Social Terror and the Jonah Complex

The best way to describe my social persona is ‘high functioning hermit’.

Anytime I plan to meet up with friends or go to a social event I have to completely turn my brain off or I won’t go. My anxiety levels skyrocket, and I feel like I’m walking to the electric chair, not to meet people I love. 50% of the time the feeling overwhelms me and I’ll bail out. The percentage is even higher if you add a genuinely anxious situation into the mix. Job interviews and dates get a >75% flee response.

Why I call myself ‘high functioning’ is because when I fight through the feeling and turn up to the social situation, they almost always go well. I can push through the fear response with alot of focus and attention.

When I got out with my little social circle, I always have a great time. If I go to an interview they are never bad interviews, they’ve always gone well. The same applies to dates, I’ve never had a bad date. Even if I’m not compatible with a girl we’ll still always have a fun time.

Solitude Qui Habite L'homme - Li CHEVALIER
Solitude Qui Habite L’homme – Li CHEVALIER 2016 (Ink and wash)

This is a really big problem in my life that I’m incredibly baffled by. Why would someone who has pretty much entirely positive responses in his social life be so gripped with fear when it comes to preparing to meet up with others?

The logical answer would probably be ‘fear of the unknown’ but there are plenty of other chaotic activities that I’ll march into that others would be terrified of.

Some people would say ‘social anxiety’ but I used to be heavily into cold approach pick up, which is something that I’ve seen cripple the majority of extroverted, confident men. When you do cold approach pick up you quickly become immune to the fear of public embarrassment and rejection. So it can’t be as easy as saying ‘low self-esteem’. I was rarely scared of setting up dates with girls, the fear was attending afterwards.

I’m not afraid of confrontation either, in my last job as a night manager at a hotel I would frequently be dealing with aggressive drunks, police, prostitutes and the mentally ill. My co-worker would often say I almost seemed to enjoy the confrontation and conflict. This isn’t the behaviour of someone who fears chaos itself.

The Jonah Complex

I can only conclude that the problem must be what the American psychologist Abraham Maslow referred to as the ‘Jonah complex’ or more commonly the ‘fear of success’.

The name comes from the story of the Biblical prophet Jonah’s evasion of the destiny to prophesy the destruction of Nineveh. Maslow states, “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”.

'Jonah and the Whale' - Pieter Lastman 1621
‘Jonah and the Whale’ – Pieter Lastman 1621 Oil on Oak

Any dilemma or challenge faced by an individual may trigger reactions related to the “Jonah complex”. These challenges may vary in degree and intensity. Such challenges may include career changes, beginning new stages in life, moving to new locations, interviews or auditions, and undertaking new interpersonal commitments such as marriage. Other causes include:

  • Fear of the sense of responsibility that often attends recognizing one’s own greatness, talents, potentials
  • Fear that an extraordinary life would be too much out of the ordinary, and hence not acceptable to others
  • Fear of seeming arrogant, self-centered, etc.
  • Difficulty envisioning oneself as a prominent or authoritative figure

Jonah complex source material

This idea is hard to argue with. It would also explain why the fear and anxiety increases based on the magnitude of the change that could occur. I fear interviews and dates the most because I know they have the potential to lead to radical change (career success and love). I know that if I turned up to more social events I would drop the ‘comfortable’ life of hiding in my bedroom. Social circles have the capacity to reshape your entire life if you allow them too.

When I arrive at the situations I notice that my fear evapourates because I’m no longer thinking, I’m just naturally flowing into the environment. I fear the actual dates but not the inital cold approach because the cold approach is only the introduction, and comes from a gut feeling of attraction. The date however, pushes me into my brain and ideas of ‘the future’ which is where the real success of a relationship would blossom. Hence the flee response.

Being confident, sociable and charming is in my DNA. But my mind is in the driving seat and is terrified of ‘the responsibility of attending to my own greatness, talents and potentials’ to quote Maslow.

This idea is fascinating to me, and the longer I ruminate on it the more value the idea seems to hold; I also see the behaviour clearly in others aswell now. Problems are always obvious when they aren’t your own.

Below is the best video I’ve found on the topic if you also feel that you’re holding yourself back for some reason.

This psychological breakdown of myself still has a few kinks that I need to work out, but I’m genuinely excited to have a working model of why I’ve been shooting myself in the foot for so fucking long!

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