The Jonah Complex

Overcome Your Fear of Greatness

The Jonah Complex
There is greatness trapped in every one of us. We are all born with the potential to be great and to contribute something special to the world. There is no one born without a purpose and no one without a destiny to fulfil.

But the hard fact is that only a handful of people ever get to learn what this purpose or destiny is. Only a handful of those that learn their purpose endeavour to fulfil it and of those that attempt to fulfil it only a few succeed. Those that achieve greatness in the sense of fulfilling their destiny are a therefore a minority.

I was curious as to why someone would have an idea of the greatness that lies within them and their destiny and not do anything about it. That was when I came across the concept of the “Jonah Complex.”

The Biblical Origin
A brief history lesson for those that may not know the story of Jonah very well, as written in the old testament of the Bible: Jonah was told by God to go to the city of Nineveh and tell the people that God was displeased with them and would bring terrible judgment upon them unless they changed their ways.

Jonah instead decided to evade this assignment and headed to Tarshish instead, a place where he thought he could escape the presence of God and the assignment he had been given. But whilst he was on the ship to Tarshish God sent a huge storm after him and the men on the ship realised, after questioning him, that they were in danger because of Jonah. So they threw him overboard and the storm ceased.

Jonah was swallowed by a fish and spent three days in its belly, after which it vomited him onto dry land. God then reminded him of the assignment he had given him. He went on to fulfil this assignment and his destiny. The people of Nineveh repented and God spared them.

Fear of one’s greatness
The Jonah Complex, as described, much to by Abraham Maslow, is “an evasion of growth and fulfilling one’s best talents. It is a “fear of one’s greatness.” It is one of the biggest reasons why people do not bother to find out and actively pursue their purpose in life. Our purpose in life is often much bigger than our current circumstances would reveal.

It is that greatness that is scary when compared to our humble present circumstances. Thinking of fulfilling our destiny brings up fears, doubts and challenge, which are easier to ignore than face.

Fear of responsibility is one of the biggest challenges that lead to the Jonah Complex. With great destiny comes great responsibility. It is a responsibility to know and recognise our own talents, greatness and potential and a responsibility to be of service to other people with those talents.

Greatness has its price
Every great person realises that they are responsible for the lives and destinies of many other people. Jonah was responsible to the whole city of Nineveh and it was saved because he delivered the message he had been given. Had he not accepted this responsibility an entire city would have perished. How many people are perishing and languishing in mediocrity because you are failing to take responsibility for your destiny under the weight of your own Jonah complex?

It is the fear, isn’t it?
Fear of what other would think of us is another factor that drives the Jonah Complex within us. We fear that leading an extraordinary life would not be acceptable to others or that others would laugh or scoff at our desire to do so. So we settle for the socially acceptable thing of just “being comfortable” or just “having a good life.”

Furthermore the perceived “security” we gain by conforming is often a false one. Rather than making us feel safe it becomes a prison in which our choices are dimished and we have little in the way of growth and fulfilment. Maslow advised that "If you deliberately plan to be less than you are capable of becoming then you’ll be deeply unhappy for the rest of your life. You will be evading your own capacities, your own possibilities." So the best way to go with this is often to feel the fear and do it anyway. Everything has its price. Would you rather face the fear that comes with greatness of become a prisoner to mediocrity?

What is it costing you?
The opportunity cost, to borrow an economist expression, of doing so is humongous. The fear is often that people would view us as arrogant for having such aspirations. But Maslow advises that the best way to counterbalance this arrogance is to have a realistic perception your human limitation. Humility is the solution to this perceived arrogance.

Inherently with this greatness comes a sense of danger. It may seem too powerful and too intense for you to fulfil your destiny. Someone compared glimpsing at our greatness to looking into the sun. It gives us a sense of great power, but also potentially hurts our eyes. So it is with looking at our own greatness. But Victor Frankl said “Those who would shine must learn to endure burning.”

You must recognise the Jonah Complex within and find ways to deal with it. There is no one that ever achieved anything great without first battling with themselves. The battle within your own mind is by far the greatest and most important battle you will ever fight. But be sure that it is a battle you cannot avoid because whether you recognise it as such or not, it is going on. You either lose or win this battle. There is no middle ground. If you do not make the decisions consciously they will be made for you unconsciously.

Failure is part of the game of success
Finally, perhaps the greatest fear that contributes to the Jonah Complex is the fear of failure. This is particularly so if our purpose or destiny is a public one, as is often the case. Greatness is not meant to be hidden. Greatness is meant to shine so other people’s lives can be affected by it. Many, when they realise this, naturally think about what would happen if they failed at fulfilling their purpose.

Do it – in spite of the fear
But as has been said before “courage is not the absence of fear, it is acting in spite of the fear.” Fear of failure is healthy because if you take it as a friend warning you of pitfalls rather than as an opponent taunting you it can be source of wisdom, caution and tact.

There are also many ways to increase your chances of success in any venture. Risk assessment, scenario and contingency planning, diversifying of risk and changing your language to create an expectation of success are a few such ways. Others include getting a personal coach.

Recognise your greatness, overcome your Jonah complex and take responsibility for your destiny. A lot more depends on it than you realise.



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In the POWER PRINCIPLES series of books, Dr. Moses Simuyemba, "Africa's Success Coach", shares his knowledge, experience and insight to help you in overcoming your personal challenges and limitations and inspire you towards the life you desire and deserve: a life of greater purpose, free of fear and full of abundance.