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The Tortoise and the Hair Trigger

Creating Safety in Relationships: Part 1


--Adam Maisen, LPC-S/TA

· Creating Safety

The Tortoise

Safety is built on trust and stability. When a family dynamic does not support trust and stability, emotional safety cannot be present. Enter the tortoise. When a tortoise gets scared, what does it do? It retreats into the safety of its shell. This shell is hard and rigid and can protect a tortoise from many dangers that might threaten its life.

The same is true with a person’s emotional state. When we feel threatened emotionally (criticized, made fun of, treated harshly, lied to, berated, or thrown under the bus), our hearts start to close.

I have met countless individuals in my practice that tell me: “I just don’t feel anything anymore,” or “It’s…whatever.” These are signs of a tortoise heart. You see, a tortoise heart is one that no longer feels safe to be vulnerable. This heart is emotionally injured and will not leave itself open to be hurt again. It feels resentment, anger, or hurt. But these feelings are painful, and the heart would rather feel numb. In their video series, Fight Your Way to a Better Marriage, Greg and Erin Smalley refer to this phenomenon as the heart closing “like a roly-poly bug.”

The Hair Trigger

One common way that people keep others at arms-length is through a subtle use of anger. I say, “subtle,” because the person doing this often is not fully aware of how they are responding. They may notice that they have been a little more snippy or irritable lately. They may even notice that relationships become more work, but admitting that they are angry would require tapping into the emotion that they are trying to hide from.

Anger cannot survive on its own. What? Yes, anger is not an emotion. Before you say I am crazy, let me explain…

Anger is a human reaction to negative emotions such as embarrassment, sadness, hurt, disappointment, and betrayal Think about it. Have you ever felt anger without at least one of these other feelings being present first?

When someone has a tortoise heart, they are in fight or flight mode. Their heart is hardened, and they are simply trying to survive in the relationship. The tortoise heart expects to be hurt again. Therefore, it is still in its protective shell.

When someone says something that could potentially be construed as criticism, even if it is not intended that way, the tortoise heart feels the need to run away or fight because it is under attack. Even the smallest thing can trigger the anger response.

The Solution

If you want to strengthen your relationships, your communication needs to become more open and honest so that trust can be found, and the tortoise heart can begin feeling safe enough to come out of its shell. This is when forgiveness and healing can begin.

Creating Safety in Relationships Series:

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