Narrow Ski PathAbout 10 years ago, I started to annually attend the Fear Workshop run at Windham mountain in the Catskills to help me advance my skiing beyond the groomed intermediate trails.  I didn’t start skiing until I was an adult in my 20s and learned to ski in the northeast USA in which the sound of your skies grinding over icy patches is perfectly normal.  Given that I am a person who is a more conservative risk taker – not someone who jumps on to steep slopes unless I am sure I can get down, I need a gentle push out of my comfort zone if I am going to improve.  Attending this seminar has helped me ski advanced slopes – blacks and double blacks – with confidence and enjoyment.

Mermer Blakeslee, the main instructor, is a 30 year veteran ski instructor and the author of this month’s recommended reading, A Conversation with Fear. I read her book every year to remind me of some of the key concepts. The Fear Workshop is a three day skiing program for women with some indoor lectures and discussion. She begins the first day with the statement, “Fear is a critical component of an imaginative, creative, and interesting life.” I take in a big breath and realize she is right. Where would I and most people be if they didn’t take some risks? Just that realization is worth the price of admission. Fear is my friend even if it looks and feels a bit frightening at times. I want it in my life. I need to learn how to speak to fear with kindness not disdain.

We begin the seminar with each person standing up and sharing why they have come – meaning what is their fear they want to overcome. My goal is to continue to learn how to manage my fear so I can ENJOY skiing steep slopes. Mermer emphasizes that it is ok to express this fear in our small groups with whom we will be skiing. She shares a story of how she was leading a group, in which a woman had a panic attack on a steep slope but got down safely only to express shame that she had held the group up once she was reunited with them. Mermer emphasized that it is alright to feel negative and told us not to worry about holding up the group. This is a safe place. We all begin to breathe a little easier as we realize that we all have some degree of fear.

This year, I faced my YIKES zone going down a narrow steep trail resembling the picture in the blog. I hit some ice, slid sideways and got stuck on the side of the trail in front of a tree. There were many skiers behind me and I began to panic. In a loud voice, my instructor clearly stated that I can do this and I need to just make one turn now. I followed her instructions and made one turn and then another one, as per her continued instruction. Before I knew it, I realized that my instructor was making me face my fear, with simply one small step at a time to not overwhelm me and instead reduce my anxiety. This is my strategy for managing FEAR – narrow the focus and lower the task. I need to forget that I am on a steep and narrow slope with trees and rocks on the side. Upon returning to my group and sharing my freak out moment, everyone listened and congratulated me on facing the fear. I didn’t feel embarrassed but rather empowered to take on steep slopes, which is significant given that most of us tend to watch our comfort zones shrink as we get older.

I return to my coaching/training business inspired! My first week back, I conducted a focus group of women professionals who work in the financial services sector in NYC in back office roles such as technology and operations. It is a shrinking industry; layoffs and deployments are a regular occurrence and people around the age of 50 are fearful of losing their jobs. The fear I felt from these women reminded me of myself on that narrow slope just a few days ago. If they focus on the shrinking industry, their age, and the recent layoffs, they become frozen, frightened, and/or resigned. So, I decided to explore how I might apply the lessons learned off the slopes.

One of the key tenets of the Fear Workshop is that it is fine to feel frightened or to get negative in the group. In contrast, our culture values happiness. This is evident in this group of women when they are trying to put on a positive face. When one woman shares her story of how her colleagues have lost their jobs due to deployment, one of the women shares how there are still plenty of opportunities. Positivity becomes negative towards negativity itself which can result in the women withdrawing and/or feeling shame.

My key learning from running this focus group is that I need to make it a safe place to express negative feelings. This is challenging as these women work together and no one wants to be viewed as whiney or Debbie Downer. So I begin my seminar on with about 15 women emphasizing the importance of allowing room for negativity and then asking everyone if they agree that this will be a safe place to not complain but instead express challenges and ask for help. I am very aware that this is NOT a normal day for many of these women.

What happens in the seminar resembles my Fear Workshop experience, where gradually sharing increases. One woman particularly was very vociferous in expressing her views of how it was challenging to get people to influence senior leaders. By the end of the seminar, she realized that her approach to dealing with shrinking opportunities was to constantly push ideas onto people and not pay attention to organizational politics. She understood that she needs to learn how to pull people along with her. It constantly amazes me how the safety of the group can allow one to face their fears. In this case, it allowed her to face her YIKES zone with compassion, expanding her comfort zone which I believe will create more opportunities for her in the future.

Let me know how you expand your comfort zone whether on the slopes or in life in general!



One Response to How is your relationship with fear?

  1. Susan says:

    I thought of my favorite quote when reading this. Great words of encouragement in the quote and in your blog! Here’s the quote from Elanor Roosevelt: “We gain strength, and courage, and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face… we must do that which we think we cannot.”

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