I saw the phrase in Social Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, in a chapter on happiness and resilience. He described it as “a delicious mix of being a bit frightened yet knowing it would end up all right.”
Making things “just scary enough” can be the key to changing your behavior and to learning in general.
“Some of the most convincing neuroscience data for the benefits of getting just scared enough,” Goleman wrote, “comes from studies of squirrel monkeys.”
In 2004, experimenters at Stanford University took young monkeys from their mother for an hour, once a week for ten weeks, and put them in a different cage with adult monkeys they didn’t know. They were terrified, as evidenced by a range of observations, and when the hour was up they were returned to their mothers. A control group was left with their mothers the entire time.
After the ten weeks, both groups young monkeys were placed alone with their mothers in a new cage filled with treats and places to explore.
“Young monkeys who had earlier been exposed to the stressful cages proved far braver and more curious than others their age…and showed no biological signs of fear arousal…those who had never left the safe haven of their mothers just clung timidly to her.”
The regular visits to a challenging environment, they concluded, “acted as an inoculation against stress.”
Forty years earlier, other Stanford researchers made similar observations about humans and found related benefits. Albert Bandura and Nancy Adams treated people with snake phobias by taking them through progressively more challenging steps. The researchers would model the behavior first - e.g., looking at a picture of a snake, peering into a snake’s cage, and ultimately holding one. Gradually, at their own pace, the patient would take these small steps too.
Most patients were cured with this “guided mastery” in an hour or two, and it changed their lives. Overcoming their fear improved their “self-efficacy,” their sense of personal effectiveness and confidence to take on other challenges.
“Those who persist in subjectively threatening activities will eventually eliminate their inhibitions through corrective experience, whereas those who avoid what they fear, or who cease their coping efforts prematurely, will retain their self-debilitating expectations and defensive behavior.”
Goleman described it this way: “If we are exposed to too little stress, nothing will be learned; too much and the wrong lesson might become embedded the neural circuitry for fear.”
When you’re overwhelmed
But what if what you’re trying to do is too daunting or challenging? Pema Chödrön described three strategies in The Places That Scare You. “One way is to train with a less challenging subject, to find a situation we feel that we can handle.” In Working Out Loud Circles, we refer to that as “touching the treadmill.” You break down the change you’re trying to make till it no longer triggers your resistance or flight mechanism.
The second way is to realize that you’re not alone, that millions of other people are going through something similar, feeling what you’re feeling. Shifting your attention to others in this way can make the experience seem less personally threatening.
Finally, “if none of these is yet possible, we engender some compassion for our current limitations and go forward.”
Are you trying to make some change in your life? Make your next step “just scary enough.” Each small step you take will develop your confidence, each small failure will build up your resilience, and you'll increase your chances for success.