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Home » What Porcupines Teach Us About Boundaries: Henry Ammar (Transcript)

What Porcupines Teach Us About Boundaries: Henry Ammar (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of Henry Ammar’s talk titled “What Porcupines Teach Us About Boundaries” at TEDxStGeorgeSalon 2022 conference.

Listen to the audio version here:


The Porcupine Principle: A Lesson in Boundaries

One of the greatest lessons I learned about boundaries came from porcupines. It was a really, really cold winter night and these porcupines huddled together to stay warm. As they got close to each other, they started to poke each other and cause each other pain. So as soon as they experienced this, they dispersed, but being away from the group caused them to be at the mercy of the harsh, cold winter weather.

So they came back together only to redisperse and they went back and forth and back and forth until eventually they found that sweet spot. The sweet spot where they were benefiting each other in that relationship and they were protected from the elements. And also, they had enough space where they weren’t constantly hurting each other and poking each other and causing each other pain.

This story by Arthur Schopenhauer made me really think about that sweet spot in relationships. Is there a place where we can benefit from each other without constantly hurting each other? And it made me ask the question, what if boundaries weren’t just a yes or just a no?

The Sweet Spot in Relationships

What if boundaries were a how much? What if there was that sweet spot in each relationship like those porcupines? After 26 years of obsessively studying human behavior and working with thousands of people, I’ve come to discover there are two overarching types of boundaries: Fear-based boundaries and love-based boundaries.

Fear-based boundaries are just that yes or just that no, that excessive yes or excessive no. And I used to operate in that excessive yes. It was back when I was in the boy band and some of you think I’m still in one because of my hair and my outfit. But that was a different season in my life. But in that season, my nickname was “passive.”

The Danger of Excessive “Yes”

I was people-pleasing. I said yes when I wanted to say no. People would make fun of me or poke at me and I would do that awkward laugh, even though it hurt.

I didn’t want to create conflict. And I realized that every time someone poked me, some people I let in too close, I would get triggered. Some people we let in too close. Each of us has this internal safety threshold that when certain people cross it, like those porcupines, we get poked. And it triggers our nervous system to set off an alarm and say, “danger, you’re not safe” or “you’re in trouble.”

And then we get in a stress response or survival response, fight, flight, freeze, or fawn. Here’s the question. How can we fully give or receive love if we’re in defense? Because we have to feel safe before we can fully give or receive love.

The Excessive “No” Boundary

That excessive yes had me missing out on true, authentic, loving connection. And on the flip side of fear-based boundaries, you have the excessive no, that wall. I will not let you in, you will not poke me, you will not hurt me.

So we say no to everything and we let people in just enough. I used to operate in that as well. And so I was sitting with one of my clients and she was telling me, “I really want to be in a relationship. I just let people in just enough, but I don’t want to get hurt.”

And as she’s saying that, I end up smiling and she’s like, “Why are you smiling?” And I realized because I was single at the time. And I was like, this is why I’m single. I’m operating in the same exact thing.

The Wall That Keeps Love Out

I realized that the same walls that keep pain and hurt out are the same walls that keep love out. So now we’re isolated, dealing with the elements by ourselves, like those porcupines. And studies have also shown that we heal in healthy relationships. It’s called co-regulation.

So now those same walls are keeping full healing out. This excessive no had me missing out on full love and full healing. That’s why fear-based boundaries are not the way to go. They focus only on survival and they usually create disconnection.

We’re either isolated or we’re constantly being triggered and poked, feeling unsafe. We’re either feeling unsafe alone or feeling unsafe with other people. But what if we can go from strictly survival to creation, to love?

Love-Based Boundaries: The “How Much” Approach

What if we could feel safe enough to give and receive love? And that’s what takes us from the yes or no into the love-based boundary, which asks the question, how much? What is that sweet spot? What is that spot in each relationship where we can benefit from each other without consistently hurting each other?

And when we go from yes or no to how much, we ask how much. How much time? How much energy? How much resources? How much attention do I give each particular relationship on a consistent basis?

How open am I? Or how deep are our conversations? I smile because I think of there’s some people you just can’t have certain conversations with, certain topics, and there’s some people you can be totally open with. But that question, how much, allows me to have a starting point.

Proximity Maps: A Tool for Healthy Boundaries

Where do we start? And it’s flexible. We can go back and forth. And so I created these proximity maps to help us understand where do we start and how do we navigate?

In the inner circle is that middle. That’s your healthy, intimate relationships. And the closer someone is to that inner circle, the more they’ll get of all those resources, your time, your energy, your attention, how open you are on a consistent basis. And the further away out they are, the less they’ll get.

And the best part about it is this is just a starting point. What is that sweet spot, that healthy inner circle, that intimate relationship that you have? Those are your healthy partner relationships, your healthy family relationships, your healthy best friendships.

The Levels of Relationships

And then we go a little bit further out. Those are your close relationships. Those are healthy friendships. Maybe your close colleagues that are healthy.

Then you have your casual relationships. Those are friendships and acquaintances. And then limited relationships. Strangers, people you see on social media all the time that you think are your friends. Or those are your unhealthy family relationships or unhealthy friendships. And last but definitely not least is zero contact. Those are abusive or toxic relationships and they get 0% of your time, 0% of your energy, resources.

The Flexibility of Boundaries

And the best part about it is it’s flexible. Sometimes people start out as strangers and move to your inner circle. That’s my wife. We met as strangers and she slowly moved into my inner circle. Now she’s of my inner circle. Yeah, I can clap for that. I just got married this year.

And it’s beautiful to know that we have this beautiful gift called choice. And we get to understand that this is just the starting point. And people can come closer or further away depending on the situation, the relationship, what happens. And as we think about it, what are indicators?

Determining Proximity: Three Key Factors

What determines where they start? What determines that proximity? Well, there are three things you could think of. First is your values. What’s really important to you? For me, it’s trust. It’s being able to have open, loving, honest conversations. It’s someone that makes me better and I make them better. And it’s someone that seeks out truth.

And once I knew my values, I knew what I wanted in my inner circle and my boundaries became more of an invitation. An invitation to where maybe I honor their values, they honor mine, and we continually grow together. And those people we could bring closer to my inner circle.

Assessing Violations and Emotions

Number two is violations. You want to look at your current relationships and understand how your boundary is currently. I ask the questions, how often and how badly? Sometimes people can violate your boundaries often and it’s just a little bit, and you think, I need a little bit of distance.

Sometimes people can violate your boundaries badly, like abuse, and all they need to do is violate it once. You can understand your current relationships and understand what are the proximities that I need to set. How much distance?

And third, and I love this one, it’s emotions. All the emotional people are like, “Whoa, I feel all those.” But the truth is, emotions are messengers. Emotions are indicators.

The Power of Emotions in Setting Boundaries

And so they just make you ask better questions. So if you’re around somebody that’s constantly triggering you, or you feel anxious around them, or you leave and you feel depleted, maybe you could reassess that situation in that relationship. Maybe some proximity or maybe there’s a conversation that needs to be had.

Or on the other spectrum, maybe some of you are in a season of loneliness and you want closer relationships. Who can you bring closer? Who lights you up? And emotions aren’t the only indicator. Sometimes we feel emotions around people that don’t need to be closer to us, but at least we can ask the right questions. If we look to our emotions, it can help us determine the proximity within our boundaries. But why are boundaries so important?

The Impact of Unhealthy Boundaries

Well, imagine this. Imagine in your inner circle, you have one of those porcupines that constantly triggers you. Well, that’s going to put you in a dysregulated state.

You’re going to be in that fight, flight, freeze, spawn response, and that’s going to affect your relationships, that’s going to affect your mental health, and it’s going to affect your physical health because your body will be in a state of stress. It will just funnel through the rest of your life, every other topic. But what if you actually went from being reactive to proactive?

From Reactive to Proactive: Choosing Your Life

What if you went from just playing defense your whole life from a fear-based state to actually playing offense as well and choosing your life? If you think about it from a basketball perspective, if all you did was play the best defense, the best score you could have is 0-0. But what if we stepped into our power and our choice, and instead of being reactive, we stepped into, what is that sweet spot?

How do I create loving, optimal relationships? We might just move from the illusion of protection from fear-based boundaries to true love, authenticity, and connection of love-based boundaries. When we ask the question, what if boundaries weren’t just a yes or just a no? What if boundaries were a how much? Thank you so much.

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