One day God calls on Jonah and asks him to go preach in the city of Nineveh. Jonah, being a big shot who thinks he knows better than God, ignores the request and attempts to flee by boat. God summons a turbulent storm that throws him overboard, and Jonah is then devoured by a giant whale. Not such a big shot after all. In the belly of the beast, Jonah has time to reflect on his fear. He repents for his sins and apologizes to God for wimping out of the job. Eventually, the whale spits him out on shore. Conquering his fear of public speaking, a wiser and more enlightened Jonah goes to Nineveh and fulfills his destiny.
In the 1950s, psychologist Abraham Maslow (famous for Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs) used this Old Testament story and coined the term “Jonah Syndrome” for his patients who had a fear of their own greatness, and those who found themselves “running away from their best talents.” His explanation for why we do this comes down to an inherent fear of becoming our best — of reaching self-actualization:
“We fear our highest possibilities. We are generally afraid to become that which we can glimpse in our most perfect moments, under the most perfect conditions, under conditions of great courage. 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. So often, we run away from the responsibilities dictated, or rather suggested by nature, by fate, even sometimes by accident, just as Jonah tried in vain to run away from his fate”
Over 100 years ago, Freud theorized that this insecurity stems not from some inherent fear, but from our childhood. For example, have you ever felt guilty for success, like a promotion, or making more money than your friends or colleagues? What about when you got a 95% on that paper you wrote (or public praise you received), but somehow felt like you “didn’t deserve it?”
A father who was never satisfied with your work can make today’s work feel inadequate; a parent who punished you for not getting straight A’s can increase the sense of shame when you are enjoying the spoils of your success; a sibling who undermined you in front of friends can create negative feelings that you’re an undeserving impostor. (This also leads to the following conclusion: if we want our children to love and accept who they are, our job is to love and accept who we are.)
Similarly, imagine that you are pursuing a creative career and are close to making a breakthrough. But never encouraged by your parents, the critical voice turns into a visceral response, and you decide to switch to a more stable career — thus almost achieving a big goal, but coping out. Psychologist Phillip Shaver points out how the idea of taking risks and being punished by our parents has deep roots in our culture and even our oldest stories:
“The idea that Icarus would be punished for flying, or that Adam and Eve were punished for eating from the Tree of Know- ledge, or that God is infuriated by people who presume to build tall towers — these certainly might reflect fear of retaliation from parents on the part of ambitious or competitive children.”
This need not all be parental, of course. A lack of confidence could stem from an unsupportive teacher, a bad football coach who blamed you for losses that you later internalized, or a school bully that made you feel unworthy.
So, if our “success neurosis,” as the Dictionary of Psychology calls it, started in childhood, how do we get over the Jonah Syndrome so that we can emerge strong from the belly of the beast and fulfill our potential?
There’s no shortcut: You need to go way back, dive deep into your childhood, and start the process of identifying where your insecurities come from. Tara Brach’s book Radical Acceptance had a large impact on me, personally. There are stories, exercises and journal prompts you can use to uncover events from your childhood.
The other book I recommend is Already Free by Bruce Tift, who dives into psychotherapy and understanding the way our childhood wounds shape our adult selves, sharing insights and techniques to release behaviors that no longer serve us.
I found these books highly therapeutic, along with my own daily meditation practice (and a 10-day meditation retreat), which started the process of identifying and addressing destructive thought patterns and behaviors. Warning: this process is bound to bring out the demons that have not been addressed. Of course, if that trauma goes deeper, you may need help, and it’s best to see a therapist.
But for many of us, it’ll mean identifying the source of our behaviors, forgiving certain people, and maybe having some tough conversations. Or simply acknowledging that your parents were a certain way, and that habit/way of thinking is no longer useful to you, and then letting it go. This process can take some time, no doubt, but it is worth the effort. As Carl Jung said, “Keep your shadows in front of you—they can only take you down from behind.”
Thanks for reading! Every week I share a thought-provoking story to help you think and lead a more productive and meaningful life. Subscribe to my weekly newsletter here.