The Jonah Complex: Why You’ll Never Be Your Best Self

As humans, we all have needs. And these needs are pretty much the same for all humans across different times and cultures—from the basic-order needs of air, water, food, shelter, and safety, to the higher-order needs of love, belongingness, and esteem. These human needs and the sequence with which people go about meeting them are depicted in the famous Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a pyramidal illustration of man’s physiological and psychological needs proposed by Abraham Maslow, one of the first psychologists to focus on studying the positive aspects of human life.

At the summit of Maslow’s original model of the Hierarchy of Needs is the concept of self-actualization. Simply put, this final level of psychological development embodies the actualization of one’s full personal potential. It is, as Maslow put it, “the full use and exploitation of talents, capacities, potentials, etc.” and is achieved when all the lower-order needs have already been met. For Maslow, then, once we have achieved our basic needs for air, food, water, etc., what we seek in life elevates to higher-order needs and ultimately peaks with the need for fully realizing our personal capacities and potentials.

Self-actualization is indeed an attractive concept for many people, especially in this day and age when more and more goals are slanted not just in view of fulfilling basic needs such as having a home and getting to eat at least three times a day, but toward greater competence, achieving a sense of meaning in life, finding joy in getting to maximize one’s talents, and living—in the fullest sense of the word—instead of merely surviving.

But if the concept of self-actualization is such an appealing one, why are we not all out there striving towards it? Take any day and place and ask a number of random people whether they’re living their dreams or at least striving to do so, and you’ll get a good number of alibis as to why they’d rather stick with the familiar humdrum of daily life where self-actualization is not even bothered with.

One of the most common answers you’ll probably encounter is that there’s currently too much going on in one’s life—bills to pay, responsibilities to carry out, time to provide the kids, the home and that mundane day job—to even care about striving towards a genuine sense of fulfilling one’s capacities and talents as an individual. You’re a good spouse; you set aside your own dreams for the good of the family you’re looking to have. You’re a good parent; of course your children’s needs have to be considered first. You’re a good son/daughter; you do as your parents expect you to. You’re a noble, sacrificing, others-oriented person who simply wants a stable life for yourself and your family—that’s why you’re not putting yourself out there, taking risks, and bothering with the selfish need for “self-actualization.”

But then again, are these really the reasons why we’re shying away from pursuing the best selves we can ever become? Maslow argues that these are not the true issues that limit us to just “getting by” in life instead of truly living and accomplishing the heights of our potentials. Rather, he proposed that one of the main reasons for this epidemic of “I’ll choose existing over living” mentality is what he called the Jonah complex.

The Jonah complex, dubbed as the “fear of greatness,” is the refusal to realize one’s capacities to the fullest. It was identified by Maslow as one of the biggest barriers to self-actualization, and is one of the prime reasons why people don’t bother pursuing a purpose or seeking a higher sense of fulfillment achieved by committing to something greater than themselves.

In the Bible, Jonah was called by God to prophesy the destruction of the city of Nineveh, but he resisted the mission and instead fled by sailing to the opposite direction. Jonah’s disobedience caused a great storm to come. To appease the raging waters, he gets thrown off the boat, after which he gets swallowed by a huge fish (often translated to a whale).

Maslow likened Jonah’s evasion of the important mission God called him to do to how people would choose to evade their destinies and avoid the responsibility of fulfilling their true potentials. The concept of “fearing our best as much as our worst” can be difficult to grasp. It’s easier to see the reason behind a fear of failure, but a fear of success and greatness? Why would anyone even have it when society affords such a high admiration and esteem to successful, self-actualized individuals?

Maslow proposes that there is a cluster of other fears underlying this fear of greatness that causes us to evade our true calling and instead adhere to the security of simply having undemanding goals instead of grand ones. As Viktor Frankl would put it, “What is to give light must endure burning.” In a sense, we fear this “burning”—the painful process of shifting from the unchallenging, predictable life we’re comfortable with to a demanding one that requires us to let go of the familiar, plunge into the unknown, and all too often “build our wings on the way down.” The monotony of a caged, dull life may be slowly killing us at our core, but the thought of jumping into the unknown gives us a very clear image of how we might suddenly die in the most painful way possible.

There is also the underlying fear of being seen by others as self-centered, arrogant, and living a life that’s extraordinary and hence unacceptable to most people in our social circles. Although it does tend to put self-actualized individuals in a pedestal, society too reserves a special kind of ridicule and resentment against those who are more successful or talented than the majority. There is a lot of pressure to conform, as mediocrity is granted more acceptance while giftedness often means being differentiated to the point of isolation, and standing out can mean getting shot down more easily just because the target is clearer that way.

These fears are all valid, and because of them it is understandable why many people would prefer succumbing to a simple life meeting just their basic needs instead of battling it out in the bloody road towards self-actualization. But if we continue to repress what is transcendent and sublime in us, then all we could hope to see and achieve in this earth-bound existence are nothing but short-lived moments of shallow satisfaction that come more as fleeting flashes of relief from a draining lifestyle, than as a deep-seated sense of joy and genuine contentment.

The Biblical Jonah was spewed out by the whale onto dry land after three days, and when he got called again to carry out his mission, he did so willingly and henceforth was able to fulfill his destiny. Like Jonah, we too are each called to an important mission. Fearing our own greatness, should we too wait to be swallowed by a whale before we get compelled to seek the fulfillment of our own destinies?

It may perhaps still be a workable plan—to wait for some kind of force to spit us out to where we are supposed to be, or for some sort of momentum to make us realize the time to act in view of self-actualization is now. But it can only be a valid plan, that is, if the whale still spits you out. Reality teaches that there isn’t always a guarantee the whale will do so (it might be hungry enough to digest you once you’re in its belly). But if you’d rather take your chances and wait for that “perfect moment” to start, or for that drastic event that could equate to being swallowed up whole by a giant fish…then you’re free to make that choice. In the event that happens, we could all pray then, that you still get spewed out. ♦

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