The Jonah Complex: How Creatives Can Overcome Fear of Greatness and Touch the Stars
by Thea Fiore-Bloom, Ph.D
Psychologist Abraham Maslow believed we all long to soar and touch the stars.
Maybe our dream is to sell a book or screenplay or get our art into a certain gallery or magazine?
But some big cottony obstruction always seems to be standing between us and our highest potential.
Maslow believed all of us possess the desire to go for it, to take a chance on our gifts.
But he also believed that almost all of us eventually will sit on our soul’s dream. Effectively boxing it up in mothballs and hiding it out of sight for the rest of our lives.
One big, hairy obstacle.
That obstacle being a cluster of emotions and fears he labeled, The Jonah Complex. (Named after Jonah in the bible.)
Remember Jonah’s legend?
The Jonah Complex: Killer of Creative Dreams
As the story goes, one day a regular guy named Jonah got a personal call from God.
God wanted Jonah to preach to the people in the land of Nineveh.
Jonah did not feel worthy of such greatness.
Nor did he feel brave enough to honor his calling.
And besides, the Ninevites had an especially nasty reputation for being badasses.
And going to Nineveh to tell Ninevites they were worshipping the “wrong” god would be like jumping into a drunken, mad, stand-full of Oakland Raiders fans at the Superbowl and hurling personal insults at them.
Consequently, Jonah freaked out.
He opted to pass on his potential.
Instead, he threw a few things in a sack and bolted in the opposite direction of Ninevah.
But things didn’t go too well with his escape plan.
By evading his own destiny Jonah bought himself a 3-night stay inside the gelatinous belly of a whale.
There, he had time to “process.” Jonah realized he shouldn’t have run away from the task God has chosen him for. All of a sudden the whale couldn’t stomach Jonah a moment longer and vomited him out on land.
And this time, with knees shaking, Jonah headed straight to Ninevah. Where he had a few more trials, survived, and eventually became a sort of saint.
So the Jonah Complex can be seen as a tsunami of fear triggered by a great, new creative challenge or opportunity.
The Jonah Complex can make it nearly impossible for us to start or finish a creative dream project. And it can even prevent us from expressing or doing what we know deep down we are meant to express or do in this lifetime.
But what exactly is so terrifying about the thought of living up to our personal best?
Well, how about these 5 things for starters?
Why Are We So Terrified of Making Our Dreams Come True?
- Like Jonah, we fear if we pursue our greatest potential we will encounter a few hairy or gooey obstacles and trials. And it’s true. We will.
- And like Jonah what we fear even more is standing out from others. By growing too high we can attract attacks from the crowd. Australians refer to this as tall poppy syndrome.
- We’re also unconsciously terrified that if we rise above our fears and do our thing we will become arrogant self-centered asses.
- And we fear we then may lose the love of friends or family who aren’t self-actualized themselves.
- Or perhaps we fear we’ll be laughed at. And ridiculed for being different.
Or maybe we fear a combo platter of all of the above.
Do you have difficulty imagining yourself as someone who deserves success in your dream field of work?
Almost all of us (with the exception of narcissists) momentarily ask ourselves; ‘Who am I to have this? There must be some mistake.’
Take me for example.
How To Sit On Your Own Dream 101: Jonah Complex in Action
About twenty years ago I was a 29-year-old aspiring author temporarily living in the Midwest. I somehow got up the guts to attend a huge book publishing expo in Los Angeles.
Wandering around the booths I met real publishers, publicists, and even a few nice literary agents.
Shockingly a number of them were really receptive to talking to me and hearing about a book idea I had then.
Three of these folks gave me their business card, their personal phone number, shook my hand, looked me straight in the eye, and told me to send them my book proposal that week.
What did I do when I got home?
Wait that’s not true, I did do something. I went into full-on Jonah Complex freak out and became consumed with fears.
I managed to convince myself these publishing professionals couldn’t actually be willing and even excited to help me achieve a dream. Their faith or interest in my idea must have been a mistake or just for show.
So instead of sending them a book proposal that week, I quietly filed their cards away in a business card holder (effectively boxing my own dream in mothballs.) Where they literally gathered dust for twenty years. Until today.
This morning I pulled those very cards out of their sticky time-worn plastic pockets and placed them on my living room table.
I did this for two reasons.
First to remind me that experience was real. And second to photograph one of those business cards to share with you.
(Just in case you think you are the only one who has sat on or sabotaged one of your own dreams.)
To the right is a photo of a card of one of the literary agents I met that day. One of the people I never contacted 20 years ago.
( Yes, I googled her this morning. 🙂 She just retired.)
But my point here is if/when this happens again I am so ready to say yes.
And I want you to be ready to say yes too. Yes to your next chance to unbox your dream.
But what can we do to make the next time different? Maslow has an answer for us.
How to Leave Jonah and His Damn Complex In the Dust
Maslow and his contemporaries suggested a simple but effective way to beat The Jonah Complex.
And it’s this.
In other words, stay humble but shoot for the stars.
Maslow would want us to work our tails off on our art, all the while striving for “the golden mean.” By the golden mean, Maslow meant the middle road that runs in between grandiosity and self-loathing.
If you keep working hard and stay centered on that road you will still just be a single star in the night sky.
But you will be a star that is shining to its fullest potential.
And you want to shine.
Not just for the good of your own soul but for the good of all our souls too.
Because when you liberate your own light, you heal, support, and inspire others who need to see it most.
Marianne Williamson says it best:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
If you need a little support doing this, come on over to my coaching page.
I’d love to talk you into shining. 🙂Writing Coaching
What do you think of The Jonah Complex?
Have you ever Jonah’ed yourself out of a creative dream? Or is it just me?
Let me know in the comments below.
For more help dealing with our fear of being disapproved of, read or listen to the audio version of the Charmed Studio post: Why Your Art Matters to the World: A Moving Story Sculptor Olena Ellis Told Me.
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