Jul 17 / Simcha

The Porcupine Dilemma

Click on the image to view porcupine on Freud’s desk in his London study in what is now the Freud Museum

Some years back, I visited the Freud Museum in London, once the final home of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, and his daughter Anna Freud, a pioneering child psychoanalyst. (The Freud family had come to England as refugees, following the Nazi annexation of Austria in March 1938.)

On Freud’s desk in his study stood a metal figure of a porcupine with quills, a figure he apparently kept there all the time.  Why a porcupine?



In Parerga und Paralipomena, published in 1851, the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer created a parable about the dilemma faced by porcupines in cold weather. He described a “company of porcupines” who “crowded themselves very close together one cold winter’s day so as to profit by one another’s warmth and so save themselves from being frozen to death. But soon they felt one another’s quills, which induced them to separate again.” And so on. The porcupines were “driven backwards and forwards from one trouble to the other,” until they found “a mean distance at which they could most tolerably exist.”

Schopenhauer’s tale was later quoted by Freud in a footnote to his 1921 essay Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, where he explored “feelings of aversion and hostility” that are bound to arise in any long-lasting human relationship.

The porcupine became a metaphor for all those fundamental questions of intimacy explored by Freud and subsequent psychoanalysts and psychologists, and which we, as therapists, explore with the couples we work with: 

  • How much intimacy is too much? 
  • What degree of intimacy is necessary for our survival? 
  • How can we simultaneously crave and repel intimacy? 
  • How do we balance our need for autonomy and our need for connection?
  • How do we hold onto ourselves and our needs, while attending to those of another person?
  • Where is the line between compromise and self-effacement?
  • Where is the line between autonomy and selfishness?
  • Is it inevitable that despite our intention to create a close reciprocal relationship, harm will be incurred?

In her (2003) book Schopenhauer’s Porcupines: Intimacy and its Dilemmas, therapist Dr. Deborah Anna Luepnitz eloquently sums up the porcupine dilemma:

“Definitions of love, aggression, intimacy and privacy vary enormously, of course — by culture, historical moment, and social class.  Without making universal claims, we can assume that [most] people in the contemporary West…. live lives bedeviled by the porcupine dilemma.  That is, we struggle on a daily basis to balance privacy and community, concern for self and others, sexual union and a room of our own.”