Bears and Turtles and Relational Circuits

I last wrote some thoughts on how shame affects us and a little about getting free from that. A few months ago, in April, I wrote about the influence of triggers from the past and how triggers affect the relational circuits (RC’s) in the brain. Lately I have been musing on how these topics go together. As I said in the blog on shame, it’s very easy to get triggered by corrections or disagreements if we grew up with toxic shame that sent messages that communicated, “You are bad.” Any hint from another person that sounds or feels like an unresolved toxic shame message and defenses will rise up. When that happens, the RC’s are off and we are now in non-relational mode. Since we cannot relate to a defense mechanism; only to another person, it seems vital to authentic relationships that we understand some things about this dilemma. Perhaps looking at some questions will be helpful.  (For more on this topic, check out this book.)

“What does it really mean to be in non-relational mode (RC’s off)?”

When we are in a non-relational mode with our relational circuits off, we are not acting like our true selves because the defenses are up. Defense mechanisms include anger, shame, accusing, blaming, controlling, withdrawing and hurting. When these attitudes or actions are going on, we cannot relate because the one defending is either attacking or withdrawing. But if we do not know this, we will continue to try to get through to the person whose RC’s are off. It is useless; the brain is melted down and non-relational.  

Most fights/arguments develop when RC’s are off and we continue trying to relate as if they were on. Whether it is a child throwing a tantrum or an adult protecting him or herself from feeling bad about themselves, Wisdom says, “Back off and wait. I cannot relate to this defense mechanism. Maybe later. . .  Maybe with a third party. . .  Maybe never.”

“How do I know when mine or someone else’s are off?”

It can be difficult in the heat of feeling triggered by toxic shame to recognize that our RC’s, or another’s, are off. It has been a lifelong habit to get defensive. But through hard work, desire and practice, we can begin to notice that we have gone into non-relational mode. Ed Khouri and Dr. Jim Wilder have a quick checklist that can help:

“I just want to make a problem, person or feeling go away. I don’t want to listen to what others have to say. My mind is locked onto something upsetting. I don’t want to be connected to someone I usually like. I just want to get away, fight or freeze. I more aggressively interrogate, judge and fix others.”

Noticing any of these feelings/attitudes can help us stop and regroup before we hurt someone we love.

“How does interacting change when someone is in non-relational mode?”

People who are in non-relational mode usually react in one of two ways. In my small group we call them “bears” or “turtles.” At first glance we might quickly discern that it’s important in relationships to never poke the bear if there is one around. And we might see how much easier it is to be in relationship with a turtle. Taking that stance could lead us to believe that bears are “bad” and turtles are “good.” That thinking can cause some real problems since the two seem to attract each other. So I want to point out in our list above of defense mechanisms that one of them is a turtle defense—withdrawing. Turtles do not appear to be as hurtful as their counterpart–bears–but withdrawing can be a powerful weapon of defense and hurt. Both types of defense are non-relational mode with the RC’s off.

Generally leaning towards the turtle side of defense myself, I tend to get non-relational when I don’t want to be bothered, I feel irritable and impatient and just want to be left alone. I seldom do the angry, accusing, blaming game. It can be easy to fear the growling bear and feel uncertain about what, how and when to interact, but I am working on that and God is showing me some truths that I want to be part of my life. If having authentic relationships is important, then there is nowhere in them for fear. Bears and turtles both are operating fear: Fear of rejection, fear of confrontation, fear of hearing where they need to change, fear of feeling bad about oneself. In order to have an authentic, intimate relationship, bears and turtles need healing from their triggers and courage to interact kindly with give and take.

Whether you tend towards being a bear or a turtle, it will be helpful to realize that during a confrontation where one or the other is in non-relational mode, it is absolutely imperative to remember that we must never, never, never, never, and never trust what someone is saying to us when their relational circuits are off. Their intent is to hurt, manipulate, self-protect and control. What comes spewing from the mouth of a non-relational brain is venom designed to stop any messages that could be interpreted as toxic shame. The message may have been simply an observation, but if toxic shame gets triggered, the hearer will believe he or she is under attack–and that the person in front of them is the reason. Most people attack back—even if the attack is silent.

“How do I get my RC’s back on?”

The answer to this question is obvious to those of us who know Jesus. We must turn to Him as soon as we realize we are headed towards defense. But again, realistically, it can happen in a split second. That brain melt-down can turn off the RC’s in an instant. It will take desire, healing, maturity and the power of the Holy Spirit to stop the cycle. We have to want to stay relational and act like ourselves. We need healing from the triggers that set off toxic shame. We need to grow to at least adult maturity where we can protect others from ourselves by taking a break to calm rather than attacking or withdrawing. And of course we have to turn to Jesus and trust Him to work these things into our experience. Authentic, intimate relationships demand it.

In addition, there are physical exercises that can help get the RC’s back on. In the center of the chest, the vagus nerve (it runs parallel down the center of the body) is closest to the surface of our skin. By tapping back and forth with each hand (fingers) we can reset the brain and bring the RC’s back on. At the same time we say the verse, “Whenever I am afraid, (upset, angry, etc) I will trust in You, O Lord.” (Psalm 56:3) Thinking of something that we appreciate will also reset the RC’s. This can be anything that makes us feel like saying, “Ahhh.” (See blogs in April 2011, Calming the Brain Parts 1, 2, 3)

“Can I help another get their RC’s back on?”

Depending on the relationship, the maturity and the situation, if we have our RC’s on, we can gently help another. Before trying to help someone who is upset and non-relational, we have to first synchronize with them, meeting them where they are with understanding. There are times when it is best to wait until everyone is calm and then talk again. It does not help to pretend like the incident never happened. But again, there has to be some maturity and skills for repairing. Some people do not have the maturity to discuss differences without going into defense mode with their RC’s off. If we truly want to have deep relationships we will do the hard work it takes to make that happen.

I hope these musings will at least help us become aware of how the brain works in relationships and encourage us to get healing from toxic shame messages so that when the message is not truly toxic, but rather a good shame message that is a call for closeness, that we will be free to stay relational.



About Barbara Moon

I am an ordinary person who walks with an extraordinary God. I love to share what He has done in my life. I love to help parents with their kid questions. I love to teach little ones to swim. I love to study and learn new things and for the last ten years I have been focusing on how the brain works in connection with joyful relationships, how that affects development, maturity and trauma recovery. When not writing, my days are full of family, (especially grandchildren), mentoring, counseling, sewing, and reading.
This entry was posted in Current joyful musings, Relationships. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Bears and Turtles and Relational Circuits

  1. Pat Black says:

    Wow, this spoke volumes to me. I most certainly lean towards the turtle defense.

  2. Marlene McInturff says:

    Thank you for this article and Freedom From How Shame Shapes Us. Very helpful to me and two of my friends. We love your posts. You put it in a way that helps us “get it”. For instance I did not understand the good shame concept even though I read what Dr. Wilder said or heard him on a munchie. Do you have any posts on the 4+ story?
    Merry Christmas

    • Barbara Moon says:

      Marlene, I don’t remember writing on the four plus stories, but I can. I look at the stories as “stories” in general and try to tell stories whenever I can. If we put all the ingredients, it helps the other person see that they can return to joy from that emotions. Sometimes I tell them deliberately and other times I just “tell a story.” For me it is part of mentoring. Let me think about it and I will see after Christmas. I am glad the blogs helped you and that you can get it. That is my goal. Sometimes Dr. Wilder is over people’s heads that dont know all his lingo, so I try to make it plain. That is what I did with my Parenting book–I put the “brain stuff” into everyday language.
      You made my day by commenting. Merry Christmas to you and yours.

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