, I could have said “no” to my teacher and continued along the safe path. I could have avoided confronting my professor. If I had, I don't believe I would be writing this today. I'm sure I would have passed on many other risks of life that have brought me to this moment. Sadly, I might not even have become a psychologist. Somehow, even back then, I knew the safe path was an illusion beckoning me enticingly, whispering promises to me of protection from fear and rejection, but in reality, would only lead to disappointment. The risky path showed promise but at the cost of confronting the possible rejection or failure and feeling the fear more intensely.

When you open up to experience, you may discover paths that were completely hidden to you. But you can't know that in advance. To find out, you have to take the risk and pursue something new, even if it is frightening to you. At least you have the opportunity, then, to improve your situation.

As you proceed through life you will have many chances to connect with others: friendships, intimate relationships, teachers, mentors, co-workers, people on the bus or in the checkout line. Every interpersonal contact you have with others can be influenced by sensitivity to rejection. Being aware that most of the time those contacts are shaped by how you approach them allows you to direct your life rather than being hostage to others' whims.

The fear of disapproval, rejection, and ridicule prevents many people from striving towards their dreams, goals, and desires. Such fears interfere with successful relationships. What if you try something and fail? What will people think? What if you pursue someone and they reject you? What if you expose your vulnerabilities and people laugh? Certainly, when you strive towards a goal and fail, when you allow yourself to be naked and unprotected, some people with limited views may just see your failure or your flaws. However, people who truly understand will see the success in pursuing the risk. You choose who you allow to influence your life: those with narrow viewpoints or those who believe in possibilities.

curved line