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The Jonah Complex

Now the word of the Lord came unto Jonah saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city and cry against it.” But Jonah rose up to flee and he found a ship and went down into it from the presence of the Lord. ~ The Book of Jonah

Linda: The America psychologist Abraham Maslow observed that we all have an inner drive to improve ourselves. He is famous for coining the phrase self-actualization, which refers to the urges to develop our potential and to achieve our highest goals. Maslow uses the Jonah story from the Old Testament to illustrate his theory he calls The Jonah Complex, a syndrome where ambivalence about growth keeps people from becoming who they can be. Maslow observed that there are competing commitments that are full of fears of all kinds, which are preventing us from realizing our loftiest goals.

Maslow states in The Farthest Reaches of Human Nature, “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 a Jonah tried in vain to run away from is fate.”

It’s The Jonah Complex that allows us to underachieve and to settle for way less than in available to us. While we may have deep admiration for those who enjoy wonderful, long-term partnerships, there is likely to be ambivalence right alongside the admiration. When we observe those, who are delighting in their romantic partnerships where both parties enjoy a solid trust, good communication, cooperation, emotional and sexual intimacy, and are having lots of fun, we see that they are highly successful. If we are not a part of that special group, seeing this   can fill us with discomfort, envy, jealousy, confusion, hatred of others, hatred of self, feelings of inadequacy or even a sense of failure.

Wondering what they have that we don’t, can call attention to the fact that those couples have likely worked long and hard to achieve that level of success. Observing our own tendency to settle for less than we truly desire can enlarge the already strong sense of weakness, inadequacy and defeat.

We might make up stories in an attempt to soothe our discomfort, imagining that these happy couples are part of the rare and lucky few. Or we might make up a story that they are faking it and they aren’t really happy after all. (If you are   interested in knowing more of the many ways in which people make up rationalizations and justifications to hold back in romantic partnerships, read Happily Ever After and Thirty-nine Other Myths about Love by Charlie and Linda Bloom.) Yet, there is a deep and wise natural knowing inside that can’t hide indefinitely from the truth that we all have vast potential and have not as yet used it.

The Jonah Complex is widespread and pervasive. Couples indulge in judgment and blame, overt or covert hostility, withdrawal, avoidance, secrets, lies, affairs, making addictions of higher importance than the partnership, to name just a few. To those observing such behaviors it can at first appear that those couples are engaging in deliberate self-sabotage. It is not deliberate self-sabotage, but there is a large quantity of denial and attempts to fool themselves into ignoring the inevitable path that such behaviors will take them to, either breaking up or staying together with a lack of fulfillment.

Way too many people are willing to settle for less than is available. Some are habituated to it from their early family life; others don’t feel worthy or deserving; and some people just don’t want to work that hard towards establishing a great relationship. Maslow himself says that when it comes to peak emotional experiences, our capacity to tolerate them is limited.

There is a way to recover from the Jonah Complex.

We can commit to explore our own shadow realms where some truths have been hidden from us. We can each set an enthusiastic intention to delve into the process of self-discovery. Our capacity to hold large amounts of joy can be cultivated over time. We can recalibrate our happiness set point to a higher level of well-being. Raising our set-point impacts the success of romantic partnership as well as our emotions, health and longevity.

In Maslow’s words, “You must be aware not only of the godlike possibilities within but also of the existential human limitations. You must be able simultaneous to laugh at yourself and at all human pretensions. If you can be amused by the worm trying to be a god, then in fact you may be able to go on trying and being arrogant without fearing paranoia or bringing down upon yourself the evil eye. Conscious awareness, insight and ‘working through’ is the answer here. This is the best path I know to the acceptance of our highest powers, and whatever elements of greatness or goodness or wisdom or talent we may have concealed or evaded.”

Those who remember the bible story of Jonah and the whale know that even though he tried to run away from his fate, the story ends well. Jonah spends time in the belly of the wale, which represents contemplative time to delve into the unconscious. Once the whale spits him out on the dry land, Jonah finds a new path, one more enlightened than before. We can all choose a new path, to emerge wiser, following our fate to evolve into the person we can be, with the sense of wholeness that allows for splendid relationships.


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The Jonah Complex


Linda Bloom LCSW and Charlie Bloom MSW are considered experts in the field of relationships. They have been married since 1972. They have both been trained as seminar leaders, therapists and relationship counselors and have been working with individuals, couples, and groups since 1975. They have been featured presenters at numerous conferences, universities, and institutions of learning throughout the country and overseas as well. They have appeared on over two hundred radio and TV programs. Linda and Charlie are co-authors of the widely acclaimed books: 101 Things I Wish I Knew When I Got Married: Simple Lessons to Make Love Last (over 100,000 copies sold) Secrets of Great Marriages: Real Truth from Real Couples about Lasting Love, and Happily Ever After...and 39 Other Myths about Love: Breaking Through to the Relationship of Your Dreams. The Blooms are excited to announce the release of their fourth book, That Which Doesn't Kill Us: How One Couple Became Stronger at the Broken Places. They live in Santa Cruz, California, near their two children and three grandchildren. To view our upcoming events and to sign up for our free newsletter, visit our website at:

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APA Reference
Bloom, L. (2020). The Jonah Complex. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 26, 2020, from


Last updated: 13 Feb 2020
Statement of review: Psych Central does not review the content that appears in our blog network ( prior to publication. All opinions expressed herein are exclusively those of the author alone, and do not reflect the views of the editorial staff or management of Psych Central. Published on All rights reserved.