Shrinking Away From Opportunity

The term “Jonah complex” was coined by the American psychologist Abraham Maslow, who in 2006 was described as the 10th-most “eminent psychologist of the 20th century” by a survey in the American Psychological Association’s quarterly journal, Review of General Psychology. The expression gets its inspiration from the biblical character Jonah, who out of fear runs away from his call to be a prophet to the ancient people of Nineveh, thus landing himself in the belly of a whale. Jonah’s fear of his destiny—of a higher purpose that draws out his gifts and calling—is the obstacle to his success.

Many of us can identify, as results from a recent study by researchers at PsychTests confirm. All sorts of potential successes—the very things that we most dream of obtaining—can conspire to make us run in the other direction like Jonah and to shrink away from a great opportunity to succeed with flying colors. A new job promotion or a milestone in our career—like maybe that book we’ve always wanted to write—can instill more fear in us than a fear of failure itself. Similarly, success in recovery, and the prospect of a life that no longer depends on drugs or alcohol in order to cope, can be downright intimidating.

Maslow, who may be best known for his so-called hierarchy of needs, placed “self-actualization” at the top of a list of psychological needs (among them, esteem, love/belonging, safety and food and water). For Maslow, self-actualization, or becoming who we were meant to be in all its fullness, was the pinnacle of human development, the last rung in a series of human motivations that, when reached, signified we had fulfilled our greatest human potential: “success,” in other words.

Toward this end of helping people find their true potential, Maslow studied some of history’s most highly successful people, including Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt and Frederick Douglass. These figures provided case studies in mental health, (as opposed to profiles of mental illness, which was the prevailing focus in studies by Maslow’s contemporaries at the time). And Maslow took these insights and applied them to a theory that self-actualization is what many of us ultimately crave but often find hard to reach, thanks in good part to our fear of success.

Common Fears of Success in Substance Abuse Treatment and Recovery

Not dissimilarly, the prospect of success in substance abuse treatment and recovery can elicit a number of fears, any of which can emerge along the trajectory of seeking and getting help. These can include:

  • Fear of getting a sponsor. Getting a sponsor is a milestone in achieving success in recovery from a drug and alcohol addiction, according to recovery coach Craig Stevens, who has found success in recovery and now coaches clients in the Christian drug and alcohol rehab program known as “Three Strands,” at the residential rehab center The Recovery Place (TRP).
  • Coping with new opportunities for success without the help of a substance. Stevens says it is not uncommon for his clients to have relapsed just before a job interview and the prospect of success in the form of a new job. “On many occasions, clients have come to me stating that everything was great,” Stevens said. “They may have had a job interview set up and they were ready to go, and just before they needed to go to the interview, they used the night before or the day of the interview, thus sabotaging their chance at success.” In these times, fear of success is often just the flip side of a fear of failure: the client felt he or she needed the comfort of the substance in order to succeed.
  • Dealing with the reactions of old friends to one’s newfound sobriety. If a measure of success in recovery is no longer using drugs and alcohol, Stevens says many people with addiction worry that the friends they used with will not understand them or want to hang out with now that they are sober.

What You Can Do About Your Jonah Complex

If fears of reaching your dreams and goals are holding you back from seeking treatment, the following tips can help:

  • Get in touch with your fear as it pertains to finding success in reaching your dreams and goals. For example, if you’ve always wanted to write a novel, what are you most afraid of about achieving this goal? Do you fear being in the limelight? Are you afraid of public speaking? Try to identify the specific fears related to your goal or dream.
  • Visualize yourself doing that very thing you fear most. What is the worst thing that could happen? Close your eyes and breathe as you imagine yourself free and unhampered by the fear of doing this very thing. Then congratulate yourself for visualizing your success, which is a first step in the direction of achieving it.
  • Talk to someone who can help. A competent therapist can help you work through your fears. Sometimes so can a close friend. If you’ve been putting off treatment for a drug or alcohol addiction because of your fears of a successful recovery, talking to an admission specialist at TRP, who may also refer you to one of TRPs licensed chemical dependency counselors, can also help.

By Kristina Robb-Dover



Choose a better life. Choose recovery.