Wednesday, March 9, 2011


Friendship, love
it's all an illusion

No one really wants to connect with me

Trust is useless
unless I like the pain

I can't pretend there's no pain anymore

I only exist in my mind
no one else sees

So what's the point?

(I purposely disabled comments because I just wanted this moment to be captured for myself. But if anyone is concerned, thank you!! :), and see my response to Charles' last comment in my previous post.)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Turtle Wisdom, part 2: Reliable Membership

(This is part 2 of my Turtle Wisdom series, exploring the Map of Relationships on Al Turtle’s website.)
Back to the introduction.

Previously, I explored the first skill on Al Turtle’s Map of Relationships: Safety. Today I’m going to look at the second piece of the Biological Dream, which he calls “Reliable Membership”.

Al says, “All humans require reliable, sufficient and not excessive, contact with other humans.”

Humans are social animals. We need to live in a herd to increase our survivability. I think we can all agree that this is a biological requirement for children up to a certain age (Al suggests age 7 or 8). And in adulthood there is still a biological drive for connection, although it can be overridden by a history of unpleasant social experiences. For example, as Al notes, people become hermits when they’ve repeatedly experienced unpleasantness when trying to connect with others.

But since survival is the primary biological goal, our brains evolved circuitry for social behavior. This circuitry is mainly located in the area of the brain called the limbic system, which as you may recall from my previous post, is located in the “midbrain”—right on top of the Lizard! (If you are just joining us, go back here to learn about your Lizard.)

The significance of this location is that the neural connections between our need to connect with others and our panic button (fight or flight reaction) are very short and very quick. In other words, any threats to our need for social connection are seen quickly and clearly by the Lizard. And we know what happens when our Lizard is activated!

How much connection do we require?

All people are basically the same in that we have this biological drive to live with others. But we differ in the amount of connection we require. Al draws from attachment theory to posit that the amount of connection we each find comfortable is formed in childhood. Our childhood experience with connection ranges from “absolute unreliability or insufficiency of connection to absolute excessive connection.” We are all located somewhere on that continuum. Al also notes that as we grow our required amount of contact may change, so we could move up or down this continuum.

Al labels the behaviors that result from our differing needs for connection “clinging” and “avoiding.”* And, he outlines the differences beautifully in this chart (I have paraphrased some for brevity):

Clingers: Received Unreliable or Insufficient Contact in Childhood

Children who got too little or intermittent connection from caregivers have very active Lizards—they panic. They survive by developing Clinging skills: staying close, holding on, resisting separation. These survival skills of clinging and pursuing, driven by panic, become habits and follow the child into adulthood.

Reactive Behavior
When these adults panic, they move toward others, especially their partner. They ask questions, follow, push toward, talk at, and in general become invasive of their partner’s space. As an adult clinging may become very controlling, possessing, captivating, cornering. This is the source of stalking behavior.

Frequent thoughts or fears of your partner leaving you behind.

When nervous, you will focus on your partner’s evasiveness, withdrawal, silence. You may also have day or night dreams of safe togetherness – of finally living happily forever.

Avoiders: Received Excessive or Unpleasant Contact in Childhood

Children who experience too much or painful contact also have active Lizards—they panic. They survive by developing Avoiding skills. These are behaviors that do not invite contact. Even when hungry these children don’t cry. We often call them “good babies,” but really they are happier when left alone. As these children grow, when they can walk, they develop isolating skills, such as having hiding places, wandering off, climbing trees and not coming down, running away, sitting at the far end of the room, etc. These survival skills of avoiding and isolating, driven by panic, become habits and follow the child into adulthood.

Reactive Behavior
When these adults panic, they move away from others, especially their partner. They are quiet, self-contained, elusive, non-talkative, and in general, emotionally cold.

Your mind often goes blank when your partner talks, asks, or moves toward you.

When nervous, you will focus on your partner’s invasiveness, attacking, pushing, and you may dream of peace, quiet, and space.

Like Al, I prefer to not label people Clingers and Avoiders. Rather, people display clinging and avoiding behaviors. It is an important distinction because we can become clinging or avoiding at different times in our lives and within different relationships. (In this post, however, I will use "Clingers" and "Avoiders" for convenience when explaining the differences.)

Often we respond in reaction to the person we are with, usually taking on the opposite role. I tend to be clinging in my marriage (in response to Jason’s avoiding tendencies), but I once had a boyfriend who was somewhat smothering and I remember developing some strong avoiding behaviors to get the space I desired. This also works with friendships. As a child, I remember so strongly desiring friendship with a particular girl that I became very clinging, always calling her, asking her to come out to play. And I had another friend in high school who was so clinging with me, that I began hesitating before returning her calls, and I stopped inviting her along every time my friends got together.

But I agree with Al that we seem to have a natural tendency towards one side of the continuum as a result of childhood experiences (attachment theory) and in-born traits (personality theory). I can see how introverting vs. extraverting preferences could have some effect on this. I think the most important factor, however, that determines a person’s general position on the continuum is what activates their Lizard. Do you feel more unsafe or panicked when there is a threat of isolation, or do you feel more unsafe and panicked when there is a threat of overwhelming and unpleasant contact?

Let’s look at what all of this means for relationships.

The Problem

“When a Clinging person gets nervous, they tend to move toward their partner in order to reduce their panic. The Avoiding partner sees someone coming and, starting to panic, they move away. The Clinger sees their partner moving away, and moves faster. The Avoider runs faster from the clinging person, who is now chasing them. The two run toward what I call the Leaving Wall, the wall at the edge of the relationship – the Divorce Wall.”
~Al Turtle

A Clinger is scared of their partner leaving. They panic when their partner says things like, “I can’t take this anymore” or “I need to get away.” When panicked, Clingers often visualize their partner divorcing them, having an affair, or dying, etc. They then try to protect themselves by trying to get more connection. Which, of course, pushes an avoiding partner further away.


For an Avoider, leaving is a move towards safety. Instead, what scares them is the lack of space in a relationship. Avoiders often see contact as conflict. When panicked, they will move towards leaving a relationship if there is no built in safe space within the relationship.

Skills for Relationships

1. Create safe space within the relationship by learning how to take Time Outs. (Al gives specifics about Time Outs here.)

2. Clingers need to learn to be happy when alone and learn to switch to the on-your-own mode quickly.

3. Clingers often need to find other sources of connection in the world. But, and as Al says “this is a big but,” you can’t draw on sources that would threaten your partner. So build a network of friends, join volunteer organizations, keep pets, etc. And learn to shift from connecting with your partner to alone-mode, to friends, and back to your partner quickly, keeping the connection time with your partner the highest priority.

4. Avoiders need to learn to anticipate their need for space, and signal their partner when they need a Time Out.

5. Avoiders need to tend to their partner’s need for reliability by showing that their need for space is not a move towards leaving. Often, simply stating when you’ll return is enough to keep your partner calm. For example, “I need a time out—I’ll be in the garage for about two hours.” Or “I’d really like to read my book now, I’ll come back downstairs at 10:00 and we can talk about the kids then.” Al calls this Relationship Responsibility—“You can’t blame your partner for your need for space. You have to come back.”

And one last note. When in the midst of a clinging/avoiding event (when both lizards are panicked and the clinging partner begins chasing the avoiding partner who is sprinting towards the door) it is very important for the clinging partner to take the lead. Ideally, Clingers need to learn to call a Time Out for the Avoider, before the Avoider even realizes that they need it. This is because panic causes a Clinger to activate and an Avoider to shut-down. The frozen Avoider cannot call a Time Out when their brain has shut down. Al has a wonderful essay explaining this idea which he calls The Testicle Principle (even just finding out why he chose this name makes the essay well worth the read!)

So, that’s the second step on the Map. We’ve now explored the first two steps towards Vintage Love: learning to live with your Lizards and understanding each others’ needs for reliable connection. Interestingly, these are both unconscious aspects of the Biological Dream. The Lizard acts without our conscious control, and our need for connection is a hard-wired drive.

The next three skills on the Map are conscious: diversity, autonomy, and purpose. At first I thought that these would be the easy ones. That I have already learned good skills to maintain these aspects in my relationships. Boy, was I surprised!

Just wait…

* This concept was first discussed by Harville Hendrix, the founder of Imago Relationship Therapy. He used the terms “fusers and isolaters.”

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Turtle Bites

(photo found in google image search, photographer unknown)

While I’m working on making the next post in my series on The Map of Relationships intelligible, I thought I’d share a couple Al Turtle quotes.

Just some food for thought. (And a bit of a glimpse into the future of this series of posts.)

Some of Al’s definitions:

Bully (original version)-- A person who wants their way and when they don’t get their way, they make other people unhappy.

Bully (Al’s new version)-- A person who wants their vision of reality, their interpretation of reality, to be the only surviving interpretation of reality, and they want other people to not talk about disagreeing.

Leader-- A true leader is a person who does not allow anyone to be disrespected in his or her presence. Also, a person who maintains dialogical space when not making a decision.

Dialogical-- sharing points of view peacefully.

Dialogue-- 1) Any sentence that implies the existence of multiple points of view of reality. 2) A conversation in which both are comfortably sharing their differing ways of seeing and appreciating the world.

MasterTalk (the opposite of Dialogue)-- Any sentence that implies there is a single correct way of seeing reality. “It is warm.”

Some of Al’s One-Liners:

All people make sense all the time.

If two people are agreeing, at least one of them is lying.

All people are chronically disobedient… learn to live with it.

Falling in love is an invitation to the brilliance of being fully alive.

Divorce that old relationship. Don't divorce your partner.

You can either be "right" or in "relationship". Take your pick.

Your stuff is never my fault. And I care about you. So how can I help you with your stuff?

What is madness but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance.

I just love the way this guy thinks! I hope you are finding his ideas just as thought-provoking as I do.

I’ll be back very soon with the next post in the series….

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Safety and Getting to Know Your Lizard

(This is part 1 of a series called Turtle Wisdom, exploring the Map of Relationships on Al Turtle’s website. Go back to my introduction here, if you are just joining us.)

Is your relationship a place of safety? Does your blood pressure drop and you go “ahhhhh” when you hear you partner’s car turn into the driveway? Are you a source of safety to your children?

I think we can all agree that safety is the basis of any healthy relationship. And it is particularly important in our intimate relationships. So, let’s explore what it means to feel safe.

I think we can all agree that we are hard-wired to seek physical safety. If we didn’t seek safety we could often find ourselves in places of danger. And that’s not a place that has a high rate of survival.

We share this survival instinct with other mammals, reptiles, and birds. It is a simple mechanism with just two modes: safe or about-to-die. I’m sure you know what happens when we sense a threat. We call it the fight or flight response. Adrenaline floods your body in an instant. Your blood pressure rises, your heart beats faster, muscles are primed and all energy is diverted from other systems. Digestion stops, thoughts cease, peripheral vision goes dark, sexual response is turned off, and the immune system is suppressed. Your body prepares to fight, flee, submit, or freeze.

What’s interesting is that most of us have never been in a life-threatening situation. Yet we experience this reaction quite often, especially when interacting with another person. So why do we experience this reaction when there is no apparent physical threat? And what does any of this have to do with lizards?

I love how Al Turtle answers these questions. He calls our survival mechanism “the Lizard.”

The Lizard

The Lizard lives in your brain. It is found in the deepest, most primitive section of your brain which is often called the reptilian brain (hence, Al’s choice of name). The Lizard controls automatic functions (such as breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure), survival functions (fight or flight responses), has no sense of time, and needs no relationship, no need for community. It’s job is to keep you alive.

We trust our Lizard to keep our heart beating and our lungs breathing. This sense of trust is remarkable—think of the comfort you feel when falling asleep. We don’t worry about keeping our heart beating because we know that our Lizard is handling it. We feel safe when our Lizard is calm. As Al says, “Safety is a physical state of relaxation characterized by inactivity of the brain’s survival mechanism—the Lizard. This state is visible and measurable. It is often characterized by play and fun, playful mating, nurturing, loving, and caring behaviors, or creative activities.”

When the Lizard senses a threat, it becomes active to protect you. It switches out of safe mode and turns on the fight or flight response. I think it’s important to note that when your Lizard is active it is impossible to engage in the above “calm Lizard behaviors.”

So let’s review what a bothered Lizard looks like. In animals, these behaviors are clear, easy to recognize. Fighting is a physical fight until all threat is gone. Fleeing is physically running away from the threat. Submitting is when they roll over or back down and relinquish dominance. And freezing is when they become motionless in the hope that the predator will not see them.

But in humans these behaviors are often less obvious. This is because our brain has two additional layers on top of the reptilian brain. Above the Lizard is the mammalian addition, or limbic system. It gives us emotions such as joy and grief and our need to live in a community. And the top layer is the primate addition, the cortex, which is basically a huge, efficient hard-drive. It’s function is data storage (memory) and abstract thinking.

Since the Lizard is buried deep in our cranium, it can’t see the outside world very clearly. It mostly sees what the cortex is doing. And the cortex is busy making sense of the outside world by associating input with the stored data/memories. So the Lizard reacts to internal associations and imaginations more often than actual reality. Remember, the Lizard is a pretty simple creature. It sees things in black and white: either we are safe or we are about to die. And, it doesn’t pause to separate real threats from imagined threats. (Such a pause would have led to extinction millennia ago.) This is why we experience the fight or flight response in the absence of a real threat. How often do we see others react in strange ways when there is no apparent threat or reason to feel unsafe?! When we see these strange reactions we are seeing their Lizard.

As Al Turtle explains, “Interestingly, the Lizard reacts if the normal functions of other parts of the brain are threatened. If the mid-brain’s need for community is threatened, the Lizard reacts in survival mode. While the mid-brain is producing the emotion of loneliness, the Lizard may initiate panic and fighting behavior to make sure that you are not left alone. If the primate brain’s need for diversity or difference is threatened, the Lizard may avoid contact – freeze or flee. If the primate brain’s autonomous behavior is threatened, the Lizard may begin submitting behavior.”

A personal example is that when someone speaks to me in the tone of voice that my father used when he was unhappy with me, my Lizard reacts. Sometimes, simply being in the presence of an authority figure wakens my Lizard. No threat present, but dang if I don’t shut down into a freezing behavior.

Here are some other examples of human responses.

Active Lizard Behaviors:

Fighting-- Can be physical or verbal, such as arguing, controlling, actively manipulating.

Fleeing-- Getting away, staying at the office extra hours, or escaping into cyberspace when sitting next to your partner on the sofa (when your lizard is active, not when you are enjoying quiet companionship.) Changing the subject. Hiding behind a newspaper.

Submitting-- Saying yes when you mean no, or agreeing when you don’t (“Okay, fine. It’s fine.”) Doing something you don’t want to be doing. Many people are taught to submit. This is the core of codependence: making submitting a permanent behavior rather than a temporary stress response.

Freezing-- Shutting down, doing nothing, or not dealing with an issue. Becoming motionless or invisible (as students do when the teacher asks a difficult question). Any attempts to avoid being direct, such as passive lying (withholding), asking “what do you want to do?” or responding with “I don’t know.”

As you can see, most of our active lizard behaviors are triggered by interactions with others. So let’s go back to the first question in this post. Is your relationship a place of safety?

Lizards in Relationship

We now know that feeling safe means having a calm Lizard. And we listed what calm Lizard behaviors look like. But I’d bet that the majority of couples spend more time in active Lizard mode than they’d like. In fact, Al says many people live with their Lizards active all of the time that they are in relationship. Only when they are alone do they feel safe. And that some Lizards never go to sleep. Their owners live in a state we call chronic stress.

Clearly, establishing a zone of safety is one of the most important skills in creating a great relationship.

Skills to create safety:
1. Get to know your Lizard

Learn what bothers it. Learn what soothes it. Train your Lizard to trust your cortex, to pause and consider whether the threat is real or imaginary. And train your cortex to take care of your Lizard rather than letting your Lizard rule your cortex. Be aware of thought patterns which bother the Lizard and stop thinking them.

2. Get to know your partner’s Lizard

Become a source of safety to your partner’s Lizard. Notice when your partner’s Lizard is bothered. The signs of increased blood pressure are visible, pay attention. Look for those active Lizard behaviors. Remember that when Lizards are active you are talking to a Lizard, not your partner. Ask them what you can do to make them feel safer. Never tell a Lizard that the threat isn’t real. It’s real to them. And you’ll become a threat if you seem to be saying that they are “crazy.” (Think of how often people tell children “there is nothing to fear, so stop crying”!) If one person says they are scared and the other says there’s nothing dangerous here, that person now becomes a source of danger because they are rejecting their partner’s need for safety.

3. Learn how to take Time-Outs.

You can’t stop a Lizard. Lizards react extremely quickly. They flood the body with adrenaline at the slightest hint of threat. And, it takes a minimum of 20 minutes for the Lizard to calm down (or for the adrenaline to leave the bloodstream.) If you see your partner’s Lizard become active, stop everything and call a Time Out. Al lists specific rules (here) to ensure it is a Time Out within the relationship, not an exit from the relationship, because many Lizards react when it sounds like their partner is trying to leave the relationship. (My Lizard hates this. I’ll explore why in a future post.)

4. Create lists of caring behaviors

Discover and share what makes each other’s Lizard happy. Be specific about behaviors that your partner can do which make you feel safe. Al gives examples on his website, here.

5. Share everything

Lizards love predictive information and reliability. We strive to understand ourselves and our partner’s actions (why do you do that?) because it keeps our Lizard calm. Lizards don’t like surprises.

Another note from Al:
“Many of us were taught that if you can’t say something nice don’t say it—this is crazy. You are trying to make someone feel safe by lying or withholding information. You do it because you don’t feel safe telling the truth. If you lie to make your partner feel safe, you make your partner twice as unsafe. Our culture says if you don’t talk about something it’s not there. But in an intimate relationship, if you don’t talk about something it gives it more power.”
This is why it’s important to share everything (but sharing needs to be done nicely, with good timing—best to share when Lizards feel safe!)

(I encourage you to explore Al’s website for much more information about the Lizard and how to create safety in your relationship. He’s the expert, I’m just the messenger.)

Next post I’ll explore the second skill on Al’s Map of Relationships: something he calls Reliable Membership.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Turtle Wisdom—a series about being human

In my last post I shared Al Turtle’s Map of Relationships. His ideas have sparked lots of introspection for me, and I find much wisdom in his approach to understanding human behavior.

I’ve decided to explore myself using Al’s map as a guide and to invite you along! I'll be posting each step of my adventure. Along the way, perhaps you will relate to my thoughts. Perhaps you’ll discover a new perspective because I’m so different from you. Perhaps I’ll even inspire you to embark on your own quest. At the very least, I hope my travels will be entertaining. :)

So here’s the plan. The map says that to get to vintage love you need to do three things:

1. Learn the following Biological Dream skills (and stop using the traditional skills learned in childhood):
a. Safety
b. Reliable membership
c. Diversity
d. Autonomy
e. Purpose
2. Heal wounds

3. Share everything

So my first challenge is to learn about safety. What is Al talking about and what do I need to do?

Have you ever felt fear or pain about something that isn’t real or isn’t actually happening? Sometimes the cause of the fear is easy to find. For example, we can understand why someone would experience a fear reaction every time they smell smoke, if we know that they escaped a house fire in childhood. But why would someone feel unsafe when they smell bleach? Or experience a freezing reaction (mind goes blank, unable to think) whenever their loving, non-abusive partner uses a particular tone of voice? The human fear response can be triggered in situations where there is no actual threat to safety. In fact, some people live in this state of fear 24/7-- we call it chronic stress.

Al Turtle blames these feelings on “the lizard." Do you have a lizard in your brain? Tune in next post to find out. Let’s explore the skill of safety.

On to part 1.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

So Scientific!

Quote from NOAA's (National Weather Center's) forecast discussion for Tuesday night (Feb. 9th):


Just sayin'...

(photo credit: Dan Urbanski at

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Map of Relationships

(photo shamelessly stolen from the internet, photographer unknown)

Hello, everyone! I am very sorry that I’ve seemed to disappear from the blog world. All is well. It’s just been a case of that pesky Newton’s first law: inertia.

And yes, that body at rest (me not blogging) would have remained at rest without an outside force. :P

Although I’ve been at rest in the blogosphere, I’ve been very active in my head. With my explorations into the meaning of life. Probably another case of inertia… :)

So what is the outside force that nudged me back to blogging? A new podcast series from one of the wisest counselors I’ve ever read. I am so excited about Al Turtle’s relationship wisdom that I just had to share this with all of you.

Anyone who wants to have the “perfect” relationship (romantic or otherwise) has got to listen to Al talk about his “Map of Relationships.”

One of the things that has bothered me for years is the lack of a role model for what makes a healthy relationship. Couples in books, TV shows, and movies all seem to be struggling with their relationships. It makes for good drama, of course. And everyone can relate to the humor, angst, and pain that results. But what does a healthy relationship look like? A healthy, happy couple is rarely depicted. So rare that I don’t have a model in my head of how it would work in reality. I think most of us can describe characteristics that are not part of a healthy relationship. It’s easy to see that it would not involve a power struggle or arguing. And, many of us can quickly and easily point out couples who are not healthy. But what does a healthy couple do? How does it work? It seems that most of us can describe what a perfect relationship would feel like, but I haven’t found anyone who can explain exactly how to achieve it.

Until now.

Al Turtle is an Imago trained couples counselor. He started using the ideas of Imago theory in his practice and in his own marriage years ago. And he found problems. But unlike many counselors who just plod away using the theory without questioning it, Al started taking notes on the problems. And the notes became essays that he filed on his website. And, lucky for us, Al has a unique background and skill set that I would bet is uncommon for therapists. Before he became a counselor, he was trained as an electrical technician in the Navy during the Vietnam war. He likes to fix things. He knows how to analyze and fix problems in a very concrete and practical way. He is also very skilled at drawing charts and maps. So, he was able to bring all of these skills together and create this Map of Relationships.

And now, for the next 6 weeks, he is doing an interview series (podcast) with Laura Lavigne, blog talk show host, to talk about his Relationship Wisdom. The first episode was yesterday.

So, if you have any interest in learning how to achieve “Vintage Love” or even how to improve your parenting skills (yes, really!), listen in— I highly recommend it!