For those who haven’t heard this one, it’s a famous metaphor originally coined by German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. The premise is simple.
A group of hedgehogs (cute little mammals whose bodies are covered by sharp spines) are trying to get through a very cold Winter. Desiring warmth and intimacy, they try to bundle up close to one another. However, they realize that if they were to try to get close to one another, their sharp spines would cause harm. Thus they are to remain separated and deprived of warmth or intimacy.
This metaphor has been extended to different situations such as the relation between the individual and society, or the plight of an introvert longing for social connection. Today I want to discuss it in the framework of depression.
Peter Lewinsohn was a psychologist who argued that one’s environment and their interactions with said environment are key to understanding depression. Central to his argument was the concept of positive reinforcement, the idea that a behavior that leads to a positive reward or outcome is likely to lead to a repeat of that same behavior in the future. For example, a child that throws a tantrum in a store and receives immediate attention from their parents is likely to throw future tantrums as a means of gaining attention (if you are a parent, please reflect thoughtfully on this).
Lewinsohn suggested that those who are depressed, perhaps as a precursor or as a natural consequence of the disease, struggle with receiving positive reinforcement from their environment. Those who are depressed may not have access to resources or people who can provide them with support or opportunities for happiness. Even worse, those who are depressed may also be less sensitive to positive reinforcers even when presented with them. Without any form of positive reinforcement, there is little incentive in attempting change and those who are depressed are stuck with their negative emotions unable to move past.
However, those who are depressed still desire happiness, intimacy, and social connection. Lewinsohn also argued that depressed individuals may have deficits in social skills that make it harder to receive positive reinforcement from their environment. That is where our friend the hedgehog comes in.
“Don’t be a Debbie Downer.” We’ve all heard that expression. If you’ve ever known someone with major depression, you know it’s not the most fun thing in the world. Depression is a horrible disease, one that not only afflicts the sufferer but their loved ones as well. It can take energy trying to reach someone who is depressed, putting in all your effort to try to engage or have fun with them. Most importantly, it takes patience which is a virtue that not all possess. Many may lose their patience and give up. Or others may feel their own mood being negatively affected and choose not to try anymore.
The individual who is depressed, however, still longs for that social connection or for some kind of positive interaction. Analogous to the hedgehog, as the depressed individual tries to interact with other people in search of positive reinforcement, they may instead experience the opposite with others avoiding them or interacting negatively. In turn, this may lead to depressed individuals isolating themselves further and thus depriving them of future opportunities for positive reinforcement and maintaining their depression. It is a very difficult cycle to be stuck in.
So what is there to do? There is no easy solution. However, if we all become more sympathetic and understanding of the nature of major depression, it is at least a step in the right direction. On the part of those who are depressed, being cognizant that others may want to help and have the right intentions but may not know how to go about it is important as well. Honest communication between both sides could go a long way in not only improving empathy, but also preventing social isolation.