Hugging Porcupines

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From Hug Machine, by Scott Campbell

I recently started a new job working full-time as a Marriage & Family Therapist.  To celebrate my new employment, I ordered a few children’s books that I’ve had my eye on for a while.  One of them is a gem of a book titled Hug Machine.  Hug Machine is a book about a young boy who hugs anyone and anything he sees, including adults, crying infants, mailboxes, snakes and giant whales.  After showing off his hugging prowess in various settings and on myriad subjects, the boy encounters a porcupine who seems to anticipate being the exception.  “I am so spiky.  No one ever hugs me.”

The next page shows a beautiful image of this boy, decked out in oven mitts, a catcher’s mask, and other protective gear, giving a big hug to that porcupine while assuring him (or her), that all those hug-withholders “are missing out!”

This image, and the concept of hugging a porcupine, is powerful.

My therapy office is no stranger to porcupines.  Not literal ones, of course.  (Unless you count my porcupine puppet!)  Rather, many of my clients share some attributes with porcupines.  Many of them have evolved spike-like defenses that protect them, but that also make them seem unapproachable, and, in turn, make them feel unlovable.

Consider angsty teens whose body language, and perhaps even their overt spoken language communicates that they don’t want you to come near them.  Are they too spiky to hug?  Think about a significant other who, after extended periods of hurt and frustration, is characterized by defensive mechanisms such as blame, denial, snarky comments, and the silent treatment.  Is he or she too spiky to hug?  And what about the individual who experienced so much abuse and neglect and betrayal growing up and in past relationships that they don’t know how to be vulnerable or open or trusting, nor do they feel safe doing so.  Are they too spiky to be hugged?  Further, underneath all of those spikes, do they actually want and need be hugged?

I am a big believer that everyone, whether they know it or not, yearns for connection.  Everyone desires to be seen, valued, cared for and loved.  Everyone wants to be huggable.  Everyone wants to be hugged.

It is easy to allow obstacles to connection (such as defensive mechanisms) to keep us from expressing acceptance and love.  But oh how the world needs more hugging machines and fewer lonely porcupines.

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Dragons & Defenses: How to Train Your Husband

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In DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon, a young misfit Viking named Hiccup injures, contains, and then befriends a dragon whom he names Toothless.  Contrary to everything Hiccup has ever been told about dragons, Hiccup learns that these allegedly fearsome monsters are actually no different than he is: inherently good, but scared.  During the evolution of Hiccup and Toothless’ relationship, Hiccup learns a trick that makes the difference between dragons being pests and fiends, and pets and friends.

In the movie, whenever the dragon sees Hiccup with a weapon, he assumes a defensive stance which involves a facial expression in which the dragon bares his teeth. When this happens, Hiccup becomes frightened and moves away to protect himself.  If they were to connect while in this state, it would lead to them hurting each other.  Fortunately, Hiccup learned that if he is willing to remove his dagger, Toothless changes.  He becomes…well, toothless.  His teeth no longer show and he resembles a curious and playful cat rather than a man-hungry beast.  Healthy connection is now possible.

This pattern also applies to humans in relationships.  If we feel threatened or attacked, we become defensive.  We subconsciously go into a fight or flight mentality.  Even though most people are not  threatened by physical weapons, we still come armed with other ways of hurting or threatening those around us.

It may be a facial expression, an accusation or name-calling.  If we approach someone else and it seems to them like we have the power to hurt them, they are naturally going to want to protect themselves.  And guess what?  Just like with Toothless, or shall I say not-so-Toothless, our self-protective defenses look a lot like weapons.  Which invites our partner to be defensive.  It is a cycle that goes on and on.

 So how can you break the cycle?

1. Approach Your Partner

The first step is to approach your partner.  You aren’t going to connect if you aren’t within reach of each other.  This often requires courage and a belief in the innate goodness of the other person.

2. Drop Your Weapons

The next step is to make sure that you have dropped your weapons.  If you approach a conversation with a criticism, with blame, or in any way that is interpreted as attacking, your partner is likely to see you as a threat rather than as a person.

3. Remove your Armor and Shields

Next you must remove your armor and shield.  You must exercise the courage to be vulnerable.  This requires trusting your partner, and it also means that you risk being hurt.  Your partner, if they are accustomed to being disrespected or insulted, may challenge your genuineness or anticipate a trap.  You have to let any negative comments or accusations hit you without you reacting defensively.  And it may hurt.  Or feel unfair.  This step requires great courage, and in some cases, longsuffering.  But remember this: It is necessary to be vulnerable in order to have real and healthy relationships.

4. Invite and Allow Connection

The next is to invite connection.  Perhaps connecting involves reaching out physically.  Perhaps it is asking a question and starting a conversation.  Perhaps it is referring to a shared memory.  Maybe it is giving a compliment, offering an apology, or inviting your partner to do something with you.  Then wait and accept your partner’s response.

Weapons, shields and armor exist to protect our vulnerabilities.  Regardless of the scenario, being truly open and vulnerable is hard.  For someone who has been hurt before, vulnerability is even more difficult.  It requires great courage.  Truly living and truly connecting with others at an intimate level requires authenticity and vulnerability.  The cultivation of courage to drop defenses and be real is a worthy goal of every person.

So, are you feeling brave?  Maybe it is time to train a dragon.

Disclaimer: If you are in a genuinely unsafe relationship, being vulnerable would expose you to further hurt and would be inappropriate.  If you are in a relationship that is physically or emotionally abusive, please seek help.