A man sits in front of me completely puzzled by his own actions. He likes his current girlfriend and wants to spend all his time with her – he finds her enchanting – the feeling is mutual, as she wants to spend time all her time with him. What he ends up doing though, is telling her that he can’t see her anymore. 

This isn’t the first time he has done this – in fact, no matter how great he finds his girlfriends, he always ends up pushing them away. Even though he thinks he loves his girlfriend, he ends up feeling completely overwhelmed by her presence, and feels leaving the relationship is the only fair option. 

Then when he is alone, he feels overwhelmed by how empty he feels. He is exasperated, frustrated, sad but resigned to his fate that he will never be able to have a relationship with someone, and he can blame nobody else but himself. All he can do is ask himself what is wrong with him.

Is there anything wrong with him though?

I ask him whether knows the famous fable by Arthur Schopenhauer about porcupines:

It’s a cold winter’s day and some porcupines are wandering through the snow. To keep warm, they move towards each other so that their mutual body heat will keep them warm. As they huddle together, they inadvertently start to poke each other with the sharp pines that cover their bodies. 

To stop hurting each other, they move away from each other, but this means that they are no longer warm and they feel the cold of the snow again. They shiver, and move towards each other again, and once again poke each other and have to move away – this dance of closeness and distance, feeling entangled and freezing carries on, until they are able to find a safe distance from each other.

I tell him that this is something we all struggle with. How close can we get with someone before it feels that we are becoming entangled with them, stifled by them in some way? But then pushing them away makes us feel lonely and cold.

What we are all trying to find is that safe distance from someone we love, where their love keeps us warm but doesn’t engulf us. 

How can psychotherapy help?

This scenario, where someone is in despair that they keep pushing away the people that they love, is something that many people bring to the therapy clinic. Some people are baffled by themselves, others are desperately sad and want to change but don’t know how. But telling them about Schopenhauer’s porcupines always feels like a lightbulb moment, as they realise that there’s nothing “wrong” with them.

We are all doing this dance of warmth/freezing with the people we love, and what psychotherapy can help with is creating a warmth inside of us. If we have internal warmth, then the warmth that we crave from others becomes less all-consuming. And when we are alone, that cold and empty feeling is reduced by our own internal warmth. 

Dr Ana Mootoosamy is a verified Welldoing psychotherapist in Central London and online

Further reading

What's at the root of love addiction?

Can you change your attachment style?

What is codependency?

What is intimacy anyway?

4 tips to start setting boundaries if you're scared of saying no