The Porcupine Index
By Sue Newton
Vice President and Operations Director at HUM
The “porcupine index” mentioned by Dr. Abraham Twerski in his book Addictive Thinking is a metaphor about the challenges of human relationships. Also known as the “porcupine effect”, it describes what happens when the perceived distress (or fear) of rejection results in us being rejected. The person, like the porcupine, wishes to be in contact with others but fears their quills will sting, particularly if they get too close. It’s a dilemma, as coming too close to others will hurt but keeping a distance is lonely. According to Twerski, the porcupine must calculate how close to approach others to achieve some companionship while avoiding being hurt. This can also happen in human relationships and, ultimately, results in loose, superficial relationships, often lacking in connection, authenticity, and emotional intimacy, which is what the person desires the most.
Many people with Addiction describe themselves as emotionally sensitive, have poor self-esteem and morbid expectations of themselves and others so they avoid close or intimate relationships to protect themselves from anticipated pain and discomfort. If one goes through life expecting to be put down, criticized and rejected then a defense against this is to build a protective wall between yourself and the rest of the world. The wall that is built for protection turns out to be more like a prison, reinforcing isolation. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the individual has unknowingly caused their disease’s prediction to come true; building a defensive wall aggravates the problem as they do not allow others in and others then start to avoid them, which reinforces feelings of rejection.
A hallmark of addictive thinking is irrational, distorted thoughts that perpetuate exaggerated or irrational thought patterns, which also impact the person’s perception of reality. When addictive thinking is activated, the perception of rejection feels real rather than an illusion but, really, is the result of distorted thinking. Perceiving rejection when rejection did not occur, then reacting emotionally before obtaining further information, triggers a dysfunctional emotional response, which may be an over- or under-reaction to what is happening. The focus then becomes dealing with the overwhelming feelings that result, not appreciating the reality that rejection didn’t actually occur. For example, Emily is upset with her boyfriend for not showing up to a date, starts to believe he’s unfaithful, and is going to break up with her. In reality, he’s been in a car accident and has been taken to the hospital by ambulance. In Emily’s mind, even when she finds out the reality of the situation, there may still be feelings of anger, resentment,betrayal, mistrust, rejection, abandonment and fear as her Addiction has so powerfully convinced her of what had happened in this situation. This will then continue to impact the relationship as Emily may pull away, be more reactive, less communicative, and eventually her boyfriend may leave her because of this disconnection.
For all those who consider themselves porcupines (avoiding rather than fostering healthy social relationships), the antidote is spending more time with others in recovery and challenging yourself to connect with others. The value of holistic recovery and support is critical to optimize health and wellness; even more so to counteract isolation. Associating with other like-minded people who share similar issues is far less threatening than dealing with issues alone. Holistic recovery provides the framework and tools to become more self aware and proactive, to ultimately learn to build authentic connections with others without the fear of rejection keeping one stuck and isolated.