Growing in relational skills is a bit like hiking; the concept is appealing, with dreams of achieving incredible feats. The reality can be more gritty, exhausting, and at times we are challenged just to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
In the year 2000, my family camped at Yosemite National Park, and a number of us decided to hike the three-mile round trip Mist Trail at Vernal Falls (see the picture above). We hiked along a trail, across a wide bridge, and then up the broad stairway cut into the boulders. When we came to the foot of the Falls, the Mist Trail ran immediately alongside the water, and it was indeed misty – enough to drench us to the skin! But the broad stairs provided places to rest, and our enthusiasm was high. Hiking was a joy! It was fun! We were going places!
After the broad stairs ended, however, the trail narrowed and steepened, and the real challenge began. For the last several hundred yards, it felt to me like we would never make it. Hiking was a chore! It was no fun! We were going nowhere! Did I mention that I was five months pregnant as I made this hike? Carrying that extra load seemed to lower my capacity drastically, and I looked back down the trail longingly. With the encouragement of my daughter and following the example of my brother and his wife, who are experienced hikers, I persevered and made it. Looking out over the gorgeous vistas from the head of the 300-foot waterfall, it was worth it. Hiking was a joy! It was fun! We had gone places!
Recently, I had a “relational skill day” that reminded me of that narrow trail toward the top of Vernal Falls. My day had been typical, with a variety of situations that brought me joy, quiet, and some negative emotions. Returning to Joy (getting back to a relational state) from those negative emotions felt a bit like walking up those wide, stone stairs – it was a workout, but I have practiced returning to joy from negative emotions regularly over the last few years, and quieting my feelings was like stopping along the way, gathering my breath and strength for the next few steps. This was Skill 11 (Returning to Joy), and it was familiar territory.
But then something happened that brought up some extremely big emotions. I felt ashamed, sad, and fearful, all at once. Now I was hiking in high altitude, on a narrow, twisty trail, carrying a heavy load. You see, when we experience any combination of emotion at the same time, we’ve moved into the territory of Complex Emotions. In my case, shame and sadness are low energy emotions, so my nervous system felt sluggish, like I wanted to crawl into bed and sleep. However, fear is a high energy emotion that puts its foot on the gas pedal of the nervous system, so I felt amped up, ready to jump out of my skin. You can imagine my discomfort as my nervous system battled it out. In a situation like this, my brain needed Skill 19: Recover from Complex Emotions, in order for me to regain relational equilibrium and return to joy.
In order to recover from complex emotions, I needed someone to attune with me in the big emotions, to be glad to be with me, and to gently help me quiet myself. Thankfully, a very kind friend was able to do this with me. Afterward, my heart rate slowed down and my jitters settled. Over the next hour, I could feel my energy return to a more normal level. Although there was still some sadness, shame, and a bit of anxiety, I was able to act like myself and begin looking for solutions to the situation.
As I thought about this situation, Psalm 25 came to my mind. It seems David was feeling complex emotions when he wrote this psalm, and he reached out to God for help in recovering from this mix of emotions. What an incredible gift that when we don’t have friends who can be with us in our pain, God is an ever present help. How I can relate to these verses from Psalm 25.
“To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust; let me not be put to shame . . . Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. . . Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted. The troubles of my heart are enlarged; bring me out of my distresses. . . Consider my affliction and my trouble, and forgive all my sins. . . Oh, guard my soul, and deliver me! Let me not be put to shame, for I take refuge in you.. . May integrity and uprightness preserve me, for I wait for you.”
How thankful I am that our Creator, our Lord, our Immanuel God is gentle with us in our huge distress, that He will help us quiet those big feelings, and that we can lift up our souls to Him. When our days leave us feeling like we are on an exhausting hike, hardly able to take the next step, lonely, distressed, afflicted, He will guard our soul and deliver us. We can take refuge in Him.
Amy Brown is the Journey Groups Director for Deeper Walk International and Trainer for the True Identity Track of THRIVEtoday’s relational skill training. She recently co-authored Relational Skills in the Bible with Chris Coursey.