We are social creatures and crave companionship. So why do we often push the very people we care about away?

The 19th Century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer was one of the first to explore this paradox that became known as “the porcupine’s dilemma.” It is a metaphor for how we simultaneously crave and reject intimacy and balance guardedness and vulnerability.

Imagine the following:

One cold winter’s day, a group of porcupines crowded together for warmth. However, the pain from the mass of quills soon caused them to separate again, until the cold forced them back together. And so they continued on this yo-yo, moving from one source of discomfort to another, until they found a distance that allowed them to live but without the benefits of the full warmth of community.

Schopenhauer observed that human relationships were remarkably similar. We sometimes poke the people we need the most.

Research corroborates Schopenhauer’s observation and sheds light on our inner porcupine. It turns out that people who live in fear of rejection are the most likely to retreat from others. It’s preemptive behavior.

Unfortunately, channeling one’s inner porcupine is a no-win strategy. Indulging in the I-will-leave-you-before-you-leave-me strategy doesn’t work for the human porcupine, nor does it work for the recipient of the imaginary sharp spines. Both end up alone.

My advice: Trim those quills.