Of the strangest and hardest to swallow truths of life springs from the ironic fear of our own success. This is what Abraham Maslow referred to as the Jonah complex. Simply put, it’s the fear of our own success or realization of our full potential. According to the Jonah complex and various interpretations of it, the fear of success stems from the sense of overwhelming responsibility that might come with success, of living an extraordinary life that lacks personal familiarity, self-esteem issues preventing someone from viewing themselves as an important figure, etc.  To be successful, therefore, requires a sense of disillusionment with society and people which permits the inflation of the ego, whereas accepting an ordinary life actually requires a great deal of humility.
“Don’t be so humble – you are not that great,” ― Golda Meir
“The person who says to himself, ‘Yes, I will be a great philosopher and I will rewrite Plato and do it better,’ must sooner or later be struck dumb by his grandiosity, his arrogance. And especially in his weaker moments, will say to himself ‘Who? Me?’ and think of it as a crazy fantasy or even fear it as a delusion. He compares his knowledge of his inner private self, with all its weakness, vacillation, and shortcomings, with the bright, shining, perfect, and faultless image he has of Plato. Then, of course, he’ll feel presumptuous and grandiose. (What he doesn’t realize is that Plato, introspecting, must have felt just the same way about himself, but went ahead anyway, overriding his doubts about himself).” ― Abraham Maslow
The failure to take this leap of faith to override our doubts is what leads to the fear of success. In many cases, we’ll create elaborate means in which to dodge or undercut our own success. This is the reason we often choose to procrastinate instead of simply doing what we know we should be doing. This idea is well expressed by Steven Pressfield’s concept of “Resistance,” which is essentially an elaboration of the Jonah complex. Resistance is the internal self-sabotage that prevents one from achieving success. Such a thing wasn’t lost among Maslow, but he was more concerned with the broader implications of the Jonah complex. Maslow essentially saw the fear of success as a paralysis from the polarity of success and failure.
We fear our highest possibility (as well as our lowest ones). We are generally afraid to become that which we can glimpse in our most perfect moments. . . . 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. — Maslow, “Neurosis as a Failure,” p.63
The reason we are often paralyzed by the confrontation of success and failure is because we’re simultaneously risking the ego for the sake of success while attempting to protect it from failure. The choice that the majority of people make is to safeguard the ego from the risk of failure. Challenging yourself to reach your highest potential is difficult and too risky. It’s easier to vicariously drown yourself in television shows and video games; to live through the creations and greatness of others instead of yourself. For those who truly want to be successful, though, the only option is to override that inner doubt and push forward despite potential risks and threats to the ego.
1. Abraham Maslow, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature
2. Sumerlin, J. R. and Bundrick, C. M. (1996). Brief index of self-actualization: A measure of Maslow’s model. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 11(2), 253-271.
3. Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, pg. 52
4. Abraham Maslow, Neurosis as a Failure, pg. 163.
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