Mind Turtles

05/12/2015 02:30 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2016

In 1990, I was visiting Hawaii for the first time when a group of overzealous new friends from around the world convinced me to come with them to watch the sunrise over what they promised me was the most primal place on earth - a spot where lava from the resident volcano flowed like a waterfall into the sea, creating giant pillars of steam as the liquid fire hit the ocean.

What I didn't realize at the time was they'd mostly invited me so that I would drive, as most of them didn't have US licences and none of them were up for leading the 3am trek across the island. So off we went, my exhaustion tempered by excitement, until the excitement waned and I began to drift off behind the wheel of the rental car.

Suddenly, the car shuddered and my passengers and I jolted to our senses as I quickly pulled off to the side of the road.

"What the heck was that?" I asked.

"Don't worry, mate," said the Aussie in the back. "It was just a turtle."

"I ran over a turtle?" I exclaimed.

"Not a turtle turtle, you dope - a road turtle!"

As we got back on the road and continued on our now more wide-awake journey towards the sunrise, we established that "road turtle" was one of the many names given to the raised pavement markers used on many roads to avoid exactly the kind of accident the one I ran over had helped us to avoid. (They are also called "Bott's Dots", "road studs", and "cat's eye's", depending on what part of the world you are from.)

Fast forward twenty years to a conversation with Dr. Keith Blevens, a long-time mentor and now a colleague in sharing the inside-out understanding. We were talking about the nature of the mind and emotion and Keith told me, "You know, in a way, our insecure feelings are like those raised pavement markers designed to let us know when we're drifting off the road. When you understand that all a negative emotion is telling you is that you're beginning to drift off track in your thinking, they become incredibly useful instead of anything to worry about."

And for me, the concept of a "mind turtle" was born -- those things in our experience that let us know that our thinking is off and that now would be a good time for us take our foot off the gas, stop revving up our thinking, and instead take a bit of time out to let our thoughts settle and reconnect to our common sense and innate wisdom.

Here's a short-list of mind turtles that I've seen in myself and with my clients:

  • Righteous indignation
  • Stress and worry
  • Loss of sense of humor
  • Nervousness
  • Panic
  • Urgency
  • "Once and for all!"
  • "The final straw!"

The problem with a lot of psychology is that it is based on a fundamental misinterpretation of our emotional signals. We treat our negative emotions as some kind of divine oracle or pesky nuisance, either worshiping at their altar or doing our best to avoid feeling them altogether, but neither approach is particularly useful.

After all, if you drive over a road turtle, you don't feel the need to examine it more closely or get rid of it altogether -- you recognize that now would be a good time to pay a bit more attention to what you're doing and not get back into the flow of traffic until you can do so safely.

In the same way, if you knew that any time you were feeling uncomfortable feelings it just meant you'd temporarily lost your bearings and gotten a bit caught up in some insecure thinking, life would get much simpler immediately. You'd no longer need to worry about worrying so much, panic about panicking, or stress out about stressing out. You could simply step back in your mind and hold off on your actions until you were feeling clear and seeing clearly -- and then proceed with confidence from a higher level of psychological functioning.

This understanding doesn't mean you will never again think insecure thoughts or feel uncomfortable feelings, any more than taking your car to the mechanic means your "check engine" light will never come on again. It just means that when that light comes on, you know to check the engine of your thinking instead of investing your time and energy in fixing the light.

With all my love,