Tag Archives: porcupines

schopenhauer’s porcupine parable


On a cold winter’s day, a group of porcupines huddled together to stay warm and keep from freezing. But soon they felt one another’s quills and moved apart. When the need for warmth brought them closer together again, their quills again forced them apart. They were driven back and forth at the mercy of their discomforts until they found the distance from one another that provided both a maximum of warmth and a minimum of pain. In human beings, the emptiness and monotony of the isolated self produces a need for society. This brings people together, but their many offensive qualities and intolerable faults drive them apart again. The optimum distance that they finally find that permits them to coexist is embodied in politeness and good manners. Because of this distance between us, we can only partially satisfy our need for warmth, but at the same time, we are spared the stab of one another’s quills.” -Arthur Schopenhauer

This noteworthy parable is an analogy for the challenges of intimacy. A critical part of any relationship is managing the space between you and the other person. Too little space can feel suffocating and too much space can feel isolating. A balance of self-protectiveness and vulnerability is needed for true intimacy. Just like in Shopenhauer’s parable, the porcupines moved back and forth from one another until they found just the right distance between them to feel both safe and connected.

Boundaries can be complicated; they are not always respected; some feel that boundaries injure relationships and that they should always “go with the flow” in order to avoid conflict. There are countless other ways that boundaries might feel confusing. The truth is, we begin learning about boundaries on day one and our tutelage continues through our primary relationships, that is our family systems. We learn about boundaries by watching and listening to how others relate and by experiencing how they relate to us. From here, we learn how to negotiate relationships – hopefully, healthfully and successfully.

What have you learned about relationships and about boundaries within relationships? Are your relationships working for you today? Maybe only some? Which ones do/don’t? What needs to change to make them better? (hint: begin by reminding yourself that you deserve to have room for your own needs, including what you need/don’t need from others!)