Acquired Fear… And Getting Rid Of It

They don’t think about falling… they don’t care about their edges… they have no interest in making turns… and they have no taste for making pizza out of their french fries.

I’m talking about the young kids I see every day at the Rocky Mountain ski resort where I work.

These kids tuck and go, ski tips pointed straight down the hill… falling doesn’t concern them. The only aspect of gravity that they care about is their acceleration down the hill. “How fast can gravity pull me down this slick slope?”

It’s incredible to watch these kids fly, to glide past other mountain guests, with no effort and no concern.

Even more incredible is seeing how kids just a few years older perform.

They too heavily on their edges and fall. They make slow, awkward turns. And their skis seems to constantly be in the pizza conformation, the v-shape used to slow and stop a skier.

Why is there such a difference?

My theory is this: the older kids have taken more falls.

They know how falling feels (generally not good). And they know that they have taken more falls when moving faster.

This is an acquired fear.

Never mind that as these kids get older, they have developed physically. This means more strength and more control. And as they have accumulated more hours of practice, they have further developed their skills. It makes sense that they could expect fewer falls, doesn’t it?

But they can’t get past that acquired fear. They have learned to associate a conditioned stimulus—going fast—with a fearsome, unconditioned stimulus—the pain (physical and mental) of falling.

It’s understandable to be fearsome of pain. But does it make sense to associate pain with speed when you are capable of avoiding falls at speed?

For the past few weeks I’ve been standing outside my lift shack and thinking, “It’s a shame these kids can’t dissociate speed from pain… that they can’t inhibit their acquired fear.”

But one day I accidentally turned the lens on myself…

It turns out I have some acquired fears of my own. In fact, it’s probably a safe assumption that we all have acquired fears… fears that aren’t logical.

So what is the best course of action when we recognize these fears? Well, there has actually been some research done on this… and the conclusion isn’t the easiest to hear.

The best way to overcome these acquired fears is to experience the conditioned stimulus (going fast in the case of the young skiers) without experiencing the fearsome, unconditioned stimulus (the pain of falling).

We must present ourselves with the conditioned stimulus without experiencing the unconditioned stimulus until we dissociate the two.

For the older kids, this means skiing fast—without falling—until they realize that going fast doesn’t necessarily mean they will fall.

Simple enough, right?

Sure… apart from that one hitch: facing the fear for the first time.

This is definitely the hardest part… I know… I’ve been working on it. But just remember that every time you encounter the conditioned stimulus, it becomes easier to confront… and science says, eventually, there won’t be a confrontation, just a new, fearless, association.

Dear Friend

I originally wrote the letter below for a friend graduating from high school, but after revisiting it several time over the past year, I’ve begun to wonder if I didn’t actually write it to myself. So here it is, after a few minor changes, just for you. Please keep a copy for yourself and revisit it as often as you like…I do.

Dear Friend,

There is so much I want to say, but frankly, there are not enough pages to hold the words I would give to you if I could. I’m not much of a gift giver, or receiver for that matter; I think that’s just because I value something different from most people. So this letter is your gift–it is an attempt to give you a taste of what I value, something I hope you’ll be able to understand and that will remain timeless.

When I sat down to write this, I thought I might write about my own experiences, about the lessons I’ve learned, what I might tell my younger self. During that reflection though, I realized how important those experiences are to me, how important they were to my growth and development as a person. So instead of writing some crappy lecture on life, I’m going to trust you to figure out that stuff on your own. Humans have the capacity to learn from the successes and failures of others, but that doesn’t mean we should give up first hand experience. We can only experience our own lives, so go out and take risks, make mistakes, do something you might consider regrettable later. Live passionately.

My friend, it truly is incredible how many people not only let fear govern their lives, but also let it downplay their passions. But you have the gumption most people do not; please don’t lose it. It will become more valuable as you pursue your passions and inevitably meet the resistance of the doubters who will try to impose their own fear on you and on the way you lead your life.
I do not believe fear should be discounted. It is an important experience in itself, but not one that should influence your choices. Cliché? Yes. Easier said than done? Absolutely. So let me get to your “gift” which is nothing more than a simple idea.

Time is a misconception. Neither past nor future actually exist. The past is just a collection of memories which you experience in the present and the future is nothing more than a present daydream hiding in the empty spaces of your consciousness. This means there is only one moment that exists, the only moment you ever live: the present moment. Keep this in mind when you think about what you want from life, because now is the only chance you will ever have to achieve those goals. Now is the only chance you have to define yourself as a child, parent, sibling; as a friend and teammate; as a student and teacher; as a partner and as a lover. Never let a chance to define yourself pass.

And fear? Well, we are creatures of habit. We tend to stick with a decision once we have made up our mind (even if it’s a bad decision). So, when faced with terror that stands between you and your passion, realize it only takes a split second’s worth of courage to decide you are going to stand up to that terror. Facing fear head on is not nearly as difficult as deciding to do so. Remember, now is the only chance you have to define yourself.

I hope this bit of philosophy isn’t too much for you, Friend, but I hope you hold onto this letter and glance back at it every now and then, if for nothing else, as validation of your potential, of which you have an abundance. So surround yourself with like-minded people, read inspirational quotes and anecdotes every chance you get, and remember that what you see is not necessarily as important as how you see it. The way in which you view the world will determine how you live your life.
Now let me close with one of my favorite quotes: “life begins where you comfort zone ends.” Always explore and remember that mistakes are inevitable, as are regrets. But it is better to regret something you did than something you did not do and when you do err, it may as well be on the side of passion. Welcome to the rest of your life.

With Love,

Yourself