On Fear as the Mind-Killer

Okay, I briefly mentioned that I may or may not have had a mild spiritual awakening at the hands of Kristen Ulmer, the ex-extreme skier turned mindset coach/guru/insanely gorgeous potential cult leader. And the hippie spiritual part is not something I could possibly impart to you, but she did make me think a lot about fear and its role in our lives, which I would now like to talk about.

I have a lot of dangerous hobbies.

I don’t really know how it happened, because I’m a total pussy. But, for whatever reason, most of the things I do for fun, other than reading books and watching TV, which is 99% of my waking hours, are really dangerous. So I spend a lot of time being afraid, and thinking about being afraid, and trying to pretend I’m not afraid, and I read a lot of things about how to not be afraid, and it tends to put a real crimp in my ability to enjoy the dangerous hobbies. And I had a major injury, which throws you, and then you start to be like, why am I spending good money on something that makes me want to throw up? Which, I don’t know, maybe I should do more paint-by-numbers kits, or something, instead. We’ll get there!

But, in my weekend with Kristen Ulmer, who, thank God, did not ask us to kill anyone to prove our loyalty to her, because I would have done it, I think I actually managed to get a handle on it as a mechanism. Or she did. I’ll try to be clear on which insights are hers.

Kristen was/is probably the world’s best female extreme skier. She did wild shit. She did ill-advised, crazy shit. She did shit I can barely watch on YouTube (I do not know why there is a semi-naked woman’s ass at the beginning of this compilation reel.) She’s had a bunch of knee reconstructions. And then, at the literal height of her career, she walked away. Not because she was afraid, but because she was worried that she felt absolutely no fear, ever, and all of her friends were dying around her from avalanches and trees and cliffs and stuff. She herself was almost taken out by an avalanche, and just stood there, smiling, and then thought: “oh, shit, I need therapy.” And the next day she sent resignation letters to all her sponsors.

And since then, she’s done a lot of work on figuring out what to do about fear, and helping people process theirs. Essentially, that repressing fear is a terrible idea, as is trying to ignore it. That when you shove an emotion down, only the delusion of that emotion comes through, and the wisdom doesn’t. You get the stomach churning and the hesitation and the doubt and the terror, but you lose the ability to process the aspects of fear which are of actual use to you. So, dorky as it may sound, you need to be all:

Nicole: ‘sup, Fear? How are you doing?

Fear: Eh, I’m okay. You’re not very nice to me. I have to live in the basement.

Nicole: I’m sorry about that. You do very important things. If it weren’t for you, I’d be dead.

Fear: Hey, thanks, I appreciate that.

Nicole: What are you trying to tell me? I’m listening.

Fear: Hm. Okay! I just don’t want you to get yourself killed, so maybe you could do a better job with risk management. Maybe step back from Dangerous Hobby #1, and make these different choices around Dangerous Hobby #2, and then I won’t make you feel like you need to pee every four seconds when you’re at the top of a new run.

Nicole: I will take that into consideration. Thanks, again, for all the good work you do.

And then, honestly, I’ll be damned if it didn’t work. Hence the triumphant bathroom selfie with the shit-eating grin, because I am also afraid of photographs of myself, because I have had mildly disordered eating my entire life, and am only now getting a partial handle on it by focusing on being a jock instead of just obsessing over a number. Which is not even that much better, but it’s something, I guess? If you’re going to be irrationally self-critical constantly, you might as well have jacked-out arms. And I like this picture, because it’s how I like to feel: strong, capable.

Urp, anyway, it’s just trying to (glurg) honor your emotions, instead of denying them, and then trying to figure out which aspects of those emotions are worth listening to, and which are just your reptile brain cramping your style. And it works for non-sports people too, obviously. Fear in the workplace, fear of putting your creativity out there for the world to laugh at, fear of fucking up. And not just fear, but many emotions you may tend to quash: anger, jealousy, etc.

I cannot say enough good things, now, about having corny little conversations with the voices in your head. What are they trying to say, and what parts are useful to you? And then moving forward. Or down the hill, as it were.

I experimented with embodying The Creature of Habit, as Silence (that was a problem, initially, because I kept seeing myself as THE Silence, from Doctor Who), as The Noises of the World (I know. I know!), as The Body, and as The Athlete, in addition to some even weirder voices, and it was totally transformative. Particularly, I have to say, skiing in the voice of The Body. Because, and those of you who do sports will probably feel kinship with this, your body already knows how to do whatever it is that you are doing. Generally, your body is much better at it than you are. And when I kicked off down that bowl, as The Body, deliberately turning off the analyzing and the anticipation and the bad habits and the good habits, and just got out of my own way, I had the greatest run of my life.

So, my sports/life psychology tip of the week is this: try to think of yourself as a corporation (this is not what Mitt Romney was getting at), and periodically check in with ALL your employees. They are genuinely trying to act in your best interest, and you should listen to them.

Also, wear a fucking helmet, you are mortal.