The Jonah Complex
Resistance to having a great relationship
Posted February 19, 2020 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
"Now the word of the Lord came unto Jonah saying, 'Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city and cry against it.' But Jonah rose up to flee, and he found a ship and went down into it from the presence of the Lord." —The Book of Jonah
Linda: The American psychologist Abraham Maslow observed that we all have an inner drive to improve ourselves. He is famous for coining the phrase self-actualization, which refers to the urges to develop our potential and to achieve our highest goals. Maslow uses the Jonah story from the Old Testament to illustrate a theory he calls "The Jonah Complex," a syndrome where ambivalence about growth keeps people from becoming who they can be. Maslow observed that there are competing commitments full of fears of all kinds, which are preventing us from realizing our loftiest goals.
Maslow states in The Farther Reaches of Human Nature,
"We fear our highest possibilities. We are generally afraid to become that which we can glimpse in our most perfect moments, under the most perfect conditions, under conditions of great 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, awe, and fear before these very same possibilities. 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."
It's the Jonah Complex that allows us to underachieve and to settle for way less than is available to us. While we may have deep admiration for those who enjoy wonderful, long-term partnerships, there is likely to be ambivalence right alongside admiration. When we observe those who are delighting in their romantic partnerships, where both parties enjoy a solid trust, good communication, cooperation, emotional and sexual intimacy, and are having lots of fun, we see that they are highly successful. If we are not a part of that special group, seeing this can fill us with discomfort, envy, jealousy, confusion, hatred of others, hatred of self, feelings of inadequacy, or even a sense of failure.
Wondering what they have that we don't can call attention to the fact that those couples have likely worked long and hard to achieve that level of success. Observing our own tendency to settle for less than we truly desire can enlarge the already strong sense of weakness, inadequacy, and defeat.
We might make up stories in an attempt to soothe our discomfort, imagining that these happy couples are part of the rare and lucky few. Or we might make up a story that they are faking it, and they aren't really happy after all. (If you are interested in knowing more of the many ways in which people make up rationalizations and justifications to hold back in romantic partnerships, read Happily Ever After and Thirty-nine Other Myths About Love by Charlie and Linda Bloom.) Yet, there is a deep and wise natural knowing inside that can't hide indefinitely from the truth that we all have vast potential and have not as yet used it.
The Jonah Complex is widespread and pervasive. Couples indulge in judgment and blame, overt or covert hostility, withdrawal, avoidance, secrets, lies, affairs, and making addictions of higher importance than the partnership, to name just a few. To those observing such behaviors, it can at first appear that those couples are engaging in deliberate self-sabotage. It is not deliberate self-sabotage, but there is a large quantity of denial and attempts to fool themselves into ignoring the inevitable path that such behaviors will take them to, either breaking up or staying together with a lack of fulfillment.
Way too many people are willing to settle for less than is available. Some are habituated to it from their early family life, others don't feel worthy or deserving, and some people just don't want to work that hard towards establishing a great relationship. Maslow himself says that when it comes to peak emotional experiences, our capacity to tolerate them is limited.
There is a way to recover from the Jonah Complex.
We can commit to exploring our own shadow realms, where some truths have been hidden from us. We can each set an enthusiastic intention to delve into the process of self-discovery. Our capacity to hold large amounts of joy can be cultivated over time. We can recalibrate our happiness set-point to a higher level of well-being. Raising our set-point impacts the success of the romantic partnership as well as our emotions, health, and longevity.
In Maslow's words,
"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, 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. Conscious awareness, insight, and 'working through' is the answer here. This is the best path I know to the acceptance of our highest powers, and whatever elements of greatness or goodness or wisdom or talent we may have concealed or evaded."
Those who remember the Bible story of Jonah and the whale know that even though he tried to run away from his fate, the story ends well. Jonah spends time in the belly of the whale, which represents a contemplative time to delve into the unconscious. Once the whale spits him out on the dry land, Jonah finds a new path, one more enlightened than before. We can all choose a new path, to emerge wiser, following our fate to evolve into the person we can be, with the sense of wholeness that allows for splendid relationships.