We’re All Turtles Sometimes

How do you turtle up? Does it help you grow, or does it keep you stagnant?

A friend got me thinking about the term “turtling” that I sometimes use to describe the process that people go through to hide out and feel secure. We all turtle up in different ways, and one of the challenges of being a coach is to figure out when the turtling is instrumental and when it’s detrimental.

The reason why this is so tricky is because one of the things that coaches have to do is to make people uncomfortable so that they’ll grow. Creative tension isn’t particularly comfortable, but it’s from that position that positive change happens. Yet if you make people too uncomfortable, they’ll turtle up and start resisting you and their own growth.

And some people have a tendency to get overwhelmed and not let me know about it. Their turtling process is a coping mechanism — instead of engaging with the things that are overwhelming them, they shut everything off. If you poke at them in the wrong way when they’re turtling up, they just ignore you until something breaks. But if they’re not telling you they’re overwhelmed, you don’t know that they need help.

In other cases, people need to turtle up so that they can process what they’re feeling and figure out what they need to do next. It’s not that they’re scared or overwhelmed, but merely that they have a tendency to turtle up, plot, and then run like hell when they’re ready. If you don’t let them do their thing, they’ll never take off running, yet you also have to be careful that they don’t put their blinders on once they start running. (This is my pattern, in case you’re curious.)

Of course, to make things even trickier, you sometimes have to recommend that people turtle up so that they don’t do things they’ll later regret. This is especially true for people who wear their heart on their sleeves. Their emotional intensity can be too much for some people to handle, and many people aren’t nearly as forgiving of the things that are said during emotionally intense times as the people who process their emotions socially and openly. It’s easy for them to resent the fact that you’re asking them to play it cool because they can’t process things by playing cool, yet you know that their emotionally unloading on other people will only make matters worse. Even though you’re saying “not here and not now,” they hear “not ever.”

Turtling up is neither good nor bad, and we all need to do it sometimes.

The real question is not about whether you’re turtling, but instead, whether your turtling is helping you grow or keeping you from growing. If you’re too secure and comfortable, you’re not growing in the ways that you could, but if you’re not taking the time to process and integrate experiences — or to give people space away from your emotional intensity — then you’re also not growing as much as you can.

How do you turtle up? Can you tell when it’s instrumental or detrimental? If you know that your turtling is detrimental, do you know how to come out of your shell?


Charlie Gilkey is an author, business advisor, and podcaster who teaches people how to start finishing what matters most. Click here to get more tools that’ll help you be a productive, flourishing co-creator of a better tomorrow.