2 min read

Challenging vs. threatening?

(Mad libs on a distinction I got from somewhere else. Maybe here though I can't find it when I search for both terms together. I'm interested in whether this is accurate to the original definition, but I can't find that original to compare against...)

One can break up unsettling experiences into two types:

  • Challenging experiences are unsettling in a sharp, specific way. They disturb a narrowly defined aspect of identity or belief.
  • Threatening experiences are unsettling in a more nebulous way. There is often something about the experience that we don't understand or that seems to be missing—maybe it's quiet, too quiet. There is often an element of uncertainty. We may worry this experience will destroy us—or our identity, thus changing us—completely. It might.

Here's a silly example of challenging. Suppose you are a trained widget expert. One day as you are carrying out your winding duties, someone says to you: "You're winding the widget wrong. You have to wind it the other way or it's going to sprock." This is specific: "You're winding it wrong."

Here's a silly example of threatening. Suppose you are a trained widget expert. One day as you are carrying out your winding duties, someone comes up to you and slaps your hand away from the widget. You're so surprised you think it must be a mistake, so you blink, then get back to winding. They do it again. Now you know they did it on purpose and ask what they want. They ask if you know what the widgets are for—of course, you reply, they're for powering the bazzes that get everyone around. They reply with complete sincerity that they're for fanning the fires of hell. They say you're going to burn in hell yourself for that. You're taken aback and have a fifteen minute conversation with them about what on earth they mean and how they could believe that. They seem in perfectly fine mental health, other than this strange belief. How unsettling! Eventually the guards drag them off and you're left wondering, what the hell do I do with that? Is any of that for real?

Is this a useful distinction? I suppose it must be for something, if it's an accurate reflection of the distinction I saw. They made up their distinction for some reason, whether or not it's the same as mine. I'm not sure I understand how—but that might say more about my distinction than theirs.