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The Relational Rip Current We Call Complex Emotions, 19 skills, Act Like Myself, Anger, Appreciation, Brain Skills, Children, Chris Coursey, Emotions, Fear, Maturity, Quiet, Return to Joy, Shame, Validation

Now that my family lives in western Michigan, the land of beaches, sunsets (and yes, snow!), my wife and I have been teaching our sons about rip currents. We desire to help our sons learn how to recognize these dangerous swimming conditions, so they know when it is safe to play in the water. Rip currents develop when the wind and waves push the surface of the water towards the land which increases the water level along the shore. The extra water moves back to the open water along the path of least resistance, and a path or channel forms which pushes the water back out. When swimmers are caught in the path of this fast-moving current, they are in trouble. Without proper training, most swimmers panic and try to swim against the current. At this point, swimmers are swept out to sea. Rip currents don’t mess around; they move faster than an Olympic swimmer. (1)

Thankfully, there is a solution to these hazardous conditions. If a rip current were to catch us, instead of fighting it and trying to swim against the flow of the fast-moving water, experts say we should 1. Stay calm, 2. Call for help, 3. Float and tread water until we can move out of the current, 4. Swim parallel to shore to escape the flow and finally, 5. Swim diagonally to the shore once we break free. (2) This approach has saved numerous lives.

Tragically, most people drown from rip currents because they become tired and exhausted. They panic and tire themselves out trying to swim back to shore against the current. Fear and the lack of training is a problem in this scenario. The fear and the lack of training is also a problem behind our inability to stay relational when emotions escalate. When we do not learn how to feel, share and quiet emotions we side-track to more manageable emotions, or we avoid specific emotions altogether. (3) Even more difficult is what happens when emotions merge to create more challenging conditions for our brain and relationships. When individual emotions combine they develop into complex emotions. At this point, the presence or painful absence of Return-to-Joy training will determine how well we handle this complexity.

One of the crucial skills we focus on in Track 2 and 3 of THRIVE Relational Skills Training is Recover From Complex Emotions, Skill 19. As we learn to return to joy from the “Big Six” emotions of anger, fear, sadness, disgust, shame, and hopeless despair, we can begin to learn the path back to joy from a blend of emotions. Without skill training, this combination of emotions becomes a “perfect storm” on our nervous system. For example, humiliation is what we feel when low-energy, “I want to hide” shame mixes with high-energy, “I want to stop this!” anger. Because some emotions are low-energy responses which drain our relational battery and others are high-energy responses which amp us up, the combination gives us a run for our money. This “pull” on our nervous system is difficult to manage. Without focused training, we get swept away in the fast-moving stream of unmanageable emotions. Relational casualties are around the corner.

Much like a rip current, we do well to 1. Stay calm and quiet ourselves when big emotions start. 2. Stay relational as we reach out and connect with someone who can share our feelings with us, 3. Stay afloat with validation and comfort, so we feel connected instead of isolated, 4. Stay ourselves as we catch our breath and remain the person God created us to be. Here is where our brain’s control center will respond according to how well our identity center at Level 4 says is the best reflection of who we are under these conditions. If our brain has processed this event, we develop a narrative out of this experience that explains and interprets the ordeal. We line up our thoughts and feelings with God’s thoughts and feelings about the situation. We increase our wisdom and maturity. If our brain has not fully processed an upsetting event, we may find ourselves rigidly avoiding, reacting and stewing.

As for rip currents, I do not want my sons to fear the beach. Instead, my goal is to equip them to recognize rip currents and respond accordingly with wisdom and discernment. The same is true for emotions. I desire to see my sons learn how to navigate negative reactions, so they stay relational, recover when things go wrong, and reflect the heart God has given them. I believe this is a heritage for God’s people as we grow in Christ-likeness.

Will you join me in equipping others to master the necessary relational skills to better swim in the stormy waters that come with life and relationships? I hope to see God’s people reflect the Living God and thrive. Start growing relational skills with your friends and family with the new book, Relational Skills In The Bible. I hope to see you at one of our training events to learn the skills that make relationships work.


1 – https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/ripcurrent.html

2 – https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/ripcurrent.html

3 – For example, I may be a people-pleaser because I avoid upsetting people and do not want to feel shame.

Posted in Skill Thoughts

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