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The Jonah Complex — Fear of Your Own Success

Have you ever thought about asking for a promotion or attending a sport competition and after changed your mind having not a well-sustained reason?

Have you ever found yourself in the face of something you dreamed of doing, thinking that it is actually way too complicated for you to do, or feeling you won’t be able to do it without a real answer to the question “What are you missing to accomplish it?”?

These are just some examples of what this silent syndrome is doing to you. Read further to have a better understanding of what it is, where it comes from, what is the outcome of it and what can you do about it.


What is the Jonah Complex?

APA defines Jonah complex as the “inhibition of becoming fully self-actualized—that is, of fulfilling one’s potential—for fear of facing new challenges and situations. It is named for the biblical prophet Jonah, who attempted to evade the mission imposed on him by God.”

The Jonah complex is “temptation to run away from social responsibilities and personal growth” (Lacocque, 1982), or “the growth inhibitor on the way to self-realization and self-fulfillment of the human being.” (Gound, 1994)


How or Why does it appear?

There are two roots of this complex: the fear of death and the desacralization of life (and trivialization of its meaning).

The most common triggers are decisions about career or education, the beginning of a business, auditions, moving, or getting into deeper levels of commitment or intimacy.

These triggers are pushing on the button of fears about entering the unknown, possible rejection, risk takings, separateness from dear ones, getting into overwhelming responsibilities, or encountering expectations too high.

One of the inhibitors that are part of a Jonah Complex is the automatic creations of deceptive illusions, especially the wait-until illusion. This illusion creates an unhealthy self-image of not being enough yet in a way or another to fulfill the desired task.


How it manifests or what’s the outcome of it?

Maslow writes (1967): “[The Jonah syndrome] is a falling short of what one could have been, and even one could say, of what one should have been… We all have unused potentialities or not fully developed ones… We enjoy and even thrill to the God-like possibilities we see in ourselves in our most perfect moments. And yet we simultaneously shiver with weakness, awe, and fear before those very same possibilities… I have found it easy enough to demonstrate the Jonah syndrome to my students simply by asking …” “Who aspires to be a saint, like Schweitzer, perhaps? Who among you will be a great leader?” Generally, everybody starts giggling, blushing and squirming until I ask, “If not you then who else?”” (pp. 161, 163)

The Jonah Complex stays in the way of self-actualization and is motivated by the fear of the consequences on the self-image.

Jung explained it as “a regression to womb-like irresponsibility”. It is a defense mechanism in the face of change and a human tendency to attend to uniformity, a kind of “pathological conformity” which is like a “protective shield” of differences. The individuals lose their self-awareness of their uniqueness and original being. The person becomes a pseudo-self and fails to make mature decisions for themselves.


Why does it matter?

The most psychologically healthy persons know their strengths and use them for a greater purpose than their person.

The need for affiliation is a basic human need and as usually people with great achievements are envied or are treated with hostility.

If Jonah Complex gets on his way into your life through the fear of disapproval or rejection, one way to stop it is to conscientize that the negative answers to your achievements say something about the person who’s answering, not about you, the person who has success.

As people get to be self-actualized they face the problem of often standing alone. This raises the fear of death, but once death gets another meaning, that of being a blessing, this fear vanishes.

Death is a blessing because it gets us to appreciate life and feel the “urgency of considering life with utmost seriousness” (Lacocque, 1982).

Because we will die we are not postponing all responsibilities and we assume our social responsibilities.

So make yourself some courage to be your best version!

How can you overcome it?

One method to overcome it is through the growth-choice dynamics (Maslow, 1968).

From here you have two ways: one is reducing the attractions of safety and the dangers of growth. Another way is on emphasizing the dangers of safety and the attractions of growth. (Goud, 1994)

It is best not to put pressure on yourself to go beyond your coping skills, but to try to make the growth choice more appealing. This way you are keeping the feeling of safety fulfilled and can move better towards your real, powerful self.

The methods to get the second way done: Enhance stress resiliency, so you can have the confidence that you have the mental strength to overcome almost every problem you may encounter in your life instead of trying to make dangers not even enter your life.

As important as the nature of the fear is your reaction to fears in general, so you have to get into the management of fears.

Fear-management technique is to make yourself see that you have the ability to counter those fears, transforming them into equal or smaller than the power of your coping skills.

To reduce the fears that at a first glance seem too big to be coped with is to recall former situations with similar problems that had a positive result.

To make the growth choice more appealing remember about your successes, your strengths and your self-worth. Forget about modesty for a while and praise yourself for what you’ve done so far in your life!

​It’s your choice: you can live in the safe zone, living in fear, or you “leave home” and get to your highest potential! Of course, there is the risk to encounter some failures, disillusionments or too high expectations on the way, but in the same time you are getting for real back on the track. While you’re at your best you find a life with meaning.

​The choice you make determines your quality of living!


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Goud, N. (1994). Jonah Complex: The Fear of Growth. The Journal of Humanistic Education and Development, 32(3), 98–111. doi: 10.1002/j.2164-4683.1994.tb00138.x

Lacocque, P., 1982. Desacralizing Life and its Mystery: The Jonah Complex Revisited. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 10(2), pp.113-119.


2 thoughts on “The Jonah Complex — Fear of Your Own Success Leave a comment

  1. Great article, thanks. Has put in words something I kind off knew subconsciously. Actually have a fear of big dogs myself and have opted away from using an open space to exercise in order to avoid it but thenn recently have in a sense “forced” myself to use it and realised there is nothing to be afraid of. Haven’t got bitten yet 😉

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