Kristen Ulmer is a former professional extreme athlete, a fear specialist, and the author of The Art of Fear: Why Conquering Fear Doesn’t Work and What to Do Instead. She currently lives in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like?
I grew up in New Hampshire in a small town of only 2000 people. I was raised in a house built in 1786. It was not fixed up at all either, a real dump, with dirt cellars, original wood floors that creaked even when you didn’t step on them, and lots of other phantom noises. Both my brother and I though and still think that sucker is haunted.
The house was heated only by a wood stove so we had to spend a lot of time cutting, hauling and feeding wood. My room in the attic was farthest from the stove so I was cold all the time 3 seasons per year, and in the summer my room would fill with wasps. I wouldn’t go near my closet too too scary, even well into my teens.
My father was a college professor of music, concert pianist, and composer/conductor. My mom was a nurse. I had one older brother, Ed, whom everyone loved. I would hang out with him in high school in order to improve my reputation (which wasn’t great, I was a partier in junior high, I actually quit drugs and alcohol, at age 14!)
As for friends and activities, I didn’t have many of either until around age 12, when I got hooked up with a best friend named Robin who had a mom who lived to drive her kids around to various events like gymnastics class or skiing. I was very grateful to be part of their ‘family,’ as otherwise, I would have had an ongoing very boring, sad and lonely childhood.
Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?
I’m in it!
I just launched my book: The Art of Fear: Why Conquering Fear Won’t Work and What to Do Instead. It’s been such an overwhelming experience to launch a book in general, much less a book that challenges existing norms about such a big deal emotion as fear. That combined with launching a whole business around the book’s message at the same time, and I’ve been working 14-hour days, 7 days a week, for months now, all while going through menopause. Oh, and did I mention my husband quit his job to help me and we had to navigate all this together with VERY different work styles.
What I’ve learned from this so far is (and I’m sure there’s more to come), sometimesbo you have to endure a lot of suffering to do big things with your life. As miserable as I’ve been, it still feels worth it, because I know that on my deathbed someday, I’ll be glad I went for it, and was willing to deal with so much fear and emotional pain and anxiety and struggle, rather than play it safe staying a smaller version of myself.
What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?
Because I innately tended to be a real doomsdayer in the first 25 years of my life, I wish I had realized sooner how impermanent life is. How the second you have a realization, a second later that realization is quite possibly no longer true.
Like for example, the realization that my husband is an a##hole, if I wait two seconds, he’ll turn into a peach. Or if I have a bad nights sleep, it’s not the end of the world and OMG I’m going to have insomnia for the rest of my life! Because the next night is a new night and likely a completely new experience.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
Uhg, the list is endless. Anxiety (aka fear) specialists are almost unanimously teaching symptoms relief for irrational fear, chronic anxiety PTSD, depression, insomnia etc. to help people feel better for a brief moment, but never explaining or addressing the underlying cause- which is these folks are repressing fear and now it’s coming out from the recesses of their unconscious world in a pathological way.
Which makes me groan more because, what the specialists teach, actually has become the cause, because all these methods ironically, help people to repress fear.
- Deep breaths. If you have a fork sticking out of your eye, take three deep breaths, and you’ll feel better. But guess what? You’ll still have a fork sticking out of your eye.
- Meditation. Calm your mind, you’ll feel better. And I love meditation, but if it’s being used to feel less anxious or control your mind, it’s just another method to help you not deal with your fear in an honest way.
- Same with exercise, yoga, teas, tapping, massage, positive affirmations, herbal supplements, float spas etc. All great stuff, but again, band aids. Great for calming symptoms, but make it so you never address the underlying cause.
- Talk Therapy. Talking and thinking about your fear is great, who doesn’t like to talk about themselves for an hour? But it will keep you in the loop of your thinking mind, for often decades. Emotional problems need to be dealt with emotionally, not intellectually.
- Rationalize it away. Hey there’s nothing to be afraid of, right? Buys you momentary relief. But because life is scary, and there IS something to be afraid of, that’s just a ruse.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Re-program your brain, right? Decent results. But, we are not robots. And talk about extreme measures. Why not just go back to our roots and learn how to feel our emotions instead, in a mature way. Much less effort, for a better result.
- Then, if all this doesn’t work, take anti-depressant, anti-anxiety or beta-blocker medication. You’ll euthanize your mind and aliveness, but at least you won’t have to feel anything anymore.
Scientists are on the cause to trying to understand fear and why it acts the way it acts. Fascinating stuff, but essentially useless. Knowing the chain reaction that occurs when a snake slithers into a room, doesn’t mean we have a clue why the snake acts the way it acts.
You’d think with all this effort that we’d all be feeling much, much better. But we’re not.
All these things are great at addressing or treating the symptoms of repressed fear, and thus making the problems of anxiety, depression, PTSD etc. more tolerable, but the problem is then we no longer bother to address the underlying cause.
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
Because my belief is that your relationship with fear is the most important relationship of your life, I now spend at least two minutes a day engaged in what I call a Fear practice.
Especially before I have to give speeches or other scary things, I do a body scan to assess my mood. Being a fear specialist, I’m particularly interested in how much I feel fear (it’s always there, whether we’re willing to admit it or not), and where in my body it’s located.
Fear is a sense of discomfort in our bodies. It may show up in obvious ways as fear, stress or anxiety (which are all pretty much the same thing), or maybe it will feel more like anger or sadness (which can be tied to fear, if fear is repressed). If it seems like it’s in our minds that’s because we’re not dealing with it emotionally, but rather intellectually, which is never a good idea. I locate the feeling in my body then for me sometimes it’s in my jaw, or shoulders, sometimes my forehead. Then I have a 1-2 minute, 3-step process:
- I spend about 15-30 seconds recognizing that it’s natural to feel this discomfort. Giving a speech is SCARY. Acknowledging this, can be life changing.
- I then spend the next 15-30 seconds being curious about what my current relationship is with that discomfort. I notice; if the anxiety seems out of proportion to the situation or it seems irrational in any way, that means I’ve been ignoring or resisting fear and thus it’s starting to speak louder or act out. Acknowledging my resistance, also changes my perspective.
- Finally, I then spend as long as it takes, to feel my fear. Now, this is important: I don’t try to get rid of it- that is not what this is about, because that would be me repressing fear. The key is to feel the feeling, by spending some time with it like you would with your dog, friend or lover. I usually do this for about 30-60 seconds. After which fear, feeling acknowledged and heard, dissipates.
Anytime I feel anxious or upset, this is my go-to. My clients have a fear practice too, and the results are quite profound. After about a week not only does their fear and anxiety calm way down, but so do many other problems like underperforming, irritation, hold backs and more, they all become resolved. Keep doing it past that week, and you’ll also start to notice the percolation, energy and heightened states this practice offers.
I don’t have a gratitude, peace or a forgiveness practice, which are super popular in America right now. I see this as turning away from a truth that is trying to get your attention, and forcing a lie.
Instead, I turn toward my discomfort and try to have an honest relationship with it, by engaging in this practice. I focus on my discomfort, fear, sadness, anger, or anything else that seems unpleasant, all of it, and that effort not only affords me insights, but, even though it seems counter intuitive, it thoroughly, amazingly sets me free.
What is your morning routine?
With great consternation, around 9 am I lumber up, open the bedroom door, then dive right back into bed.
My F3 Savannah cat Phoenix, who is a 13-pound miniature leopard, will saunter in, jump on board and curl usually into my left ribcage, where he’ll start making his usual puckered lip kissy faces at me. My husband, who has probably been up for at least 2 hours now, also comes in to say good morning. He gets under the covers and nuzzles into my right side. If it’s winter my other Savannah cat Nevaeh, a F2 who looks like a bobcat with huge striped ears and a black nose, will eventually show up and lay on my chest, or knead the blanket up by my face while purring like a motorboat, and unfortunately, drooling.
We’re just one writhing cuddle puddle until I decide to get up for real, which is often when Nevaeh sneezes in all our faces.
After that it’s just emails, a small breakfast which is different every day (granola? egg with cheese? Leftovers?) which I eat slowly while reading a magazine (usually National Geographic) them die into whatever is on my work calendar; a writing deadline, filming new content, a client call, a client ski day, a group event to prepare for that becomes my focus the rest of the morning.
What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
I have become an exceptional listener. I could listen to people talk about themselves for hours.
And, I’ll tell you what, you want people to like you? I used to jump off 70 foot cliffs on skis to get people to like me. Who knew all I had to do was ask them an interesting question and be curious about their answer, to get the same reaction.
What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?
Time is such a precious commodity. I just make sure I’m fully awake and alive during the moments that matter. I also make sure I do it right the first time. Not doing it right or “good enough” reeks of having to go back and do something over again in the future.
When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, or have lost your focus temporarily, what do you do?
I honor those states by walking away from work and instead doing what seems like ‘nothing,’ which is of course something (take a walk, stretch my body, watch a movie). I do these things for as long as it takes, a few hours, or even a few days sometimes, before my motivation comes back.
If I have a tight deadline though, what I do instead is take just 5 minutes to do that ‘nothing.’ But during these 5 minutes, I go alllll the way. I become fully present to my unfocused or overwhelmed state. Maybe I’ll take a hot shower and just stand there and let water luxuriously rain down my neck while groaning about how overwhelmed I feel. It’s lovely. Or I’ll find the cat and bury my unfocused mind into his soft belly, and just enjoy how spacey and stupid I am right now.
Not only is it a relief to just submit like that to my present reality, but surprise! These actions also have the great ability to allow another reality to enter, without my having to force anything. I usually come back after those 5 minutes, organically energized and ready for another big push.
Honor your moods not by forcing a different reality, but by just letting them be. It’s very Zen. When you’re sad, just be sad. When you’re afraid, just be afraid. When you’re overwhelmed, just be overwhelmed. When you’re unfocused, can you find a way to let it be and simply enjoy that state?
This is how — like water through a hose—these states will come into, through and out of your life. Do this and always that reality will run its course, and there will be space right behind it, for something else to enter.
What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?
My favorite book of all times is The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle.
I loved this book because it was the first time I experienced a higher state of awareness not from doing sports, but from just reading a book.
Tolle calls it the Now. Every spiritual tradition has a name for this place. I call it Connected Self, or the Infinite. In sports, we call this place The Zone. In Zen, it’s called Enlightenment. It’s where you transcend your limited personal view of the world, and become part of the whole.
Almost my whole life has been about chasing this state. As an extreme skier, it looked like I was addicted to the skiing itself or sketchy experiences, but really, I was addicted to where these sports took me, which is into the present moment. But with the Power of Now, to learn I could be there anytime I wanted just by sitting on a park bench, was a huge relief. And may have even saved my life.
Caveat though: being into Zen (it’s what I study to be a fear specialist), I don’t see the Now as being sustainable, which is different from what Tolle suggests. But I do know it’s so important to for us to experience this state, hopefully often, in our lifetimes. Yet this state is not going to find you, you must go find it. This book helps you do that.
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
I may be the only one on the planet who avoids inspiring positive quotes about things like peace, love, gratitude, forgiveness etc. because to me they feel contrived or forced.
Instead, a quote I live by is; “whatever you won’t face, is the key to freedom.”
I like darker quotes because nurturing my positive qualities doesn’t set me free as much as acknowledging and owning my negative qualities. This probably comes from my training in Zen, which is about embracing all of life including your shadow, and not just the good stuff
Embracing my shadow keeps me humble and honest. It helps me fully owning the truth of my human experience, the good and the bad, with fewer moment of being in denial. Facing and owning my “stuff” – my frustrations, delusions, insecurities, pains etc offers me moments of aliveness, curiosity and never ending questions, like what am I not dealing with today, such that I’m arguing with my husband? Or hey, look at that, I’m in a bad mood. Let’s see if I can enjoy my bad mood this morning?
With each challenge of owning the things I would normally avoid, I grow stronger. Kind of like if you lift heavy weights, you grow big muscles.
And the more life seems to be organically peaceful.