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The Porcupine Effect: The Plight of the Prickly Porcupine

by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
porcupine looking sadly over wall


A Tale of Two Porcupines

“I'm not staying home by myself when you're with your wife!” declared Cynthia*.

Seated in a low-lit corner of a restaurant, George* whispered angrily so that others wouldn't notice, “Listen, we will be together some day when I can get a divorce. Until then, you can't be going out like a single woman.” Unwilling to shatter his image of the perfect family, divorce was the furthest thing from his mind despite his assertion.

The attractive twenty-something tossed her long hair over her shoulder as she retorted loudly, “But I am single!”

“Can you keep it down?” George hissed.

“What's the matter? No one knows us here,” she replied.

Looking around, he noticed a man across the room looking in their direction. He thought, “Probably thinks I'm some kind of wimp who can't control my woman.” The man on the other side of the room gestured for the waiter. “Saw me notice he was looking at me and just covering it up.” It's what he would do.

“Let's go,” he demanded.

“I still want another drink,” she said petulantly.

“I don't care. We're going.” In desperation, he grabbed her wrist to pull her out of the chair.

She wrenched it from him. “Oww!” Now a few people were looking at them. “Okay. Fine!” she walked out in a huff. Throwing money down on the table, he followed after her.

As they drove back to Cynthia's apartment, the image of a similar argument reared up in his mind when he first dated his wife, Gail*, a college cheerleader, fun and perky, the catch of the campus. He shook his head at how much she had changed. Now, she was withdrawn except when making sarcastic comments. He felt justified in being with another woman because Gail never wanted to have sex anymore. Things used to be great in their relationship. Until the last couple of years they seemed to be so in sync. She always agreed with what he wanted, eager to please and learn from him. He didn't understand why she suddenly became so “bitchy.” All he had ever done was try to make her happy—he did everything for her and the kids. She was just impossible! Nothing can make her happy now! Perhaps the signs were there all along. He recalled their first argument when he caught her cheating: “I saw you talking to that football player! I know you cheated on me!” How could he have been so stupid to fall for her story?

Tearfully, she had protested as she grabbed at his hand, clenched in a fist, “But I haven't cheated! I was just talking with him. I congratulated him on the game.”

For hours he questioned and accused her until finally she said, “I'm sorry. I won't ever do it again.”

Taking her in his arms, he had whispered, “It's just that I love you so much. No one could ever love you the way I do.”

In the back of her mind, that whisper triggered a vague memory. Shaking it out of her head, she resolved to never give George a moment's concern about her love for him. If it bothered him so much for her to talk with other men, she didn't need to do it. What did it matter? It's only a little thing and their relationship was so perfect. Whenever he had a free moment he wanted to be with her. So many of her girlfriends complained that their boyfriends didn't call enough and spent a lot of time with “the guys.” But George wasn't like that at all. He gave her so much attention, even contacting her frequently throughout the day to see what she was doing.

Being the center of someone's world had been a dream come true for Gail. During her childhood her mother never had time for her or her younger brothers after her parents divorced. She rarely saw her father while her mother disappeared frequently “going out with friends.” Sometimes in the morning her mother could barely get up and drag herself to work. Gail, being the oldest, made sure her brothers ate breakfast and caught the school bus in time. She also needed to make sure they did their homework at night. As a teenager, all she ever wished for was someone who would love her and take care of her. Becoming a cheerleader in high school brought her a lot of the attention she craved. After she met George in college she quit cheerleading because it distressed him so much for her to be around the football players.

During the long drive home after George dropped Cynthia off at her apartment he fumed about his day. Why wasn't anything easy for him? Other people always put obstacles in his way. Understandable due to their jealousy of his success but still it angered him. He had been so looking forward to spending time with Cynthia because she was usually the person he could rely upon to sooth him after a difficult day. Earlier, at work, he encountered a couple of the other engineers. “I hear the golden-haired boy pulled another rabbit out of the hat,” Joe had ribbed. Even though he knew they were jealous of him, the sarcasm infuriated him. They should be thanking him and recognizing his value! Instead, they gave him a hard time. Throughout his childhood, his older brothers mercilessly teased him and beat up on him. If he complained to his father, he was told, “Quit being a crybaby. You gotta learn to be a man.”

As a youngster, he learned how to get back at others without them even knowing what he did. By being deceptive, he didn't suffer their wrath. One day when his brother was particularly merciless, he took money from his father's wallet but left the wallet in his brother's room so his brother would be blamed. How his brother cried when his father whipped him! His co-workers will get their comeuppance as well.

Nearing home, he drove by the park where he used to take his son to play catch years ago. The memory of the last time they went to the park still stung. “I hate you!” his son had screamed. All he was trying to do was be a good father. His son was too sensitive. Like his mother. He had only been showing him the correct way to pitch a ball. “No! You're doing it wrong. Do it again.” After his son disrespected him, he never took him to the park again. He thought about how his son was growing up to be ungrateful and belligerent. Taking after his mother. Recently, when he canceled plans to visit colleges with his son, he mouthed off “You have time for your whore!” Why couldn't his son understand he was only trying to create a better life for him? Everything he did was to improve the life of his family.

Walking into the house, he noticed his wife hang up the phone. “Who was that?” he asked suspiciously trying to make it sound like a casual question.

His wife rolled her eyes. “I'm tired of you always questioning me.”

“I have a right to know who you are talking to!” But too tired to argue, he grabbed a beer from the refrigerator and slumped down in front of the TV.

Gail sat quietly nearby barely able to stand being in the same room with him but knowing if she left she was likely to re-trigger the argument. Hours of questions and accusations just wasn't worth it. More and more she felt she couldn't bear being with him. Whenever she tried talking to him about the problems in their marriage he blamed her and refused to get any help.

For years she thought his constant checking on her was a sign of his love and concern for her. Then, one day a couple years ago during an argument, he sneered, “No one could ever love you like I do.” Suddenly, she recalled the voice of her abuser, the attentive family friend. At first she welcomed his affections but then the touching became uncomfortable. Although she had never forgotten the events, she had pushed the details from her mind. When she told her mother, her mother hushed her angrily. Although the abuse stopped, at the time she felt her mother blamed her.

She realized now that the family friend helped her mother with bills from time to time and her mother lashed out in frustration due to fear of losing the help. Knowing that now didn't change the guilt and shame she felt, however. And not only about the abuse. When anything went wrong she felt responsible and guilty.

Tired. She felt so very tired after years of criticism by her husband. If she tried to confront him about being demanding and hurtful, he denied his behavior. Being so subtle with his criticisms, he could easily deny her viewpoint and convince her she was overly sensitive. He repeatedly explained that he was only trying to help. But his “help” always made her feel small. When they were first together he routinely became hugely frustrated when she couldn't find her keys in the mornings. “It's so simple,” he would say. “Just put them away in the same place when you come home.” Of course his suggestions always seemed reasonable and she couldn't even think of a reason he might be wrong. But over time she became more and more careful about her behavior and concerned about making mistakes.

And not just at home. At work a couple months ago she had written an elaborate email to her boss describing a problem and what could be done to solve it. Her boss responded by email with “Thanks anyway.” Gail felt horrible because she took this response to mean that her boss had rejected her proposal. Probably thought it was stupid. No one ever seemed to value, or even listen to, her ideas. Probably because her ideas were stupid. She vowed to not put herself on the line like that again. Later, she learned her boss hadn't read the email because the upper management had decided to not take any action at that time.

Now she sat silently, angry and resentful. She suspected her husband had a girlfriend, but she didn't know if she even cared anymore. Every thought angrily focused on how to leave him. But it wasn't time yet. Next year their son would be going to college and she didn't want to disrupt his education. A few more years...

This story only depicts two of the many different types of porcupines. If these are not familiar to you, other stories in this series may be. The commonality of all the stories is pushing others away when the desire is to connect.

*Note: Any resemblance to real people or situations is just coincidental. If you have been a client of mine and think this is your story it is only because it is a common story. This story and the others in this series were developed from a composite of many different situations I have encountered as a therapist, read about, and heard about. The stories are not based on any one situation.

The Porcupine Effect

The tale of George and Gail is one of many stories of prickly porcupines. Each of them, fearful of rejection but needing affiliation, acted out their mutual fear through their relationship. At first, their needs brought them together in a seemingly “perfect” relationship. Gail reveled in the attention and George received validation of his worth. But at a price. To avoid triggering the angry, jealous George and, instead, draw out the gentle, attentive George, Gail relinquished her core self. Silencing her needs while attending to George, she eventually succumbed to resentment. The price George paid may be more subtle, but it is there nonetheless. His validation is always dependent upon the external. When he loses an important external source of validation (Gail) he must find another (Cynthia). The alternative is too horrifying for him: feeling the worthlessness and inadequacy he felt as a child.

This story illustrates the porcupine effect: due to sensitivity from past experiences of rejection the porcupine uses some means of self-protection to prevent further experiences of rejection while still seeking a connection with others, but causing, instead, more rejection by others. George, an aggressive-jealous porcupine, created protection by controlling himself and those close to him so as to receive the external validation he craved. Whereas, Gail, a self-silencing and dependent porcupine who evolved into a passive-aggressive porcupine, protected herself by being what others wanted and silencing her natural self.

A porcupine is someone sensitized to rejection from past experiences so that rejection is viewed as a “horrible” experience that must be avoided by any means possible, instead of seeing it as a normal, and even benign, means of communication. As a result, new situations are likely to be perceived as rejection when they may not be rejection. Consequently, the prickly behavior of the porcupine frequently causes the feared response: rejection by others.

At the time I was developing the concept for this series of articles I had just adopted a kitten. When my granddaughter first met him, he hid under the couch. “He doesn't like me!” she cried. Reacting to this perceived rejection she caught him and held him tight. He squirmed and squealed to be released, finally escaping and scurrying off. Again she cried, “See! He doesn't like me!” I explained that the kitten was scared because he was in a new environment and that chasing him would only make him more afraid. I demonstrated how to let him come to her and become familiar with her. Rather than acting from her emotion, she learned to change her behavioral response which created a better connection with the kitten.

The porcupine effect is similar to this interaction with the kitten. This effect consists of three components: excessive distress about rejection often from past painful experiences of rejection, an expectation of rejection which increases the likelihood of perceiving rejection when it may not be accurate, and development of protective mechanisms to avoid future rejection which, instead, potentially elicit rejection from others. Each of these components can be forged to a greater or lesser extent by several factors: lack of guidance, personality predisposition, and hurtful or traumatic experiences.

Distress about rejection.

My granddaughter exhibited distressed about the kitten not liking her. When someone experiences rejection, the degree of distress is based upon their ability to tolerate uncomfortable emotions. When “negative” emotions are viewed as intolerable, any degree of the emotion will activate the need to avoid.

George, teased throughout childhood, couldn't tolerate the good-natured banter of co-workers. Gail, ignored as a child and unable to endure the feelings associated with abandonment and neglect, attempted to gain attention by silencing her own needs.

1) Lack of guidance. Children don't know how to interpret emotions. Adult guidance helps them understand their emotions by teaching them how to recognize emotions as information to be acted upon, and thereby, developing a tolerance for the discomfort of emotions as brief messages to be considered. Think of touching a hot stove. The pain is a message that helps you determine your reaction, hopefully, removing your hand from the stove. Emotions work similarly, but those who don't learn to listen to the message inherent in emotions related to rejection are more likely to become a porcupine.

2) Personality. Each of us have different personality attributes, the basic structure of which can be traced as far back as infancy which indicates a genetic component to the personality. That is, different personality styles can be observed in young children when faced with unknown or changing circumstances. Some children are easy-going while others have more difficulty adjusting. These styles tend to remain consistent into adulthood. A more anxious personality style, for instance, may experience increased distress when faced with potential rejection.

3) Experiences. Traumatic or hurtful experiences in childhood or adulthood frequently sensitize people to anticipate similar ill-treatment. Depending upon the severity, these experiences can create distress even in those who have an easy-going personality style. However, proper guidance when confronted by such situations can help lessen the reaction.

Perception of rejection.

The kitten hiding under the couch was perceived as rejection when it was actually the kitten's natural response to new people. Most situations have different interpretations. That is why hearing the same story from different people can seem like a completely different tale.

Simple, ordinary interactions that others may not consider twice caused George and Gail to feel rejected. Ribbing by other men is often an inclusionary tactic but George viewed it as jealousy and scorn. Gail misinterpreted her boss's email as a rebuff of her hard work.

1) Lack of guidance. Adult guidance helps children to understand their experiences and their interactions with the world. Without such guidance they can easily develop a wrong interpretation. As a result, even normal childhood experiences when they lack a rational interpretation by an adult can lead to inaccurate perceptions of events. Gail's mother didn't explain her reaction to Gail's report of sexual abuse by the family friend so Gail, the child, interpreted her mother's reaction as blame and rejection.

2) Personality. Certain personality styles, such as introversion, can lead to a greater tendency to perceive experiences as rejection. Not that being introverted causes an inaccurate perception, but it reduces the likelihood of obtaining opposing information. For example, when confronted by a confusing event, an extrovert is more likely to share the event with others which allows for more interpretations whereas an introvert may be more likely to say nothing. When I felt humiliated in class because I couldn't say a word correctly, as an introvert, I couldn't look around and see other students' reactions. Perhaps if I had, I might have seen empathetic expressions or simply lack of interest. Either way, it might not have been the ridicule I imagined but didn't confirm.

3) Experiences. Previous experiences may directly, or indirectly, teach a person distorted ways of seeing a situation. For instance, a bully claims, “If you weren't so stupid, I'd let you play!” leading the child to personalize rejection, believing he or she is the cause of the bully's behavior and comments. Without guidance to view the bully's comment in a different way, the tendency to personalize can continue into adulthood.

Creation of rejection.

By chasing the kitten and holding it tight, my granddaughter caused it to be more fearful. When people experience rejection as intolerable, they typically engage in behaviors to avoid or minimize rejection. Unfortunately, many of these behaviors may tend to create the rejection they fear, commonly known as a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” For example, someone afraid that no one will talk to her at a dinner party may tend to be more withdrawn which may make her seem less approachable by others. This self-fulfilling prophecy of rejection then reinforces her belief that she will be rejected in the future.

Bristling and stewing about a meaningless comment at the water-cooler, George imposed distance between him and his co-workers likely causing him to feel more isolated and misunderstood. If, instead, he had teased Joe in turn, “Yeah, too bad you can't even find the hat much less pull a rabbit out of it!” his co-workers would have laughed and slapped him on the back including him in the group. Gail's vow of silence prevented her from attaining the acceptance she desired. Simply clarifying her boss's email could have resolved the problem.

1) Lack of guidance. Many parents try to protect their children by solving problems for them. Other parents don't have effective problem-solving or interpersonal skills themselves. Whereas others are neglectful of their children and don't bother to teach them skills to effectively cope with the world. Learning to develop alternative behaviors to the ineffective self-protective behaviors helps the individual avoid the vicious cycle of avoidance of rejection creating rejection.

Even as a society, we have come to focus more on protecting children from adversity rather than guiding them. Similar to the proverb “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,” teaching children how to handle rejection, bullying, ridicule, etc. guides a child throughout her life.

2) Personality. Certain personality styles or behavioral disorders may provoke specific reactions from others that could be viewed as rejecting the individual. For instance, sometimes others view an introvert as “stuck up” rather than recognizing the difference in style. Those who are overly energetic may be seen as too stimulating for some which can lead to avoidance of the person.

Thus, the personality style may influence the reaction of others which reinforces the perception of rejection. Personality may not be changeable, but the behaviors associated with personality styles can be altered. For instance, I recently learned that one of my best friends from graduate school thinks that I am an extrovert although I am not. As I described in the introduction, I consciously made an effort to connect with others and show an interest in them. Apparently, my skills were honed to such a degree that even another psychologist who knew me well didn't realize I'm an introvert!

3) Experiences. How someone reacts to rejection early on can become automatic behavior later on. Intense experiences such as trauma can create beliefs and behaviors that can affect a person for life. For example, a person who experiences trauma and develops the belief “I don't ever want to feel that way again!” may engage in behaviors such as avoiding close connections with others or seeking the perceived safety of a relationship. Gail experienced sexual abuse when she was young and felt blamed. Told by her abuser that “no one would ever love her” the way he did, she initially felt security in the relationship with George because he assured her of his love through his words and his devoted, but somewhat stifling, behavior.


Kindle Books by
Dr. Monica Frank

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