Resolving the Hedgehog’s Dilemma

In 1851, German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer formulated what has been termed the “hedgehog’s dilemma,” a parable about human relationships and intimacy. The parable goes something like this: when it is cold outside, hedgehogs move towards one another in order to be warmed by each other’s body heat. However, upon reaching a certain closeness to one another they are pricked by each other’s prickly spines, causing them to retreat to a safer distance. The hedgehogs must find the proper distance from one another to remain warm and not get hurt.

Schopenhauer’s metaphor illustrates tendency towards extremes in relationships, which can certainly occur among humans. We are compelled to be close to other people in order to feel a sense of comfort, security, and warmth, but this can sometimes result in getting “too close” to another person, leaving us wanting to “run away,” or just be alone for awhile. Then, when we take space to ourselves and get some alone time, we might feel lonely and like we miss spending time with others.

The metaphor tells us something about finding the “proper distance” between ourselves and others so that we don’t find ourselves bouncing back and forth between the extremes of closeness and distance.

Finding a balance between intimacy and being alone can be a real challenge, and therapy can be very helpful in finding this balance. Therapy also can offer us the ability to make choices about whether we want to be with others or by ourselves, and find a balance between the two that feels authentic. To use Schopenhauer’s metaphor, therapy can help us develop our ability to “warm” ourselves, as well as give and receive warmth in relationships, and, finally,  make our spines a little less sharp.