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  • Paul Anthony Jones

Jonah complex

(n.) the failure to fulfil your own potential, out of fear of failing, or ambivalence to accept a challenge

According to the Old Testament, God approached the prophet Jonah with a task: he was to travel to Nineveh, and tell the city’s inhabitants to repent and follow God, otherwise risk being killed in the divine destruction of the city.

Jonah, however, had other plans. Not wanting to take on quite so important a job, instead of hot-footing it to Nineveh he boarded a ship at Jaffa, on the coast of Israel, and sailed off into the Mediterranean Sea, heading for Tarshish. Midway through the journey, however, a storm developed and with the boat now in trouble, Jonah had the crew throw him overboard—where he was promptly swallowed by a gigantic fish.

Luckily, the fish devoured Jonah whole, so while residing in its stomach he had time to gather his thoughts, consider his error, and regain his faith and composure. As soon as he was fully resolved to indeed head to Nineveh to warn the people of God’s plan to destroy the city, the fish regurgitated him on the shore unharmed and sent him on his way.

As stories go, it’s one of the Bible’s most peculiar, certainly, but also one of its most well known. And that renown has helped Jonah’s name to now become attached to a psychological complex.

The Jonah Complex describes a failure to fulfil your own potential, out of fear of failing, self-doubt, or ambivalence to accept a challenge; the name clearly alludes to Jonah’s initial refusal to accept the challenge given to him.

The American psychologist Abraham Maslow (he of the hierarchy of needs) is popularly credited with coining the term Jonah Complex in 1971—but while Maslow himself only came up with the theory behind it, the name was the historian Frank E Manuel’s, a friend of Maslow’s, who suggested that his theory mirrored the biblical tale of Jonah. Manuel’s suggestion stuck, and the theory has borne the prophet’s name ever since.

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