Fearing Growth: The Jonah Complex

July 20, 2020 in Blog

The humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow was deeply interested in how the suppression of healthy ambition can stunt self-actualization, and the tendency for people to fear growth. In an unpublished essay from 1966, Maslow noted that in our society we learn “to put on a chameleon-like cloak of false modesty or humility.” Maslow argued that in order to avoid punishment from society, the person

“becomes humble, ingratiating, appeasing, or even masochistic. In short, due to fear of punishment for being superior, she becomes inferior and throws away some of her possibilities for humanness. For the sake of safety and security, she cripples and stunts herself. . . . That is, she is evading the task for which her peculiarly idiosyncratic constitution fits her, the task for which she was born, so to speak. She is evading her destiny.”

Maslow refers to this as the “Jonah Complex,” a phenomenon described by the historian Frank Manuel. This phrase is based on the biblical tale of Jonah, who, out of fear, tries to run from God’s prophecy, but he can find no place to hide. Finally, accepting his fate, he does what he was called to do.

So let me state this as clearly as possible: you may not be entitled to shine, but you have the right to shine, because you are a worthy human being. Changing your self-limiting narratives about your worthiness, asserting needs in a healthy way, overcoming your avoidance of fearful experiences, and taking responsibility for your behaviors—these actions strengthen and stabilize the vulnerable self. The great irony is that the less you focus on whether you are worthy and competent, and take that as a given, the greater the chances you will consistently accept your inherent worth.

I’ll leave the last word here to Brené Brown, who has spent years studying shame, vulnerability, and the need for belonging:

Stop walking through the world looking for confirmation that you don’t belong. You will always find it because you’ve made that your mission. Stop scouring people’s faces for evidence that you’re not enough. You will always find it because you’ve made that your goal. True belonging and self-worth are not goods; we don’t negotiate their value with the world. The truth about who we are lives in our hearts. Our call to courage is to protect our wild heart against constant evaluation, especially our own. No one belongs here more than you.

From Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization

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