SALT LAKE CITY — Kristen Ulmer was already a good skier in the mid-1980s when she skied off a cliff for a ski movie in Squaw Valley, California, wowing a group of daredevil male skiers who were doing the same thing. With each jump that day, she cemented a future that would give her the best woman "big mountain extreme skier" title for 12 years.
Ulmer would ski in a string of ski movies and be courted by eager sponsors. Within a few years, she'd be racing through moguls for a season on the U.S. Ski Team. She'd be voted best overall female skier anywhere. She would become the first female to ski down the Grand Teton in Wyoming.
Kristen Ulmer built a career on extreme sports, then realized her relationship with fear was backfiring on her. She's written a book on fear. | Meaghan M. Golden
She would also become expert at repressing fear, a pattern she would follow in other athletic pursuits, from paragliding to ice climbing. In a survey for Women's Sports and Fitness Magazine in 2000, she was voted the most extreme female athlete on the continent — in any sport.
Was she fearless? Hardly. That day in Squaw Valley was also the start of a warped relationship with fear. Ulmer would stuff the emotion as far down inside her as she could whenever she felt its icy fingers.
As she writes in the introduction to her just-released book "The Art of Fear," "With each new attagirl my ego inflated, which only sealed my fate. I had just the right opportunity, just the right personality type and just the right twisted relationship with fear to pull this off."
The pain that fear — and stifling it — caused Ulmer drove her to study with a Zen master for the past 15 years and launched her work as a facilitator and coach and, more recently, an expert on fear. She points out that fear and excitement release the same chemicals in the human brain. Thrills and chills are a matter of personal interpretation.
Kristen Ulmer heli-skiis in Bella Coola, Canada. She was the first woman to descend Grand Teton on skis in 1997. | Bryan Liptzin
During her athletic career, Ulmer said she'd done a stellar job of repressing her fear, but it became harder to do. She burned out on skiing, had adrenal issues and suffered post-traumatic stress. Her relationships suffered. She was miserable. She had for years declared war on fear and it fought back: She was spending too much time and energy on avoiding fear. "Being encased in all that cement and still trying to perform at a world-class level is very, very difficult."
When she decided to "be curious" about her fear and what it was trying to tell her, to address it forthrightly, her mental and physical health improved and she began to enjoy instead of dread skiing again. It became easier to tackle new challenges and feel enlivened.
Ulmer has lived in Salt Lake City since 1985 and is married to Kirk Jellum, an aerospace engineer. The Deseret News recently talked to her about fear and why avoiding it creates more fear, anxiety and anger, among other emotions.
"Your relationship with fear is the most important relationship of your life because it's the relationship you have with your core self," she said. "It's important to make it a close one."
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Kristen Ulmer, skiing off a cliff at Alta Ski Club, for 12 years was called the best woman "big mountain extreme skier." | Photo courtesy of Kristen Ulmer
Deseret News: You say everything we know about fear is wrong. What does that mean?
Kristen Ulmer: We don't really understand that it's our reaction to fear that causes our problems, not the fear itself. Avoidance of fear is causing us problems. Most people teach this avoidance, like fear is a hindrance or something to be conquered. Everything we know about how to deal with fear is wrong.
We've gotten in the habit of feeling that fear is a personal weakness and that something is wrong with our character. If we feel fear, we try to hide it. We're embarrassed by it, we try to get rid of it. We think it's not natural and normal.
We have two choices: We can block it out, which is what we tend to do. A lot of effort gets put into this. We go to the gym. We meditate it away. We do breathing techniques. We massage to calm down. We run away from fear. That's the effort that we put into avoiding fear and it becomes harder over time. We think that we've gotten rid of it, but we've just pushed it down and then it's now coming out and it's messing up our lives in ways that are either obvious or covert. We bring this undealt-with fear home with us and next thing you know, little things are bugging us. You may be burned out, you may have anxiety disorders or depression or insomnia and you don't make the association of fear causing these things.
Kristen Ulmer ascends Grand Teton. She was the first woman to ski down Grand Teton in 1997. Ulmer for 12 years was called the best woman "big mountain extreme skier." | Tom Jungst
DN: What should we do instead?
KU: Instead of trying to block it out, which only gives temporary relief and actually causes more problems over time, I suggest people turn toward it and allow themselves to feel it.
When people hear "face your fears," they think face your enemy and punch him in the face. That's not what we're going for. The first step is to recognize fear is natural. If you're going to do something outside of your comfort zone, which we do often and makes life worth it, fear's going to be there.
Second, get to know your patterns around fear, in particular the ways you may be avoiding or trying to not deal with your fear by declaring war on it. That's an unwinnable war.
The third step is find a way to feel the fear. People think fear's in their head. It's actually a sensation of discomfort in their body. But when they're fighting a war with it, it tends to go in the basement and then hijack your mind. Become curious about "where am I feeling discomfort in my body?" It may show up as fear, as anxiety, as stress. It may show up not as fear at all. Repression of fear may show up as sadness and anger. So just locate a sensation of discomfort in your body and give it some attention. The goal isn't necessarily to get it to calm down, but to be curious about it and see what happens next.
Last, have a fear practice where whenever you're feeling uncomfortable, whenever things aren't working out, instead of turning away from the discomfort, turn toward it, which is kind of counterintuitive. Be willing to feel it. When things change and change fast, problems resolve and then you can get to where you can start to see discomfort as a positive, rather than a negative.
DN: Can facing fear be a parenting tool?
KU: The repression of fear starts the first time parents say there's nothing to be afraid of. We say that to friends. We say that as parents. That is called fear shaming. "It's just in your mind, it's imaginary. There's nothing to be afraid of." That's not true. There's lots to be afraid of. This world is a very scary place, especially to a child. So when your child says "I'm scared," never say there's nothing to be afraid of. You set him up for a lifetime of drama and anxiety. If you instead say, "Tell me more about your fear and what's it like to be afraid," then you have a conversation and the child will learn to be curious about his fear.
Any good accomplishment, any lofty goal, there's probably some element of fear in it.
Kristen Ulmer tackles Mount Timpanogos in Utah. Ulmer for 12 years was called the best woman "big mountain extreme skier." In a scary sport, her relationship with fear was complicated, she says.| Bryan Liptzin
DN: How can fear make you a better parent?
KU: You deal with your own fear of being a parent, and then deal with your child's fear. Anything worth doing involves fear. By deciding to become a parent, you are introducing a lot more fear into your life. It is a very scary experience to be a human being. It's even scarier to raise a human being.
If you're willing to feel your fear, then you can use it as a tool to help you be more sharp and focused, to help you make sure your kid is safe, for example. Fear of being a bad parent will help you be more present. You'll go to more soccer games and PTA meetings and all that. Fear can be used to motivate you to be a great parent.
If fear seems to be holding you back, it's not. It's your unwillingness to deal with your fear that is holding you back.
Kristen Ulmer became the first woman to descend Grand Teton on skis in 1997. | Tom Jungst
DN: Any final thoughts?
KU: Whatever you try to control ends up controlling you. You are declaring a war on a core part of who you are, a war that is now being carried out in your unconscious world. That is an unwinnable war and it will take over your whole life.
This whole concept of determination, perseverance, controlling your life, controlling your emotions, controlling negativity — that is taught by a lot of people, but you're not in control of your life when it's like that. You become a very rigid person, and it's a lot of effort and it becomes so exhausting over time that you eventually just give up.
But if you merge with the discomfort of life, if you merge with fear, then it lifts you up. It's not a matter of forcing fear to become a positive in your life. If you're just willing to feel it, it will organically become a positive. Then you can start to sense the aliveness behind the fear. You can start to sense how fear makes you more excited. It's a sign you're on the right path to expand who you are. But when you're fighting it, only its negative shadow shows up from the basement.
The fear is not the issue. The fact that you declared war on it is.
If I had had a healthy relationship with fear 100 percent, then it would have been a greater source of motivation, energy, creativity, aliveness, presence, focus, power and wisdom than it already was. I would have thrived because of the fear, not despite it.
Ulmer explains why people should embrace fear near the end of her book. She'd been reading an article in a self-help magazine. Someone pined to be able to "try new things without fear of failure."
That would be pointless, she wrote: "If you took the fear of failure out of the equation, there would be no excitement. The challenge would be eradicated. The reward of completing a job well done would end. If the fear of failure didn't exist, there would be no heroes, no victories, no praise from others — or from yourself — for having beaten the odds."
Fear is a required ingredient for a "remarkable" life, she wrote.