The Thrive Questionnaire//

Why Doing Scary Things is a Sign You’re On the Right Path

Fear and anxiety expert Kristen Ulmer explains why being afraid can actually be an asset.

Photo Credit Meaghan M. Golden.

When you have the opportunity to ask some of the most interesting people in the world about their lives, sometimes the most fascinating answers come from the simplest questions. The Thrive Questionnaire is an ongoing series that gives an intimate look inside the lives of some of the world’s most successful people.

Thrive Global: What’s the first thing you do when you get out of bed?
Kristen Ulmer: I lumber up, open the bedroom door, then promptly 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 into my left ribcage. He makes puckered lip kissy faces at me. My husband, who has usually been up for at least 2 hours, 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 serval with huge striped ears and a black nose, will lay on my chest, kneading 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 either when Nevaeh sneezes, and if not usually after about 20 minutes.

TG: What gives you energy?
KU: I often sleep 9 or so hours per night. That gives me a ton of energy. But, I also get energized by working with clients. I’m a fear and anxiety specialist who is an alternative to talk therapy. A client and I work together usually just 4 sessions total, to get them through to the other side of a problem like panic attacks or an anxiety disorder. It’s a very powerful process so you can imagine, because we are going directly into the heart of the issue, I usually feel very energized afterwards– on a real high from the clients (or groups) insights. This work is what I live for. So much so, on my death bed , I’ll be one of those rare people who’ll wish she had worked more, not less.

TG: What’s your secret life hack?
KU: I’m a fear hacker. Now, you may be thinking you mean that horrible emotion which holds us back? I say no way. People poo-poo fear, when in my experience if you have a healthy relationship with it, it’s one of the greatest experience we have here on earth. Fear helps us come alive, motivates us, and helps us be more focused and present. It is where intuition and instinct lie. If you hack fear, it helps make spot on quick decisions, enhances our performance, is the gas in our tanks. Doing scary things is a sign we’re on the path toward learning and growing, not to mention fear also keeps us safe, of course. I could write for days about the virtues of fear.

Most people don’t realize these virtues though, because they’re running away from fear, or they’ve declared war on it by trying to overcome it. Their relationship with fear is thus compromised. Fear gets pushed down into what I call the basement, where it recirculates and just starts to act crazy. So many people do this, in fact, we’re only aware then of how fear operates in retaliation to the war we’ve declared on it.

But if you instead turn toward this perceived enemy, and show it respect and consideration, not only does that relationship heal, but fear and anxiety calms right now. Fear’s virtues only then become revealed. And fear can grow to become your new greatest asset and ally, versus the thing that cripples you and holds you back.

How’s that for a hack!?

TG: Name a book that changed your life.
KU: 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. It looked like I was addicted to extreme skiing or other sketchy outdoor sports, but really I was addicted to where these sports took me, which is into the present moment. So 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.

Being into Zen however (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. Because when accessing this state your lights really come on and you can see, if only for a moment, the truth of who and what you are.

But this state is not going to find you, you must go find it. This book helps you do that.

TG: Tell us about your relationship with your phone. Does it sleep with you?
KU: Ha! No. Never. Did you know a wireless router with the same radiation as a cell phone, when left next to sprouting garden cress seeds, kills the sprouts? I don’t want my brain to turn dead and brown like those seeds. There’s that. But the other part is, I’ve traveled to 80+ countries, all without shooting a single photo. I could watch a lion give birth and it wouldn’t even occur to me to take a photo, tell a friend, or post about it. I’m more of an observant, smell the lilacs, tell-me-more-about-you type. Combine that with growing up in an era before cell phones, and what we have here is someone who forgets where her phone is, at least twice a day.

But my computer, on the other hand…

TG: How do you deal with email?
KU: Ok, you found it. My weakness. Because my business is run via email, I check it at least 15x a day. I know I shouldn’t – successful people don’t check email more than 1-2 times a day. But it gives me great pleasure to have at least all (and I mean all) my emails responded to by the end of the night. The house could be in ruins, no food for dinner, husband begging for attention, but if this is completed, my world feels peacefully under control.

TG: You unexpectedly find 15 minutes in your day, what do you do with it?
KU: I fill a bowl half way with potato chips and go out to the porch (in summer) or overstuffed chair with the view (in winter), munch the chips, listen to birds, and read the latest National Geographic magazine starting from where I last left off.

TG: When was the last time you felt burned out and why?
KU: I just launched my book: The Art of Fear: Why Conquering Fear Won’t Work and What to Do Instead a few months ago. It’s 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 books message at the same time, and I was working 12-hour days, 7 days a week. The book hadn’t even come out then, and I was already fried. All I wanted to do was hide, wear dirty pajamas and eat mac and cheese.

This was bad, because my schedule was about to get far worse.

TG: When was the last time you felt you failed and how did you overcome it?
KU: During the week of my book launch, while in San Francisco I had to facilitate four different 90-minute high pressure events in under 36 hours. The last one was in front of a group of 25 of my closest friends and most devoted clients. I was doing great until the last few minutes. With a plane to catch and feeling like the two days of high stakes were finally over, instead of finishing strong like I usually do I celebrated early and just kind of goobered out the last 5 minutes of the event. It’s like my brain just spilled out of my ears and all over the floor. I became tongue tied, forgot a bunch of info I had promised, and then as these lovely people in my life said good bye, I was not very present.

For the next few says then, I felt humiliated by my ‘performance’ and a whole lotta self-loathing, although I wouldn’t say that today, I “overcome” these feelings. That’s not my language. I don’t feel like we ever overcome or let go of anything. We can either push it down and go into denial about it, which I try not to do, or learn from it and use it to our advantage, and then it lets go of us. Which is why I have a motto that I live by in moments like these:

If you’re not embarrassed about who you are today, and don’t resolve to do better tomorrow, you’re stuck.

What I did then, is I resolved to do better tomorrow, so as to never feel that way again. Now, I will either 1. not over-book myself like that again, or 2. will never allow myself to check out, until any event is over.

Those new commitments are the gift that came from my failure.

Oh and today I also will put way more energy into my relationships with the people who were in that group, than ever. They get a fully present, lovalanche from me, for at least a full year. And maybe then, just maybe, they will think I’m cool again.

TG: Share a quote that you love and that gives you strength or peace.

I think I just did. I’ll go further into it though.

If you’re not embarrassed about who you are today, and don’t resolve to do better tomorrow, you’re stuck. This gives me strength and peace because with it, I don’t try to force anything into my life – like peace, love, gratitude, forgiveness etc. Quotes inspiring positivity are great – but they’re not for me. For in my world, and maybe this is another quote I live by: Whatever you won’t face, is the key to freedom.

It works like this: nurturing my positive qualities doesn’t set me free so 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, honest, seeing the positive in all that life has to offer, and always curious about what I’m supposed to learn next. It helps me see all of life’s foibles as opportunities. As for strength, without challenges I will never grow stronger. Kind of like if you don’t lift heavy weights, you never grow big muscles. As for peace, only when I am at peace with both my light and my dark shadow, I am at peace with myself.

Kristen Ulmer is a thought leader, fear specialist and former professional extreme athlete who radically challenges existing norms about fear. Named the best woman extreme skier in the world for 12 years and voted the North American most extreme woman athlete in all disciplines, Ulmer has spent her lifetime facing fear. She was even labeled “fearless” by the outdoor industry for a decade and a half, but that is a designation she now realizes is not only impossible, but undesirable. Recognizing the deep misunderstanding we all have when it comes to the emotion of fear, Ulmer seeks to end our humanity-wide war against it, which will not only resolve many common, epidemic problems we face, but allow us the greatest chance to achieve our whole-mind potential. Her book, The Art of Fear: Why Conquering Fear Won’t Work and What to Do Instead, is available now.

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