In this episode number 133, you’re gonna learn how to face your fears. Well, actually, more like dance with your fears because your fear isn’t something to be loathe, ignored, or conquered but appreciated. Fear keeps you alive. We first covered fear in episode 73 with Ravé Mehta, and in that episode you learned how to hack fear. We’re not gonna hack it in this episode. We’re gonna befriend it, we’re gonna dance with it, we’re gonna love it, and it’s going to become our best friend. Who better to teach us this than Kristen Ulmer, who’s the author of the book, The Art of Fear: Why Conquering Fear Won’t Work and What to Do Instead. Kristen was recognized as being the best woman big mountain extreme skier in the world for 12 years and was also voted the most fearless woman athlete in North America. This combined with 15 years of studying zen and working with thousands of clients and her recent book, The Art of Fear, has radically changed the existing norms about what to do about fear and anxiety. Kristen, it’s great to have you on the show.
Stephan, it’s great to be here.
Let’s talk about fear because that is what your book is about, The Art of Fear, and what you talk on stages about quite a lot. I heard you speak at the Bulletproof Biohacking conference, you did a great job, and I’m so glad that we’re getting the chat now about some of the stuff I learned in your session. Let’s start with what was the impetus for you to write a book about fear? There are a lot of books about fear already written.
Well, my background was fear. I’m not a psychologist, I’m not a scientist, I’m not a doctor, I’m not a self-help guru. I instead have 30 years of practical, real world, in the dirt experience, dealing with a tremendous amount of fear, and then trying to figure out what to do with it. My whole life has been about fear. First, I was a professional extreme athlete. I was considered the best woman big mountain skier in the world for 12 years. I risked my life basically for a living for those 12 years. I was also voted by the outdoor industry to be the most fearless woman athlete in North America. I felt fearless back during my professional athletic career. It turns out, in my reflection afterwards, not only was I not fearless but fear was actually the undercurrent of every single moment of every decision I ever made.
I know that you had Steven Kotler write the foreword for your book and he talks about all these flow triggers, especially extreme athletes like yourself would have these flow triggers of getting in that environment and you’re just in flow because your life literally depends on it. How do you balance the fear and the needing to be so careful because your life’s on the line with just getting into flow and just being world class?
Here’s what people don’t understand about fear and flow. Extreme sports, dangerous sports, sports where you’re risking your life are notorious for people taking into heights and states of awareness, and flow, and the zone. It’s because of the fear, not despite it. Actually, if you’re embracing your fear, if you’re having an intimate relationship with fear, that’s the very thing that takes you into a sharper sense of awareness, heightened senses, basically helps you bring your A-game to everything you do. I didn’t realize it back in the day. When I was a professional athlete, I felt fearless. The thing is when you have a love affair with fear, when you have an intimate relationship with fear, it doesn’t feel like fear at all, it just feels like excitement, focus, sharp. Just going back to even your first question, little did I realize that fear was my motivator, like fear of not being special, fear of being invisible, and I tell you what, you start jumping off 70-foot cliffs and you’re no longer invisible, and people see you as special. Fear was actually my motivator. I was also addicted to fear. People call people like me adrenaline addicts when really what I am, because beneath the adrenaline is fear, is I was a fear addict. It was actually the thing that I was chasing, and I was addicted to it as a heroin addict is addicted to heroin. That’s actually not a good approach to fear but that’s another conversation. Also, the fear was taking me into heightened states of awareness but I didn’t realize that that’s what was happening but there was also kind of a shadow to all this and that because I was dealing with so much fear, I was also really good at ignoring it. I both have a love affair and a hate affair with fear. Can you both love and hate something at the same time? Well, anybody that’s ever been married would say yes, right? I was married to fear and I both loved it and I hated it at the same time. What inspired me to write the book was actually, I repressed fear, a tremendous amount of fear. I was really, really good at ignoring fear in order to ski the way I wanted to. You can get away with that for about 10 years and then your life just comes unraveled. It’s a very, very difficult thing to do, to ignore, or fight, or control fear, or conquer it, overcome it like we’re all taught to do. Not only did it start affecting my life in a super negative way but it affects everybody’s life in a super negative way if you take on that pattern towards fear. That’s kind of what I’m hoping we’re gonna address today.
Yeah. What exactly unraveled for you after the 10 year mark?
What happens when we do what we’re taught to do around fear. I made it on the US Ski Team. I was also on the US Ski Team for Moguls. I got on the team and all of a sudden, I had all these cameras pointed in my face, and thousands of people cheering. It was just a little overwhelming. It’s very different from filming a movie. I didn’t know what to do. I was so gripped with anxiety and fear. I took the really bad advice that’s out there coming from friends, coaches, family members that, “Oh, you just wanna put that out of your mind. You wanna think positive thoughts. You wanna control it. You wanna conquer it.” You know the words, you know the language, overcome fear. That’s kind of what’s just rampantly taught about what to do about fear and so that’s what I set out to do and it works. You feel better, you kind of are able to breathe in positive affirmations, breathe out your fear, but it’s a temporary solution. It’s just a band aid and it actually has really devastating long term consequences that approach to fear. For me, like I said, I got away with it for about 10 years, and then all of a sudden my symptoms that I had was I had PTSD because I had watched a lot of my friends die in the mountains, and I had had a lot of near death experiences and I didn’t know how to deal with the emotions that came from that. I was burnt out because it’s so exhausting to repress fear, not deal with your fear in an honest way. I started having injuries because I became really kind of rigid, stoic, arrogant person to not deal with my fear, and what do we know about rigid trees and heavy wind? Well, they break, so I started to break even though I was still in excellent shape and at the top of my game. I was just burnt out and exhausted all the time. I had to sleep 10 hours a night just to function. I didn’t know what the problem was. I just knew that something felt really, really wrong. I felt like there was just something off about my undercurrent. I had no idea what it was so I quit my athletic career which was a big deal because I didn’t have to quit. All I had to do at that point was show up to a party, and drink a can of Red Bull, and I get paid a lot of money. But I quit to figure out what I’ve done wrong and then I started studying Zen, very quickly I found that what the problem was is that I had been fighting fear for 10 years, well, 15 years at that point, and it just was killing my soul.
Yes, ‘what you resist persists’ as Tony Robbins says. By resisting the fear or trying to overcome it or what have you, you actually kind of will run by it.
Exactly. For me, it wasn’t coming out just as exaggerated fear. For some people if they try to conquer or overcome fear–there’s so many different ways in which resist fear. Some of us avoid fear and don’t do scary things. Some rationalize it in a way, like use our intellect. Some go to a therapist and try to understand where the fear comes from that keeps you in your head about it, rather than feeling it, you’re thinking about it. There’s so many different ways to resist the fear or push the fear down, or not have to deal with it. Those are the ways that it showed up for me. I call it from the basement, but whenever you push down, fear can show up in other ways like depression, panic attacks, anxiety disorders, insomnia, underperforming. I’ve been a mindset sports coach for 15 years and if an athlete comes to me, or even a businessman, or woman comes to me and they’re underperforming, I would say that almost 100% of the time, their repression of fear has something to do with that underperforming. It just shows up differently for everybody. Sometimes when you say whatever you resist persists, it’ll show up as an exaggerated version of itself, as irrational fear, or kind of chronic fear, or chronic anxiety, or it may show up completely redirected in a different way that doesn’t seem like fear at all, like anger for example, or blame.
Right. You had this epiphany moment where by studying zen you realized that the obstacle that I’m trying to overcome is actually the way. What transpired for you after that moment where you had the realization?
I love your sayings. My favorite saying is ‘whatever you won’t look at is the key to freedom’. I started taking a look at my relationship with fear and kind of got to know my pattern around it. By kind of raising my antenna, I became aware of so much of what was going on in my undercurrent, that they’re all the problems that I had, had something to do with the repression of fear. I got to work repairing that relationship with fear. I made myself feel better and then I started working as a mindset sports coach with athletes. I help them repair their relationship with fear so that they can perform better. What happened is my athletes would then hire me for personal work unrelated to sports. I started repairing their relationship with fear and their relationships improved in their, mental, spiritual, psychological, etcetera, health improved and next thing you know, I’m like, “Wow, this is really powerful.” It’s very different what I teach so I declared myself a fear specialist. Harper Collins heard what I was teaching because it was so different and so fresh and they offered me a book contract without me having to write a book proposal which, I understand, is very rare. I wrote the book and yada, yada, yada, here I am speaking to you today.
Amazing. Very cool. What’s the process for repairing your relationship with fear?
Let’s look at it this way. I’m gonna back up a little bit. I see that people have four distinctly different types of relationships with fear. Whoever’s listening, maybe you can figure out which one are you. The first one is where we ignore it, we fight it, we control it, we rationalize it away, understand it, anything to just not have to deal with it in an honest way. Like I said, it works but it’s not without consequences. Those consequences are different for everybody. Another way that we can deal with fear, and we’re kind of stepping in the right direction here, is we learn how to accept fear. A lot of people teach that. You wanna accept that it’s a normal, natural part of your life that it’s with you start to finish. Actually, if you’re willing to look under your relatively reality, you’ll see that it’s with you every single moment of every single day, every single interaction you have, like I feel for you right now, I don’t wanna say something stupid. That’s definitely a step in the right direction but you’re still in your rational, analytical mind about it. Here’s one more thing that you can realize is that fear actually studied by scientists is supposed to move into, through, and out of your system in about 10-90 seconds and that’s it. If you’re in flow with it, if you allow yourself to kind of feel it. That’s the step in the direction and a lot of people teach that. Where I kind of go off from there is I’m trying to get people out of their heads about it because fear is a sensation of discomfort in your body. It’s an emotion, it’s a feeling. If it’s showing up in your head, that’s a sign that you’ve been repressing fear and that undealt with fear is very clever in getting out of the basement, it’ll hijack your mind, run its agenda in your thoughts. The third step or the third way in which we can deal with fear, and this is kind of the first part of what I teach is helping people learn how to feel it rather than think about it. That’s a super powerful experience because that’s you having an honest relationship with your emotion. The beauty in this is it takes you out of your head and puts you organically in your body. We all are looking for ways to get out of our heads and into our bodies. If we’re willing to feel our emotions that’ll happen. The fourth way that I see people dealing with fear and we’re just barely starting to see this in the world, it’s very, very early on but I’ve interviewed a few athletes, a few CEOs, this is my favorite word, we’re starting to have an intimate relationship with fear. Those that have an intimate relationship with fear, that’s where the fear comes in. All of a sudden you don’t have any of the problems associated with fear coming out from the basement and kind of crazy, or rational, or weird ways, even pathological ways. Instead not only do you not have those problems but fear becomes the very thing that takes you, like I said, into those sharpened states of awareness. It helps you bring your A-game to everything you do and it makes you stronger, wiser, able to see more clearly, more motivated, more alive, more vulnerable, like you’re living in a state of freedom, and creativity, and peace if you have that kind of relationship with fair words, an intimate relationship.
Very cool. Would you say that that’s where you’re at now?
I would say that I bounce around a lot. Even being a fear specialist, I have a long history of repressing fear. It’s so rampant in our society and we’re all taught it form an early age. The second you’re kid and you say, “Mom, I feel afraid.” What does mom say? “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” We call it false evidence appearing real. We always use the word conquering and overcoming in the same sentence with fear. I’m definitely a victim to society’s norms about fear. I still even struggle even though I’m a fear specialist and I do this for a living, I still catch myself sometimes like, “Oh, that’s the reason why I haven’t been sleeping. Oh, that’s the reason why I haven’t been getting along with my husband.” I’ve been repressing my fear again. I probably have a healthier, more intimate relationship with fear than 99.99% of the planet but there’s still work to be done.
What would you say to somebody who says, “Well, so much of what we fear will never come to pass. You’re just wasting energy on something that is false evidence appearing real. What would you say to somebody like that?
Well, if fear is kind of in your mind, like I said, or it’s showing up in an irrational way, or it’s making some sort of projection on the future, that’s usually a sign of some sort of fear that you haven’t dealt with in the past. Fear is really, really simple. It’s just a sensation of discomfort in your body. If it’s showing up in your mind and it’s doing some sort of crazy projection about the future, that is fear coming out from the basement. Do you have children?
Yes, I do. They’re all grown up now, but yes.
Right. When your child would need your attention, maybe whine a little bit, yell, I suspect you’re a pretty good parent, would you just ignore them, or fight them, or try to kind of block them out in any way?
What would you do instead?
Comfort them, and let them know that they’re safe, and everything’s gonna be okay.
I love to personify fear. If we see fear as like a child of yours and if we just say, “Oh, you’re being irrational. We try to block you out.” Fear has something to say. We tend to turn away from it and what happens is it goes away, maybe we use our minds to rationalize like, “Okay, you’re just being crazy. Just go away.” Duct tape over its mouth, plastic bag over its head, locked in the basement, throw away the key, however people deal with it. But what’s gonna happen to that child if you treat it like that?
Yeah, they’ll be messed up, big time.
Right. The fear comes back whining louder, and acting a little crazier, and then you have to work a little bit harder to get rid of it, and then it goes away again. After 10 years, 20 years, how would that child be? That child will be really messed up. Right now, we’re only kind of used to the messed up child that is fear at this point coming out and kind of this irrational way that’s projecting fears that may or may not be existing in the future. Fear is never the problem in our lives is what I’m trying to say. It’s the way that we deal with the fear or rather don’t deal with it that creates problems for us. If fear is kind of projecting weird thoughts about the future and perceived threats that don’t even exist, that’s a clear sign that you haven’t been dealing with your fear in an honest way, and it’s now just acting weird.
Okay. You talk about fear coming out of the basement or being in the basement, is that different from just repressing? What’s the significance of that particular analogy for you? Of being in the basement?
Let me give you the big picture analogy that I think can really drive this point home. The traditional number in zen practice, because my practice and my study is zen, is 10,000. Let’s say you’re parent to 10,000 children, I know, God forbid. But half of your children you’ve named love, joy, gratitude, forgiveness, smart, beautiful. The other half of your children you’ve named, fear, anger, despair, sadness, ugly, stupid. Despite your best intention would you be able to treat them all the same way?
No, of course not.
Right now in our culture, we are only looking to align ourselves with the light side of life, the love, the gratitude practice. We rush to forgive people that have hurt us. It’s a really beautiful practice and I can see why people do it but I actually think that that should be step B. It’s actually the wrong practice because then it denies these other children their rightful place in our lives. What we tend to do, like I said, we put duct tape over the mouths of these other children, we lock them in the basement, we throw away the key. They’re down there now in the dark with no food, no water, no love, no sunshine. How would anybody feel if they were treated that way? Well, they’d do anything they possibly can to get out. They may show up as anger. They maybe show up as just sadness. Whatever they feel, actually we feel because they’re a part of us. This kind of cultural norm to try to cultivate the light and then deny the darkness while well-intended, actually then kind of represses all the negativity that is a part of life, a natural normal part of life, and denies these children their rightful place in our lives. I like to personify fear because then people can really get it. Just notice how you would feel if you’re being treated that way? That’s how fear feels. Whatever fear feels, you feel.
Okay. If you maybe did some sort of exercise where you got inside of that little child, that little person that’s inside your head that is the fear, does that help you to get in touch with this and resolve the relationship?
Yes. I just kind of ended my sentence by saying whatever fear feels, you feel. If you hate fear you kind of hate yourself too because fear is such a huge part of who you are at your core. If you’re embarrassed by fear, you’re embarrassed by yourself. If you ignore fear, you’re kind of ignoring the truth about life and fear’s role in it. Let’s say you’re my fear, let me just talk to you, and this is how most people talk to fear. I want you to just kind of reflect back to me how this makes you feel. “Hey, fear. I hate you. I think that you’re just totally delusional and crazy. You’re my enemy. I’m going to do whatever it takes to fight you. I’m not gonna let you win. I’m gonna declare war on you. This is a war that I’m willing to devote any amount of time and energy just to getting rid of you. You have no right to be here.” How does that make you feel?
Dejected and rejected. Angry and sad. Depressed.
Right. Whatever you feel, people feel, because you’re such a huge part of their lives. If you feel angry, 95% of what we know as modern anger is nothing more than undealt fear coming out from the basement. Depression is actually latin for pressed down. Depression is such an emotional problem, it actually comes from the repression or the pressing down of fear, anger, sadness, it’s like, “I don’t wanna deal with these emotions.” We fight these wars against these emotions and they are all unwinnable wars being carried out in our unconscious mind. When we realize we can’t win them, we then take medications, that’ll win the war. That’ll shut fear up, that’ll shut anger and sadness up. With all these methods and modalities to calm down fear, to medicate away fear, all of that, you think you’d be feeling less fear and less anxious than ever before, it’s actually not true. What we’re doing is not working. Some of these methods and modalities are tapping, meditation even, in order to calm down, three deep breaths, all of these things, like I said, give you temporary relief. But it now is kind of aiding or adding to that war that we have with these emotions, these negative emotions. Pushing them down the basement, they feel terrible, and then because they’re such a huge part of us, we feel terrible. It’s just a really bad cycle we’re in. What’s the definition of insanity?
Doing the same thing over again and expecting a different outcome.
Right. I propose what if we try something completely different and instead of declaring war against this perceived enemy, we realize fear is not the problem in our lives, it’s the way that we’ve been treating the fear that is the problem. If we make friends with it and not war, turn towards it with love and kindness, and this is how I try to talk to fear now, are you ready?
“Hey, fear. I’m really sorry. I’ve been mistreating you. You don’t deserve that. You do deserve to have your rightful place in my life. Can we be friends? How do I make it up to you? Let’s, you and I, go out and live our lives together and then I suspect you’re gonna help me be the best Kristen I can possibly be. That’s what you’re here for, let’s do this.” How does that make you feel?
Safe, and hopeful, and excited.
Fear in the basement is gonna, like I said, come out in a crazy way. Right now, the only version of fear that we are aware of is its crazy, irrational version that’s coming out from the basement but we’re the ones that put it there, which also means that we have the ability to take it out. If we own and honor fear or even become intimate with it, like I suggest, then only the virtues of fear would be made available to us and none of the crazy parts.
Right. We mentioned tapping as a modality and that’s a way that people deal with fear but not by turning towards it with love but just by trying to accept it as a necessary evil.
I don’t know much about tapping. I don’t know what a tapping specialist would say about this but I suspect it’s a coping mechanism to get you through a moment and it definitely makes you feel better, I’ve tried it. But anything that is there to get fear to calm down temporarily I think is just another form of repression.
I actually used tapping. I had this really profound experience in Africa on a trip. It was a Tony Robbins platinum partner trip. Tony wasn’t on that trip but he had arranged for a tapping expert to be there and to work with us so that we would be able to do the shark dive that was scheduled, and to do the micro gliding if we wanted which is hand glider with a motor attached, we’re going above Victoria Falls into the mist. I was afraid of heights so that was quite a big deal. I was afraid of the water too so going in with sharks even though there was a cage there was not something I wanted to do but 45 minutes of tapping with this expert and I was able to accomplish both and I felt free. I felt amazing. It stuck for quite a while. I was able to go inner tubing a few months later, getting pulled by a speedboat, I’ve never done that in my life. I was able to try jet skiing for the first time a couple years after that. I still don’t know how to swim, I still don’t don’t have much motivation to learn how to swim, I still know the fear is there but it doesn’t feel like it’s driving the bus anymore. I would love to know a better way to turn towards that fear, accept it, love it, and not have to feel like kind of preventing myself from learning how to swim or from bungee jumping for example, or jumping out of a plane, I’ve never done either of those things. I probably would never will because of my fear but I don’t feel debilitatingly unable to do a number of things that I wouldn’t be willing to do before that tapping session. That make sense?
Yes. Tapping is great to get you through a difficult moment. It definitely works. In my experience with tapping, and keep in mind, I used to risk my life for a living, I made life or death decisions, I was dealing with a lot of fear, I was actually consciously choosing to put myself in life or death scary situations sometimes on a daily basis, and I did this for decades. I’ve learned a few things along the way. I also work with tremendous amount of people too, in scary situations obviously, because I’m a fear specialist. I found that tapping is great to get you through a moment. There’s a lot of coping mechanisms that get you through a moment, like rationalizing fear away. I have people that are afraid to fly, “I have a greater chance of getting hit by a bus than the plane going down looking at statistics,” that kind of thing, there’s three deep breaths, of course that’s always gonna make you feel better. I kind of liking it to like if you have a fork sticking out of your eye, you take three deep breaths, you think about the parts of your body that don’t hurt, you do some tapping, you’re definitely gonna feel better. But guess what, you still have a fork sticking out of your eye. There’s still fear. You don’t wanna be in denial of that. That is just ultimately, for me, has been a misguided approach. It really hurt me in such a profound way. There’s so many better resources available. This is what I would suggest that you do next time you wanna go swimming with sharks, you ready?
It doesn’t take 40 minutes of tapping. It only takes a few minutes. Why don’t I just give you an example of something from my own life. The Bulletproof conference, perfect example. You saw me give a talk there. I actually gave two talks there. I think that you saw the first one. I, of course, did agree to do this, and I wanted to create a new talk for that. Leading up to it, my fear actually got me off the couch, fears of procrastination enter, fear of messing it up makes you go, fear is in your ear saying, “Hey, jerk. Get off the couch or else you’re gonna regret it. You better go write that speech. You better go memorize that speech.” It’s a motivator. Also, even when I agreed to take on the speech, I agree to do something scary, and the reason why I agreed to do something scary is because anytime that you’re stepping out of your comfort zone, there’s going to be fear there, this was out of my comfort zone. I knew that there was potential for me to really feel good afterwards. However much fear you feel before something is in direct correlation to how good you feel afterwards. That’s some kind of preliminary stuff. Next thing you know, it’s 15 minutes before the talk and I’m about to go on. I’m a fear specialist, I’m about to talk about fear and anxiety, and I’m freaking terrified. It was a big deal to speak at the Bulletproof Conference. I am just absolutely feeling so much anxiety. Here is the thing, this in my book, suffering equals discomfort times resistance. I went back behind the building and I found a quiet space. I’m on in 15 minutes. I first closed my eyes and I acknowledge that it’s normal and natural for me to feel this fear and anxiety. Of course, it’s a scary experience to give a speech. The Bulletproof Conference is a big deal. It’s not a sign of personal weakness. It’s not a character flaw. As a fear specialist, I do not expect myself to be fearless nor do I teach people how to be fearless because it’s not only impossible but it’s undesirable. That’s the first step. It’s normal and natural to feel this. Then still with my eyes closed, I did a body scan, and I found my discomfort in my body. It felt like anxiety. I felt it in my chest or in equation, I gave it a number, it was a level 10 out of 10. I was feeling a lot of anxiety in my body. The third step was I then noticed my resistance to it because actually, the anxiety are often times the fear that we feel isn’t fear at all, it’s our resistance to the fear, it’s our, “I don’t wanna feel this.” I noticed that I had resistance to it. It was also a level 10. With my eyes closed, I then just turned towards my resistance, and I just let myself feel it for as long as it took. It took me about a minute. I just repeated over and over in my mind, “I don’t wanna do this. I don’t wanna be here. I don’t wanna do this. I don’t wanna do this. This is scary. I don’t wanna be here. I’d rather be at home watching a movie, snuggle up with my husband, and the cat. I don’t want to. I don’t want to. I don’t want to.” I allowed myself to feel it. That’s like turning towards the whining child and giving it your undivided attention. And then after about a minute, it calmed down to a level zero. Rather than trying to push it out of my mind and thinking happy thought or rationalize that, “Oh, I’ve this speeches a million times. I’m gonna be fine. The audience are gonna love me.” Instead, I did the opposite which is counterintuitive, turned towards my discomfort which is actually the resistance, felt it for a minute, it let go of me. I spent another minute just feeling my anxiety until it ran out things to say and it went from a 10 to a 0. Now, 0 x 0, that’s no suffering anymore. I went on stage and I was fine. It took me 2 ½ minutes.The anxiety are often times the fear that we feel isn’t fear at all, it’s our resistance to the fear, it’s our, “I don’t wanna feel this.” Click To Tweet
Very cool. That tool or that approach you just went through reminds me of a couple of things. One is when I was in India learning from the Oneness monks at Oneness University, one thing really stuck, well a lot of things did, but one in particular about fear and uncomfortable emotions, was that to let the tiger devour you. That’s what they taught, let the tiger devour you. That means feel it fully, fully and completely rather than resist it, rather than trying to run away from it, you just let it consume you. The other thing that your process reminded me of was the first tool, there are five tools in the book called The Tools which is a fantastic book written by these therapists who’ve figured out some practical tools for their patients that gave them very quick results. The first tool was to run towards the fear and into the fear, imagining it like a black cloud of smoke or something that you can run into, and through, and out of. They give the story about a football player in highschool when one of the two authors was in highschool. This guy was unbeatable and he ended up going to the state, winning all these trophies and everything, and he shared his secret to success with the author when he was also a teenager and said, “The first thing I do on the field is I run right to the biggest guy on the opposing team and I just let him demolish me. I just go right head on and then I can do anything the rest of the game.” Pretty amazing. He wasn’t super skilled, he was very good, but he was of the same caliber as some of the other top athletes in the state but by having that secret weapon, he was almost unbeatable.
Hopefully, this will be a little less violent. Just to take it a step further, our language is so important at how we look at fear. I’m a big believer of putting yourself in the mouth of the demon but can we start to see fear not as a demon, not as some big, linebacker, some evil sinister being. I think that’s kind of part of the process too. Fear is our friend. We really kind of got that wrong. Fear is actually one of the most amazing experiences we get to have here on earth. I have some friends that went to Paris recently. They went to the Louvre, they went to the Eiffel Tower, and then they got mugged at gunpoint, and what do you think they came home and they talked about?
Getting mugged at gunpoint.
Right. They didn’t choose the fear. It’s like you go on a rollercoaster, you’re actually choosing to have a scary experience because you know it’s gonna be amazing. They didn’t choose it but these people – you can either be in resistance to the fear and then get PTSD because you’re not dealing with your fear in an honest way or you can embrace it and all of a sudden their telling the story of getting mugged, and their eyes are lit up, and they’re talking all excited, and it winds up kind of being one of the most poignant experience of their lives, and they wind up learning so much about themselves. When you got through a scary experience or just your relationship with fear, it’s all how you perceive it. It’s not a linebacker that’s here to annihilate you, it’s actually this gorgeous thing. Here’s the other thing, I keep talking to you like you’re my fear, if we go into our fear as a way to get through the other side of it, fear is too smart for that crap. Let’s say you’re my child, you’re my fear, and I say, “Okay, sweetheart. I’m willing to listen to you. You’ve been whining and complaining a lot. What is it that you wanna say to me? If I give you my undivided attention then will you leave me the hell alone?” Can you see that that’s still kind of disrespectful towards the fear? The question always is, can you just turn towards your fear, feel your fear, period, not with a comma and then let it go or then rationalize away because in the end, it will always wind up being another form of repression anyway, so step in the right direction. That’s why I’m kind of way further along on this embracing fear thing than a lot of my peers because they say, “Okay, you’ve gotta learn how to feel it. You’ve gotta submit to it. You’ve gotta make friends with it and then let it go.” If we can resist the urge to then keep going back to that old language it’s gonna work a lot better. When I say work a lot better, you’re just gonna have a healthier relationship with fear, and thus a healthier relationship with your life. Life is gonna throw you problems but if you get good at this, feeling your emotions, dealing with negativity in an inclusive way, you’re gonna be able to handle things so much better.
Would you say that Susan Jeffers’ approach of feel the fear and do it anyways is in conflict with what you’re saying about feel the fear, period, that’s it, just feel the fear? Or would you say it’s kind of part of the same message?
Well, it is in conflict. I actually talk about it briefly in my book. Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway suggests that you’re doing it despite the fear. I say don’t do things despite the fear, do things because of the fear. If you’re stepping out of your comfort zone, there’s going to be fear. If you’re stepping out of your comfort zone, you know you’re about to learn something new. There’s no learning or growing unless there’s stepping out of your comfort zone where there exists fear. We actually want to step out of our comfort zone. We want to feel fear. We want to go out and do the thing that scares us. Take on challenges. I say feel the fear and do it. Get rid of the word anyway because it really is ultimately disrespectful towards fear.
That makes sense. Makes sense. You talk about this process of doing a body scan to just even get in touch with the fear. What does that body scan look like? Walk us through how that goes.
Let me just say the reason why it’s important how to feel your fear versus think about your fear or think about feeling your fear is because as somebody’s in their head all the time, that’s a clear sign they’re not dealing with their emotions in an honest way. They try to just think about their emotions. Actually in our culture right now, emotional intelligence is touted as our ability to understand our emotions and control them. When you try to understand your emotions immediately in your head and then because of that, because we feel all emotions all the time, if you’re thinking about your emotions you’re now in your head all the time. What we wanna do, in order to have an honest relationship with our emotions, and I kind of talk about it before the Bulletproof talk, I closed my eyes and I did a body scan where I located what is it that I feel, and I felt anxiety. What that is if you just close your eyes, and you can do it right now, if somebody is driving and listening to this, please don’t close your eyes. But find a sensation of discomfort in your body and know that it doesn’t necessarily have to feel like fear. It could feel like anger. All the emotions are so connected, a lot of anger is just undealt with fear. It might even feel like sadness. Oftentimes, we would rather feel sadness than fear. Picture the kid who has a really bad home life and he’s scared, it makes him so powerless to be afraid but it makes him more powerful to feel anger, so he’ll feel anger instead of fear, but really, the fear is what makes up that anger. It may even feel like any kind of physical discomfort, lower back pain, an old broken leg injury. There’s always an emotional component to an injury that you haven’t dealt with. Just do a body scan and locate any kind of discomfort in your body, be it physical, emotional, that’s your fear, or fear has something to do with it. Notice where is it that you feel it. For me, I often feel it in my chest, sometimes in my jaw. Other people feel it in their shoulders. Where do you feel it right now?
I guess in my shoulders, in my traps. I’m very tight there. When I’m feeling anxious or really angry, I’ll feel it in my upper chest like tingling and I’ll breathe more shallowly.
The third part, and this might explain the breathing, if you have the thought, “I wish this weren’t so,” oftentimes, people stop breathing. It’s like, “Okay, if I just shallow my breathing then maybe it’ll go away.” It’s interesting, fear, like with animals, the amygdala is the manufacturing plant for fear, it’s part of your brain, sends a shock of fear to the body, and then fight or flight. Like Bambi, eating grass in a field, and there’s some rustling in the bushes, shot of fear to the body, and all of a sudden she perks up, her eyes say it’s better, her hearing’s better, she’s in the sharp sensory awareness that I talked about. And there, it’s a tiger, and then fight or flight. Of course Bambi is Bambi, she’s gonna run, she’s gonna flea. It’s a thought free experience. Then because of fear, Bambi plus fear equals super Bambi, she runs faster than she ever has in her life. Now that’s a great relationship with fear right there. Humans though are a lot more complicated than animals. This next part is that extra step that humans have and it’s actually explicitly taught in our culture. We have shot of fear, there’s perceived threat, feeling in the body, and we’re taught to start thinking about it, and try to understand the fear. We can’t understand it so we do the next best thing, is judge it, it’s a bad feeling. We humans have a long history of avoiding anything unpleasant and so next thing you know, we’re fighting or fleeing the fear itself rather than the problem. I take people skiing all the time and we get on steep slopes, and you hear about people freezing all the time, it’s like, “Oh, yeah. The slope is steep. It’s scary.” Of course it’s scary and then the fear shows up, but the fear becomes a bigger issue to that skier than the slope itself, and they’re freezing in the face of fear. The next step basically is get to know your patterns around that fear. It’s showing up, it’s very simple, sensation of discomfort in your body, do you wish it weren’t so? Do you ignore it? Do you block it out? How do you deal with it?
For me I do block it out.
Right, most people do. Especially people who come across as fearless or doing big things with their lives. We become really good at blocking it out like I was during my ski career. It works, like I said, for about 10 years and then, especially if you’re doing big things, and you’re dealing with a lot of fear, it starts to show up kind of messing up your lives, maybe you just start getting to be angry, or you get cranky with the wife, or you don’t sleep as well as you used to, or you just feel there’s something off in your undercurrent.
Yeah, or adrenal fatigues for example.
Oh, yeah. Yeah. I had wicked adrenal fatigue after my ski career. I had to sleep 10 hours a night. I never had kids because I didn’t have the energy to during my childbearing years after I quit my ski career. I was just trying to recover from having repressed fear for 10 years. I just didn’t have the energy. You’ll start to see that a lot in CEOs and professional extreme athletes that people are just exhausted and burnt out. Burn out is one of the classic signs of repressed fear.
Also, injuries don’t heal. It affects your health. Louis Pasteur, at the end of his life said that his life work was only half-complete. It’s actually not bacteria that caused his diseases, it’s bacteria meeting the ideal host environment, or viruses meeting the ideal host environment. Your body becomes really compromised when you’re repressing your emotions. It’s almost to the point where if you have any problem in your life, either the repression of fear either has everything or something to do with it on some level. That’s why I’ve made it my life’s work just to tell people turn towards their fear and not think about it and actually learn how to feel it.
Yeah. Not just repression of fear but as you said, repression of emotions can really harm our health, and our psyche, and just our quality of life overall.
Those 10,000 children that you talked about earlier, many of those children in our heads are not just fear but also guilt, shame, disappointment, all sorts of emotions we’ve kind of buried or become detached from thus we end up with all this repression, low EQ or emotional intelligence, and inability to empathize with others, and social awkwardness and all sorts of stuff.
Beneath all of these, I call them shadow voices, I’m sure you’ve heard that term, actually fear is such a huge part of guilt, fear is such a huge part of shame, of unworthiness, of all these other shadow voices. Fear is kind of the oldest tool in our toolbox. It kind of makes up, I likened in my book anger to being like a red popsicle and the ice is the fear but the color red is the anger. Fear is like the ice that makes all of these popsicles. I really think that the best thing we can do to not only feel better and handle life’s ups and downs better is to find a way to make friends with our fear, you do that by learning how to feel it in an honest way without trying to get rid of it, just giving it the respect and consideration it deserves. I feel like we’ve just gotten of course with our emotions. In our grandparents era, emotions are seen as frivolous. All you have to do is look at photos in the 20s of our ancestors and they’re standing there stoically. They’re more concerned about survival but as we’re kind of moving towards living bigger lives, we have this new fancy neocortex part of the brain, the amygdala’s still there, we’ve gotta invite the amygdala and fear into our growth and evolution moving forward, anything less is disrespectful, and anything else is just going to be a war carried out in our minds or internal worlds. Frankly, what we’ve been doing has not been working. We’re becoming Prozac nation. People are getting more into drugs. These drugs are just a way to not deal with their fear. Alcohol. If we really want to address those problems too like, “Can we find a way to have an honest relationship with fear?”
Right. In addition to turning towards it, accepting it fully, not trying to fix it or make it go away, not denying its value but honoring it. What are some exercises on a regular basis that you would recommend for people to stay in touch and stay aware and meta aware, have awareness of their awareness?
One of the best things that you can do is to change your language around fear. That is probably step one. You just said something interesting. You said, “accept fear fully.” Accepting fear is a step in the right direction but like I said, that’s only one step in the right direction. I have a niece who’s 5 ft.10 inches and she’s only 14 years old and accepting that she’s tall, it is what it is, there’s nothing I can do about it, it still reeks of “I wish it weren’t so but there’s nothing I can do about it so I just gotta figure out some way to accept it.” That’s kind of not what we’re not going for. I’m saying change our language around fear. For sure we don’t wanna try and conquer fear, it’s not gonna work. You can win a battle but you’re not gonna win the war.
Stop saying the word conquering and fear in the same sentence. Stop saying overcome and fear in the same sentence. Even stop saying accept and fear in the same sentence because that’s only kind of partial. My niece, if she were to honor the fact that she was 5 ft.10 inches, next thing you know, she’s walking through the hallway with a swagger, she has her shoulders back, she gets into basketball, modelling, that’s honoring how tall she is. That’s what we’re going for. Can you find a way to honor your fear? In changing our language, the first thing you can do is stop fear shaming yourself or stop fear shaming the people in your life, certainly your children. If somebody says, “Oh, I feel afraid.” What do we say? “Oh, there’s nothing to be afraid of.” Even my own mother. I was about to give a speech to Phillips Exeter Academy, and she said, “How are you feeling?” I’m talking about fear and I said, “Well, I’m scared.” She’s like, “Oh, no, no. You need to feel… You’ve done this a million times.” I’m like, “Mom, shut up.” She knows what I teach, she’s read my book, come on. We can’t help ourselves. When somebody says, “I feel afraid.” What we should say instead is, “Oh, well, it’s normal and natural for you to be afraid. You’re about to give a speech.” I had a client whose kid was about to get on the water slide and you don’t wanna go because it was scary and he said, “Oh, there’s nothing to be afraid of.” That’s the wrong thing to say. Of course there’s something to be afraid. They design these water slides to be scary. You say something instead like, “Oh, the world is a scary place, isn’t it?” Or “The waterslide is designed to be scary, that’s what makes it fun. Are you in the mood for fear right now?”
I love that. “Are you in the mood for fear right now?”
You’re validating instead of taking fear’s power away, you’re validating, embracing it. I like that. Okay.
Right. Here’s another language changer. Fear is not what holds you back from doing the things that you wanna do. It’s your resistance to fear or your unwillingness to feel fear, that’s what holds you back. If you embrace the fear, take fear of failure for example, some people are held back by failure so they seem. Their butts’ firmly planted on the couch but other people like Bill Gates for example, is really motivated by fear of failure. What’s the difference between the two? Well, if you’re unwilling to deal with your fear, you’re unwilling to feel your fear, you avoid fear, your butt stays firmly on the couch. That’s not fear’s fault. That’s your fault. But those embrace fear, who eat it like manna, those are the ones that are motivated by their fear. Those are the things that I did during my ski career that really worked. I loved feeling fear. I was addicted to fear, I don’t recommend that. I don’t expect anybody to relate to that but I enjoyed feeling fear. It made me feel alive. Fear makes us feel alive.
And it also keeps us alive.
And it keeps us alive, exactly. One of the most important language changers can be is to saying, “It’s not that fear holds you back, it’s my unwillingness to feel fear that holds me back,” and that’s a more honest statement. Just changing your language can also have a really profound effect and an awesome effect on changing your relationship with fear.
Our words are so powerful. I used to say that, “Oh, my memory is getting worse.” I was creating that reality because our words are manifesting reality. When I changed my languaging around and when I changed my perception of it, then my memory actually improved. I looked for other evidence that for example my memory for numbers has been amazing my whole life, and has been getting better. Our words are amazingly powerful. Another example that relates directly to fear is I just had a stem cell procedure last week which I had been putting off because I was afraid to do it, but I’m glad I did it. In retrospect now that it’s done, it’s wonderful to have that out of the way, that procedure, now I have my stem cells banked. Who knows what sorts of amazing benefits are gonna happen over the next six months. Heck, I might look 20 years younger. But I was using terminology that was not serving me but was actually dissing my fear, referring to myself as the big chicken. I don’t like needles, I really don’t like needles. I had to be put out for the procedure. Some people are awake for it, I’m like, “Nope, I’m gonna be out.” I referred to myself as the big chicken and that doesn’t serve me to use those kinds of derogatory words and that creates a reality that doesn’t exist and doesn’t have to exist.
You can say instead, “I don’t feel like dealing with my fear during this procedure. I think I’m gonna medicate it away.” Medicate the pain away. It’s ultimately our resistance to it that causes the suffering. I actually had that stem cell procedure. I actually had a bone marrow extraction and they also took the stem cells out of fats. I had a liposuction.
Yeah, I had both. I did both.
I had it without anesthesia but because of I’m a fear specialist back to my equation, suffering equals discomfort times resistance. Another thing can be pain times resistance. We see this all the time with people who get tattoos. If they absolutely get rid of the resistance and they just fully embrace it the pain, it actually turns into this heightened zone that is delicious. It took me a while to get there, getting a bone marrow extraction without any anesthesia, that’s kind of hardcore. But it was definitely memorable. I was kind of able to get there. My resistance was maybe a level one, I didn’t get it to a zero, so I still had some suffering but if you can get it down to zero then that’s a win.
Just curious, did you go to Docere Clinics? Did you have Dr. Harry Adelson do your procedure?
I did. It cost a lot of money but it made it so that I didn’t have to have shoulder surgery. I’m now completely recovered.
Wow, that’s amazing.
Yeah, I know.
What a great testimonial. I had Dr. Harry do my procedure. My wife also came with me and she did the procedure last week too. We were in Park City for that which is last week. He’s amazing. He’s amazing. Very, very cool.
I’ve one more thing to say about fear.
Okay, let’s hear it.
I have a million more things to say, this is my favorite subject but I work with clients pretty much daily, even seven days a week. I just recently had a client who knows that she wants to make friends with fear, she knows that’ll make her feel better, she’s done a lot of the work, but she’s so addicted to the drama of fighting her fear that she actually doesn’t want to lose that drama. A lot of us who have problems in our lives, I have another client that I was just working with this weekend, who has depression, and I’m trying to help him deal with this fear but he’s getting such a huge payoff from his depression, and from his battle with fear, he doesn’t have to work. His parents pay for everything. If somebody wants to forge a healthier relationship with fear you’re gonna feel so much better. Your life is gonna calm down but then your life isn’t gonna be so dramatic and tumultuous. A lot of people are afraid of the calmness that ensues. But to which I say I’ll tell you what, anytime that you wanna do something that will make you come alive, and make you feel like you’re really engaged in life, and life will be anything but boring, is you then go out and do something that scares you that’s out of your comfort zone again. The first part is if you have a fear of practice, you’re gonna calm down, you’re gonna feel better, you’re gonna be able to deal with things better. And then the second part, the fear hack we’re actually going to go out and take risks, and that’s gonna make you expand, and grow, and you’re gonna live your most amazing life.
I love it. I’ve never heard that before, to have a fear practice. So many times people will say, “Have a meditation practice.” That’s profound. Thank you so much, Kristen. This was fantastic. If somebody wanted to work with you, become a client, how would they reach you?
Well, first of all, I encourage people to buy my book, The Art of Fear. It casts a really wide net and gives you an overview of why we’ve come to view fear as negative, how we treat it, the consequences of that, and what to do instead. If people wanna work with me, I do webinars, I do one-on-one classes, I ski with people, I do live events all over the world. I give a lot of keynote speeches and they’re usually facilitated events. I only work with people for six hours to get them to the other side of a fear or anxiety related problem because this stuff works so fast. It takes a lifetime to fight a war against fear but it actually only takes a few hours to change your relationship with fear, and the war, and make friends with it, and have those associated problems resolved. Just know that this is not a long process and I’d like to help you.
Awesome. Your website address again?
Awesome. Thank you, Kristen. Thank you, listeners. I hope you take some of this advice on board and actually apply it in your life. There is a checklist, as well as show notes, and transcript, it’s all available at The Optimized Geek website, optimizedgeek.com. If you’re interested in learning more about stem cell therapy and Dr. Harry Adelson, his episode number 82 is a must listen, that’s Dr. Harry Adelson episode 82. Do buy Kristen’s book, The Art of Fear, it is awesome. Thanks everyone for listening. We’ll catch you on the next episode of The Optimized Geek.
- Kristen Ulmer on Facebook
- Kristen Ulmer on Instagram
- The Art of Fear by Kristen Ulmer
- Ravé Mehta on the Optimized Geek
- Tony Robbins
- Oneness University
- The Tools by Phil Stutz and Barry Michels
- Feel the Fear… and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers
- Dr. Harry Adelson on the Optimized Geek
Your Checklist of Actions to Take:
☑ View fear as a motivator. Having the presence of fear makes and keeps us alive.
☑ Don’t resist or bottle up my feelings. It’s okay to be afraid, ashamed or vulnerable.
☑ Keep my thoughts rational and positive when I feel fear and anxiety.
☑ Find an outlet for Zen such as meditation or any form of spiritual nourishment. Peace of mind is important to my well-being.
☑ Learn how to shift my thoughts without therapy. This will help me have a strong presence of mind when I feel scared.
☑ Stop doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome. Find ways to get out of situations when I feel stuck.
☑ Step out of my comfort zone. Whenever I get too comfortable, find something to do to keep my adrenaline rushing.
☑ Validate others feelings when they say they’re afraid. Motivate them to face their fears rather than telling them to not be scared.
☑ Read Kristen’s book, The Art of Fear, to learn more about embracing fear to lead a successful life.
About Kristen Ulmer
Kristen was recognized as being the best woman big mountain extreme skier in the world for 12 years, and was also voted the most fearless woman athlete in North America.
This combined with 15 years studying Zen and working with thousands of clients, her recent book: The Art of Fear: Why Conquering Fear Won’t Work and What to Do Instead, radically challenges existing norms about what to do about fear and anxiety.