I’m afraid of the dark. When I lived in a city, I could push past that fear, ignore it, deny it, “gear myself” up, and beat myself up about it, so I could hide my fear away so no one would ever know. Nope, not listening to you, fear, I got you beat.

Or did I?

For the Living the Dream Virtual Summit, Luke Iorio shared some time with Kristen Ulmer to talk about fear, acceptance, and consciousness. During their conversation, Kristen Ulmer suggests intentionally entering into a relationship with fear as a loving parent might relate with a child to help us not only recognize the value of fear, but access the wisdom that only fear can offer us.

In her latest book, The Art of Fear: Why Conquering Fear Won’t Work, and What to Do Instead, Kristen Ulmer engages her experience as a former extreme skier as well as her expertise as a fear specialist to help navigate our experience of fear.  During their discussion, Kristen Ulmer addressed unexpected, and negative, undertones of the adage “conquer your fear” with the simple statement: conquering suggests a war you’re fighting with an enemy, and fear isn’t the enemy, it’s a natural part of being alive. And she would know: from 1991 – 2001, Kristen Ulmer bore the title of “the best woman big mountain extreme skier”, and she conquered Wyoming’s Grand Teton in 1997. By her own account, the word “fearless” accompanied her name in nearly every story about her.

At no small cost: after 10 years of seeing friends die on the mountain slopes and several near death experiences of her own, the fear she repressed began to show itself in PTSD, her adrenal system crashed, and she began to loathe the very sport to which she had dedicated her life and for which she had sacrificed so much.  Ultimately, she walked away from skiing on a quest to discover what was happening to her and, along her journey, her Zen master asked her what she calls the most important comment of her entire life: “Allow me please to speak to the voice of fear.” 

In relating her unique relationship with fear, Kristen Ulmer introduced the radically compassionate concept that fear is a normal part of our human experience that helps us stay sharp and actively engaged in our lives. Too often in our society, the experience of fear is repressed, ignored, or belittled through unconscious pejoratives such as “there’s nothing to be afraid of,” “conquer your fear,” “no fear,” or “choose love not fear,” each of which suggest that fear is a weakness or a flaw. However, blocking or repressing our fear does not remove the feeling of fear, it simply delays our experience of that fear.  And, while this may actually work in the short term, it only works until it can’t work anymore, leaving us with an increasing risk of burnout, breakdown, or distress.  

Kristen Ulmer recommends developing an honest relationship with fear, starting with the first step: accepting fear as a natural part of our life.  Once we can accept the natural role fear plays in our lives, we can begin to identify and recognize our own patterns of resistance to our fear, the ways we attempt to repress or deny our own experience.  When we can begin feeling our “emotion emotionally” rather than intellectually assessing the logistics of our experience, and we can begin to accept our own experience of fear, and become empowered to develop a more intimate relationship with our fear.

Sometimes we choose to feel fear, such as when we choose to ride a rollercoaster or a waterslide; other times we experience fear we did not – would not – choose.  Either way, fear is, quite simply, a sensation of discomfort we feel in our bodies, it is our amygdala keeping us on our toes: alert, awake, ready. Fear is not a weakness; fear is not a flaw. Because while fear is an emotion that lasts between 10 and 90 seconds, our relationship with fear lasts longer.  And, even more importantly, Kristen says, our fear and our relationship with fear can provide fuel for our lives to get us through a difficult moment or access a deeper sense of peace than we had expected.  

As Kristen puts it, “When we heal from within, accepting our fears, we can improve our relationships with each other. This creates a ripple effect, and we can stop isolating and connect to the wholeness of our experience.”

So, I’m still afraid of the dark. But when I accept my fear as a living, vibrant part of my life and my experience, I can accept that when I was a child, there were very good reason to be afraid of the dark because real, literal monsters lurked within those shadows, and my fear kept me aware, vigilant, and alive. Now that I’m an adult, I can recognize the dark may not hold the same dread for me as it once did; I can honor that vibrant, beautiful part of me and accept how much I have learned from my friend, Fear. I can recognize what I have survived, and honor the wisdom my fear can offer me in my future.

And turn on a light.

Written by Kathrin Gabriel-Jones

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