The Volcano and The Turtle

Written by Michele Dial, M.Ed, LPC


Once upon a time, there was a Volcano and Turtle. No, this is not a kid’s story about speed or racing or pacing or how to get ahead. It’s a story about passion and composure. Intensity and calm. Eruption and shelter.


Oftentimes in relationships, we find ourselves feeling unheard, misunderstood, and sometimes utterly ignored. During these times, individuals often react in very common patterns of behavior. For some, it’s easy to reason that if they try a little harder, speak a little more passionately, show a little more emotion, their intended audience will hear them. What starts as a gradual increase in effort can quickly build to epic proportions. Before we know it, the Volcano is erupting, spewing hot lava in all directions.


For others who feel unheard, withdrawal may seem like the only logical solution. What’s the point of continuing to try to reach the other person? They’re not listening, they don’t care about how I feel, so why bother? Add a little hot lava to the mix, and the fear of being burned or hurt can send the Turtle into panic. What starts as silence and downcast eyes can easily lead to full-on retreat straight into the Turtle’s protective shell, sometimes by leaving the room, and sometimes turning inward and slipping away right before your very eyes.


The Volcano and the Turtle are personas that are developed to serve a purpose. The Volcano strives to get attention, ANY attention, good or bad. The Turtle protects oneself from perceived threats, overwhelming emotions, or the sense of impending failure to meet needs and standards by withdrawing into a shell.


Over time, we learn that these personas do not serve the intended purpose effectively anymore, if ever. The Volcano eruption doesn't get you the attention and engagement you’re desperately seeking, but instead pushed the Turtle farther away. And the Turtle’s withdrawal doesn’t stop a partner’s relentless pursuit of engagement, and may in fact inspire elevated pursuit. The Volcano keeps coming on stronger, and the Turtle keeps pulling away until the chasm between the two is so wide, it seems impassable.


And really, the volcano and the turtle do not define you. They are exaggerated expressions (caricatures) of pieces of you that do not feel heard. They are supplemental tools created to compensate when you feel desperate or at a loss. So it is possible to shed those behaviors and still remain authentic to your passion (Volcano) and your composure (Turtle). You are in control of their existence and the utility. You can choose not to invoke them, even when it feels automatic and necessary. And you can develop new behaviors that are more effective at making connection and maintaining peace.


It’s not about silencing or censoring yourself, or changing your core character. Ultimately it’s about learning new ways to connect with your partner, and shifting your perception on how you do that. In the beginning, it’s important to alter some behaviors to make space for reconnection and growth, but ultimately it’s about recognizing the ineffectiveness of old tools, and changing how you engage with and relate to each other.