“We often don’t even recognize that the emotion we’re feeling is fear,” says Kristen Ulmer, one of the world’s leading experts on fear, in Steven Kotler‘s book The Art of Impossible.
“Instead, it gets misinterpreted and redirected, showing up as blame, anger, sadness, or in irrational thoughts and behavior.”
To combat this tendency, we can develop an awareness of our fear by noticing it in our bodies, “the actual kinesthetic sensation,” she notes.
When we feel the fear, it’s not nearly as unpleasant as we thought.
Kristen would know. Before becoming a psychologist, she was “one of the best athletes in history,” Steven writes, “and one of the bravest—a big mountain skier, ski mountaineer, ice climber, rock climber, and paraglider.”
During the 1990s and early 2000s, she was voted the “best female extreme skier in the world” twelve years in a row, a level of dominance rarely seen in sport.
So what is so uncomfortable about fear? Kristen believes it is all the effort we put into avoiding it. Once we put our full attention on the sensation of fear, it dissipates. “It’s counterintuitive, but this kind of direct attention to bodily sensation actually dissolves the sensation,” she observes.
Kristen suggests developing a regular “fear practice” where we see fear as excitement or an emotion designed to help us focus and concentrate.
“Treat fear like a playmate,” she suggests. “This transforms the emotion from a problem to be solved into a resource to be savored.”
2: But how do we actually confront our fears?
We begin by identifying fear as a tightness in our body or a tightness in our thought pattern.
“Say public speaking fills us with dread. First, identify the location and expression of that dread in our system. Is it a queasiness in our gut? Are our thoughts racing? Maybe both?” Steven asks.
Next, we reflect on other times we’ve felt these feelings and performed at a high level.
“A time when our head spun and gut churned before we had a difficult conversation with a friend,” Steven suggests. “Yet the act of having that difficult conversation—of pushing past those bad feelings—actually strengthened our relationship.”
We reflect on the psychological skills we used in that situation. And once we’re clear on those skills, we practice them again and again.
3: We can experiment with physical, emotional, intellectual, or creative risks.
“Social risks work especially well,” Steven notes. Because “the brain processes social risk and physical risk with the exact same structures.”
Examples include simply “trying a new activity or speaking up at a meeting or asking a stranger for the time,” he writes. “Then, a few days later, ask two strangers. And so forth.
“The goal is to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. The unpleasant sensation remains, but our relationship to that sensation has been permanently recalibrated. And that’s what we’re really after.”
Once we learn to befriend the feeling of being uncomfortable, we can “use fear as a compass,” Steven writes.
“For peak performers, fear becomes a directional arrow, Steven writes. “The best of the best will often head in the direction that scares them most.”
Why? Consequences demand our attention. Risk triggers flow, that feeling of being in the zone, because flow follows focus.
Which helps us “push through our fears and rise to these bigger challenges.”
Not only that. An even more significant uptick happens afterward “with the discovery that our real potential lies on the other side of our greatest fears,” Steven writes. “By confronting fear, we are expanding capacity, teaching ourselves to remain psychologically stable and in control even in situations that feel unstable and uncontrollable.”
Reflection: Think back on a time when I was afraid and performed at a high level.
Action: Do something today that scares me.