#80 Kristen Ulmer Author of "The Art of Fear"
Shannon met former professional skier, and current Fear Specialist, Kristen Ulmer at the Spartan Race in Lake Tahoe. Kristen is the author of The Art of Fear: Why Conquering Fear Won't Work and What to Do Instead. In this episode Kristen shares her journey with fear and discusses how we deal with fear.
Kristen Ulmer started out as a professional athlete, she was the best female big mountain extreme skier in the world, a status she kept for 12 years. She risked her life on a pair of skis, jumping off cliffs and skiing “you fall you die” descents. Kristen was voted “Most Fearless Woman in America” by the outdoor industry beating women in all sports and disciplines, not just skiing.
While Kristen felt fearless, she realized after looking under her everyday reality that fear was with her in every single moment of every day and in every decision she made. She came to this realization after retiring her ski career in 2003 and studying with a Zen master for 15 years. Kristen started off as a mindset sports coach and currently is a fear specialist. Now Kristen’s whole world is talking about and thinking about fear.
When Kristen retired, it wasn’t because her career was over; it was because she got to the point where she hated skiing. Every time winter would roll around she would cringe. Kristen started getting injured more and she had PTSD from seeing a lot of her friends die in the mountains and having many near death experiences herself. She was exhausted all the time and felt that there was something really wrong. So Kristen quit her ski career and set out to find out what was wrong. This is when she met the Zen master with whom she studied with for 15 years.
Within the first ten minutes of working with her Zen master, Kristen discovered that she had been repressing her fear for years in order to ski the way that she wanted. Repressing your fear only works for about ten years then things begin to go south. Kristen started working with other athletes, and found they were underperforming due to their repressed fear. She also worked with people dealing with depression, panic attacks, anxiety disorders, and insomnia, discovering that repressing fear caused these problems too. Kristen realized that she needed to declare herself a fear specialist and write a book.
In a fear exercise, Kristen asked Shannon to talk to her like Kristen is Shannon’s fear. Kristen points out that fear is a huge part of our lives and with us everyday, in everything that we do, and how we treat our fear is ultimately how we treat our self. It’s important to have the best relationship with fear and it’s important how we talk to our fear.
How do you talk to your fear? Do you tell it to go away? Do you tell it you hate it? Do you ignore it? If you hate your fear, how does that make fear feel? Darkness is not the opposite of light, it is just the absence of light.
“Those who are unaware they are walking in darkness will never see the light.” –Bruce Lee
If we see fear as a dark voice, then that is how it will appear. If we try to crush fear, push it away, conquer it, lock it away in the basement and throw away the key, then fear will come out in a very dark way. How would you feel if you were locked in the basement?
Fear will not be denied. If you repress it, fear will come out as anger, sadness, or depression. It is a bad idea to repress fear, but it is something many of us do, and our fear comes out in a dark way.
If you learn how to make friends with fear then it will only come out in a light way, as an asset and an ally.
Kristen shares that you should head towards talking to your fear like this: “Hey, I know that you’re a natural, normal part of the human experience. I know that you’re not some sort of fatal flaw in my character when you show up or a sign of personal weakness. I expect that you’re going to be around, life is a scary experience. Together let’s try and have the best relationship possible because we are in this together.”
In our society, fear is seen as an enemy and as something to be conquered. Fear is something to be rationalized way and controlled.
Start the dialogue with your fear by saying, “I see you.”
Most people will spend their lives avoiding or ignoring their fear. By avoiding fear, we then avoid ever taking risks. For example, people will stay in an unfulfilling job, won’t be vulnerable in relationships, or won’t try skiing. A way we deal with fear is by avoiding it and make all our decisions based on avoiding fear.
Fighting your fear creates a war in your subconscious. It is an exhausting war that you cannot win because fear is a part of life.
“Understanding your fear is the beginning of really seeing.” – Bruce Lee
To help understand our fear it is helpful to look at how other animals use their fear. An animal will see a threat and their fear spurs them to immediate focus and action to get to safety. Once they are safe, the animal resumes their normal activity, without experiencing PTSD, traumatized, feeling sorry for itself, or paranoid that it might happen again. This is because the animal knows that fear helps them next time there is a threat.
Humans have a different relationship with fear. For Kristen, emotional intelligence is the ability to feel fear in our bodies and use the fear to help us come alive. Many teachers say that emotional intelligence is the ability to understand our emotions. So we have been conditioned to try to understand our fear when we feel it causing us to think about our fear. Since our mind cannot understand fear, it judges it as bad and tries to get rid of it. Then, instead of fighting or fleeing the situation, we are fighting or fleeing the fear itself.
Fear is not the problem in our lives; it is our reaction to fear. We are either fighting it or fleeing it. Fear will be with you your whole life, do you want to spend your whole life fighting it or running from it?
Judging our fear is likely a learned behavior. Such as when we’re a child and afraid of something and our parent tells us that there is nothing to be afraid of. Kristen calls this fear shaming because in life there is a lot to be afraid of since life is scary.
Allow yourself to feel your fear without judgment.
Close your eyes. Do a body scan. Find the place of discomfort in your body where you feel fear, it is in your body not in your head. It might show up as anger or sadness. Where do you feel your fear?
Notice if you have any resistance to that discomfort. Are you saying, “I don’t want to feel this”? It is easier to reduce your resistance to the discomfort than to get rid of the discomfort altogether.
Step 1: Identify where the discomfort is in your body.
Step 2: Recognize that it’s normal and natural to feel fear.
Step 3: Notice if you have any resistance to your fear. Can you lower your resistance?
Step 4: For 30 seconds feel your fear. Feel that discomfort without trying to get rid of it.
If you allow yourself to feel your fear, it becomes this energy source that helps you come alive. Our unwillingness to deal with our fear in an honest way holds us back. If you try to lock away and repress your fear it will come out in a dark way, which will mess up your life. If you own and honor your fear, then only its wisdom and light will come through.
If you are rigid with your fear then you will not bend, you will break. Kristen experienced this firsthand with her ski career. At the end of her career she was skiing the best she ever had and was in incredible shape, but she kept getting injured. She was so rigid with fear that it was breaking her. If you are more in flow with your fear it will flow through you and you can bend with it without breaking.
“Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind.” – Bruce Lee
When Kristen started her fear practice and treating her fear as an energy source instead of repressing it, she noticed several changes. Her persistent, lingering injuries cleared up and healed. She had PTSD which created a fear loop and she was finally able to deal with her emotions honestly, dissipating her PTSD. Kristen also found that she loved skiing again. Her relationships also improved once she was not projecting her fear onto others and is finally in a great relationship.
“The less effort, the faster and more powerful you will be.” – Bruce Lee
It is a lot of effort to ignore or conquer your fear; your whole life could be about this war with your fear. This war messes up your life in obvious ways, such as anxiety attacks, or redirects more subtly as anger or depression. It is much less effort to merge with your fear. Then, fear helps you become more sharp and focused.
From Kristen’s book: “Consider then, what would Bruce Lee do?”
Kristen’s analogies for the effort of resisting fear: “So then, fill a backpack with a burden of resisting or fighting fear and take a step. How heavy does it feel? Now fill it with a challenge of honoring fear and take a step. Which feels lighter? Which feels calmer: parachuting while resisting gravity or embracing gravity? Which is easier: swimming up stream or flowing with the river? Both resisting and embracing require effort, but I ask again, which requires less effort to get a better result? This is what you should be considering.”
First, change your language surrounding fear. Instead of saying “Fear and anxiety is a problem in my life,” you should say, “Because I’m unwilling to deal with my fear and anxiety in an honest way that has become a problem in my life.” Second, have a fear practice:
- Identify where the discomfort is in your body.
- Recognize that it’s normal and natural to feel fear.
- Notice if you have any resistance to your fear. Can you lower your resistance?
- For 30 seconds feel your fear. Feel that discomfort without trying to get rid of it.
“Courage is not the absence of fear, it is the ability to act in the presence of fear.” – Bruce Lee
If you’d like to share how you’re doing with this action item you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Awesome Asians and Hapas)
Kristen nominated her friend Bill Tai who is her kiteboarding buddy. Bill Tai is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, philanthropist, and a fantastic kiteboarder. Tai is the Founding Chairman of Treasure Data, board director of BitFury and Voxer, seed investor in Canva, Color Genomics, Tweetdeck/Twotter, Wish.com, and Zoom Video, and Adjunct Professor of Innovation & Economic Development at Curtin University. He just started ACTAI, which is a group that brings together entrepreneurs, innovators, athletes, artists, tech heads, and thought leaders supporting causes around the world. Bill Tai, officially from the Bruce Lee Podcast, you’re awesome!
Kristen shares her #BruceLeeMoment:
“Of course everyone knows who Bruce Lee is, I’m no exception. I am really drawn to his quotes, the second I hear a quote of his it just goes into my soul. Especially having been a professional athlete in a super dangerous sport. I think of “Be water my friend. Water can flow.” Which your dad said. When I think of flow, I think of water, I think of myself as a hose. And I have these droplets of water coming into, through, and out of my life. These droplets of water are fear, anger, joy, love, a thought, a belief, they all come into, through, and out of my life just influencing me.
I remember one time I was invited to compete in this very prestigious competition to see who the best female/male skier in the world was. And I didn’t want to do it, I just wanted to make movies. I felt obligated to go though because they were paying me to be there, but I felt even more obligated to win the thing, if I didn’t win this thing it would be humiliating. It was the best of two runs and after the first run I was not winning. I just rode the chairlift, I had two hours before my next run and I was feeling frustrated. That was a droplet of water. I was embarrassed, that was a droplet of water. I was afraid, of looking like a fool, I felt like a fraud. That I was pulling the wool over these guys’ eyes, maybe I’m not the best. I had all these really unpleasant, uncomfortable [feelings], fear of failure, coming into, through [me].
But because I was in flow with them because they were like water droplets, they were coming into my eyes and motivating me and helping me come alive and be more sharp. By the time two hours passed, and I got in the gate again, I went and skied this run that I jumped off a 70ft cliff. I took 4th overall for the men out of 120 men, and of course won for the women. It was this incredible moment where I was completely in flow with all these unpleasant experiences not resisting any of them and they all helped me be amazing for my second run. I felt like Bruce Lee. I really appreciate that quote he says, “Be water, my friend. Water can flow.” When you’re formless, emptiness, you’re in the “zone,” all of these states helped me get there.”
Thank you Kristen for doing your teaching and for sharing your insights with our community! Everyone should go out and get Kristen’s book The Art of Fear: Why Conquering Fear Won't Work and What to Do Instead. Thank you so much for joining us!