Are You a Badger or a Turtle? Developing Healthy Communication Styles

Individual differences in how we deal with anxiety impacts how we respond internally – and externally – to relationship challenges, and is reflected in our interpersonal communication styles.  ~ Glynis Sherwood


by Glynis Sherwood

When you disagree with a loved one or friend how do you handle it?  Do you feel anxious and tend to withdraw or shut down, believing that if you stay quiet things will blow over or not get worse because you are not putting yourself at risk, or don’t speak up because you believe you won’t get what you need?  If so, you tend to be a Turtle, retreating into your shell until you believe the coast is clear.  Or do you experience fear and cling tighter or come on strong because you worry that you could be abandoned unless you fight to be heard?  In this case you are more likely a Badger, persistent and determined, but prone to be fiery if you don’t get what you need from relationships.  On the other hand, do you tend to feel relaxed enough to calmly assess the situation and deal with it openly and assertively for your sake and the sake of the relationship?  Do you do a combination of all three, depending on the situation?


Although these are very different responses to stress in relationships, what all three approaches have in common is an attempt to protect oneself and the relationship.  The main difference – besides behavior – is that Turtles and Badgers experience a lot of anxiety and become defensive during disagreements, as they fear they could lose the relationship and/or their sense of self worth as a consequence of being at odds with someone they care about.  Turtles and Badgers view differences as a potential threat to their  sense of themselves and have difficulty trusting the people they have relationships with to not reject or abandon them, especially during conflict.


It’s true that interpersonal differences can lead to anxiety for just about anyone.  But it’s individual variations in how we respond to interpersonal anxiety that is reflected in our communication styles.  People tend to respond in one of three different ways, depending on how they learned to manage both interpersonal challenges and anxiety in their original families, and how supported they felt as a developing person attempting to navigate differences: Healthy, Ambivalent or Avoidant.


Although we can and may move from one communication style to another, depending on habit and how high the perceived stakes are, human beings lean towards a dominant style when under pressure.  Our dominant communication style when undergoing interpersonal stress is primarily based on how secure we feel in our relationships – which is also a reflection of how safe and loved we felt in our family growing up.


The chart below outlines the 3 different communication styles during interpersonal stress:


Interpersonal Communication Styles Under Stress


Badger                                                 VS                                             Turtle


Insecure Attachment                    Secure Attachment                         Insecure Attachment

Fear basedSecureFear based
Clingy/DramaticDirectWithdrawn/Emotionally Shut Down
AttackingHonest/OpenSilent Treatment
Hostile/FearfulCalm/NeutralCold/Sneaky Anger
BlameAccountability Resentment
AggressiveAssertivePassive or Passive Aggressive
Emotionally ReactiveEmotionally PresentEmotionally Distant


Secure Attachment and Relationships

Humans are highly social animals with an innate drive to be part of a group or tribe.  Our first ‘tribe’ is the family we grew up in.  As children we have intensely strong psychological needs to bond well with the people who raise us, particularly our parents, as our survival depends on it.  Secure bonding – or attachment – is fundamental to our sense of being able to survive mentally and physically.


Attachment bonding begins in infancy.  If parent(s) are optimally attuned to their baby both psychologically and physically, then a secure attachment is likely to develop.  Secure attachment is an interactive process whereby a parent responds non-verbally and verbally to a baby’s cues that s/he needs attention or soothing.  The baby in turn reads their parent’s responsiveness as signals that they are invested in her/his welfare and develops a sense of trust, safety and love.


If a child is able to bond securely with parents, then over time, that child comes to believe that they are valuable and safe in the world, leading to strong mental health and an ability to be independent, as well as interdependent.  Secure attachment bonds also teach a child to have faith in others, and to develop healthy relational skills such as openness, caring and empathy.


As children grow into adults, secure attachment is characterized by strong self regard, the ability to maintain emotional stability and rebound from loss, form strong relationship bonds, share feelings with friends and partners, and seek out social support.


Healthy Interpersonal Communication Style During Stress


The hallmark of this communication style is Secure Attachment.  People with a secure attachment orientation feel a sense of certainty about their inherent worth, and trusting of their ability to advocate for their needs.  Possessing a strong foundation of personal self-assurance, and trust in others, they are usually able to regulate their emotions effectively and remain calm during disagreements. This attachment adaptation is a direct reflection of the secure parenting they received in childhood, including the ability to sustain primary relationships during conflict.


Understanding Anxious Attachment Adaptations


Turtle – Avoidant Interpersonal Communication Style During Relationship Stress


The main feature of the Turtle communication style under stress is Avoidance.  During childhood ‘Turtles’ emotional needs tended to be ignored by their parents, and expressions of upset were either minimized, dismissed, disapproved of or, in some cases, met with punishment.  In this situation, the developing child senses that their emotional and relational needs are eclipsed by those of their parents.


The general emotional unavailability and lack of responsiveness by parents leads to children retreating inwards and not seeking the support they long for, especially when distressed.  The trade off here is that while they can still maintain some physical closeness to parents, they rely heavily on self-soothing to deal with the pain of rejection, and struggle to cope with troubling emotions.


Later in life, ‘Turtles’ tend to operate under the illusion that they can take care of themselves, and don’t need or can’t risk allowing others to get close for fear of being hurt.  During relationship stress they tend to retreat and avoid dealing directly with disagreements out of fear that they will either be rejected again for having separate desires of their own, and/or overwhelmed by the needs of others.  At their core, Turtles believe that they just don’t matter enough to successfully engage emotionally, and hold back rather than risk being dismissed or engulfed again.  Their retreat means they do not get their needs met, and their behavior can be misinterpreted as indifference or selfishness by others.


Badger – Ambivalent Interpersonal Communication Style During Relationship Stress


‘Badgers’ undergoing relationship stress experience Ambivalence, both desperately wanting to maintain connection while feeling mistrustful at the same time.  As children, Badgers experienced unpredictable parenting, alternating from responsiveness to distant, intrusive or insensitive behavior from care givers.  This lack of consistency creates great anxiety in children, as they can’t predict or trust their care givers to be there for them in a reliable fashion.


As adults, ‘Badgers’ are critical of themselves, feel insecure and rely heavily on others to validate their self worth.  They are rejection sensitive and look for signs that their partner, friend or family member is losing interest in them.  They believe that no one could truly love them and will eventually leave them.


Under relationship stress they waver between over-dependent clinging and angry rejection of their partner, close friend or family.  They frequently believe they will be ignored or rejected unless they dramatically express their anxiety and anger to the other person.  Sadly, their reactive over-dependence on others can lead to the very abandonment they fear.  Like Turtles, Badgers do not express their needs directly and lack the emotional self regulation and confidence to navigate relationship difficulties.


Overcoming Relationship Distress From the Inside-Out

The road from anxiety to interdependence:

  • Look for securely attached people with whom to have a relationship or friendships.  This may initially feel counter intuitive, as you are conditioned to gravitate towards others who are reminiscent of the parenting style you grew up with.
  • Express emotions as they arise, rather then suppressing them, allowing them to build up, shutting down or lashing out.  Be honest about feelings of vulnerability as you learn to open up.
  • Identify and rationally challenge negative core beliefs that keep you stuck in an insecure attachment reactions.  For example “I’ll just get hurt (again) if I get too close”; “S/he is not good enough for me”, (Turtles); or “It’s just a matter of time before s/he leaves me”; “I love her/him more than s/he does me”, (Badgers).
  • Practice letting go of defensive behaviors and attitudes in relationships, such as being aloof, pouting or acting superior, (Turtles), or clinging desperately, demanding attention or resorting to angry outbursts, (Badgers).
  • If you find someone who genuinely seems kind or loving, allow yourself to be cared for.  Eventually your childhood rejection and abandonment fears, and sadness associated with those memories, will lessen and you will become more comfortable with trusting and being close to others.
  • Get therapy if you find yourself stuck in recurring negative relationship patterns.


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Glynis Sherwood – MEd, Canadian Certified Counsellor, Registered Clinical Counsellor, specializes in helping people create Healthy Relationships, and recover from Family Abuse and Scapegoating, Low Self Worth, Anxiety, Depression, Grief and Addictive Behaviors.