The Cure for the Jonah Complex

Aug 30, 2021 / The Twelve Mysteries / psychology

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Jonah (Dove). Toned Cyanotype Print, 2011. Two print sizes. © Jonah Calinawan

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And from a pinnacle of that dome perilously he dared
To essay, like Icarus, the unstable air,
Leaping, with waxen wings, into the welkin;
Down to the bottom he fell, and battered out his brains:
A warning to the wise to beware of hubris.
John Heath-Stubbs, Artorius

Ever heard of the Jonah Complex? Me neither, and my name is Jonah! I stumbled upon this term while researching a term paper, and I thought, “Hmm, what is that?”

The Jonah complex is the “evasion of one’s destiny” or the “running away from one’s own best talents.” In other words, the Jonah Complex is the fear of success.

In this article, I define the Jonah Complex and suggest ways to identify and cure it. Maybe you suffer from this complex and don’t know about it!

What is the Jonah Complex?

In Abraham Maslow’s book, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, he coins the Jonah Complex to refer to the

  1. fear of “grandiosity, arrogance, sinful pride, hubris”
  2. fear of “doing what one is capable of doing”
  3. fear that people will dislike or hate you for being successful

Maslow (famous for the hierarchy of needs pyramid) has this to say about the Jonah Complex:

We fear our highest possibilities (as well as our lowest ones). We are generally afraid to become that which we can glimpse in our most perfect moments, under the most perfect conditions, under conditions of greatest courage. We enjoy and even thrill to the godlike possibilities we see in ourselves in such peak moments. And yet we simultaneously shiver with weakness, and fear before these very same possibilities.

Maslow named this complex after the biblical prophet Jonah who ran away from his calling. “So often we run away from the responsibilities dictated (or rather suggested) by nature, by fate, even sometimes by accident, just as Jonah tried—in vain—to run away from his fate.” We are afraid of our own greatness. afraid of success, and scared of responsibility.

I see myself in these descriptions. I’m surprised that my name describes a problem I unknowingly had my whole life. I then thought, “Isn’t this true of many people though? Doesn’t everyone, to some extent, suffer from the fear of success?”

The Jonah Complex stops personal growth, self-actualization, and individuation through self-sabotage. For example, even though one consciously says, “I will be the best I can be at doing X,” subliminally, one might believe that being the best is too arrogant. So, one procrastinates, underachieves, and avoids the actual work. Frequently I talk myself out of an idea because it looks arrogant. The reason is partly cultural in my case, as I was born in the Philippines where the greatest sin is pride. There is no difference between pride and boastful pride; it’s wrapped up in one word, mapagmalaki. Humility at all costs.

Note that the Jonah Complex, the fear of success, is not the same as fear of failure. But it’s not mutually exclusive either. If you suffer from both, then that’s worse since a goal is too prideful (if you succeed) or shameful (if you fail). Thus, you accomplish nothing.

How to Identify the Jonah Complex

People are unconscious of their complexes. How then do you identify the Jonah Complex absent a therapist? Use an indirect method of projection instead. Projection refers to the psychological phenomenon where you attribute (“project”) something that you unconsciously feel or think to someone else. For example, if you say a person is too full of himself, self-confident, or arrogant, you might actually believe that about yourself, but you’ve repressed it because it’s hard to admit. Thus, this thought goes underground into your unconscious until someone triggers it as a projection. The more I study depth psychology (I’m pursuing a Ph.D. in Mythology with a Special Emphasis in Depth Psychology), the more I believe projection is a powerful way to uncover the Jonah Complex.

So, the next time you think that someone is hubristic, stop and consider whether you are projecting. The other person may really be hubristic. One way to differentiate between a projection and an objective assessment is to notice your emotional reaction (the “feeling-tone,” as psychoanalyst C.G. Jung puts it). If you overreact and burst with uncontrollable irritation, anger, jealousy, moods, depression, arrogance, feelings of inferiority or rage, it may be a projection. If it were an objective assessment, it wouldn’t bother you as much—that is, the feeling-tone would not be extreme. As Jung observes, “everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”

Once you suspect a projection, write about it in your journal. Projection is an invisible, unconscious process. However, every unconscious process will always bubble up into consciousness given the right hook or triggering event or person. And so, your inexplicable “blow-ups” are prima materia for your journal. Morning pages (“stream of consciousness” journal writing approach that I use) may indirectly uncover a projection and complex.

If a complex is an unconscious process, how did I find out about mine? Reading Herman Melville’s Moby Dick partly did it for me. Melville describes the prophet Jonah in Chapter 9 as a “God-fugitive,” which flipped me out. That was the hook and trigger. Talk about an extreme overreaction, right? Through journaling and reflection over a long time, I realized that I unknowingly identified with this biblical Jonah all my life. I was always “running away” from things. Of course, there’s more to this story, but it shows how an extreme overreaction may be a sign of a projection and complex.

Jonah Complex Cure

Maslow suggests two techniques: laugh at yourself and express wonder. He explains:

For some people, this evasion of one’s own growth, setting low levels of aspiration, the fear of doing what one is capable of doing, voluntary self-crippling, pseudostupidity, mock-humility are in fact, defenses against grandiosity, arrogance, sinful pride, hubris. There are people who cannot manage that graceful integration between the humility and the pride which is absolutely necessary for creative work. To invent or create, you must have the “arrogance of creativeness” which so many investigators have noticed. But, of course, if you have only the arrogance without the humility, then you are in fact paranoid. You must be aware not only of the godlike possibilities within, but also of the existential human limitations. You must be able simultaneously to laugh at yourself and at all human pretensions. If you can be amused by the worm trying to be a god (162), then in fact, you may be able to go on trying and being arrogant without fearing paranoia or bringing down upon yourself the evil eye. This is a good technique.

May I mention one more such technique that I saw at its best in Aldous Huxley, who was certainly a great man in the sense I’ve been discussing, one who was able to accept his talents and use them to the full. He managed it by perpetually marveling at how interesting and fascinating everything was, by wondering like a youngster at how miraculous things are, by saying frequently, “Extraordinary! Extraordinary!” He could look out at the world with wide eyes, with unabashed innocence, awe, and fascination, which is a kind of admission of smallness, a form of humility, and then proceed calmly and unafraid to the great tasks he set for himself.

Maslow advises holding “the tension of opposites” between pride and humility. I love this Jungian method of balancing yourself in the middle of two conflicting things. I also like Huxley’s strategy of maintaining wonder and surprise. Jung’s general advice is appropriate here too. “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” You and I don’t want that! So, as much as possible, become aware of your complexes.

I now believe that my soul steered me to become an artist to address my Jonah Complex. What could be more grandiose and self-important than being an artist? I never planned nor wanted to be an artist, and yet here I am. What does any of this mean? I have no idea, but I’m trying to find out.

How does the Jonah Complex manifest in your life? Do you have tips on how to live with the Jonah Complex? Let me know in the comments.

How Long is an Eternity?

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