THE JONAH COMPLEX
Why are some people afraid of being healthy? Why do some people resist doing those things that they know can prevent health problems or extend their life? They’re conscience of them, but they just don’t act on them. Why?
There are more than a few reasons that people might give: I’m afraid I might hurt myself exercising. Afraid healthy food won’t taste good. I’m afraid I might gain the weight back if I don’t work out often. I’m afraid I won’t be able to keep up with everybody in fitness class. I’m afraid I might leave my spouse behind. I’m afraid I might be hungrier if I start exercising.
All of these excuses or rationalizations are founded on fear. Where does this fear come from? What is it that generates this fear? Even when it involves improving our health?
Generally, fear acts as a defense mechanism. Something is telling us to stay away from that which we fear in order to preserve our situation as it is. For survival. And this is a good thing. A healthy fear. If a snake, poisonous or not, slithered into this room I would be fearful of my health. A healthy fear.
But there is also unhealthy fear. Healthy fear is truly life-preserving. But unhealthy fear can be life-constricting. For example, a fear of heights, can limit your job options in construction or high-rise buildings. A fear of bridges can restrict your work area geographically. Is there really a fear of being healthier?
In the same way an unhealthy fear of exercising one’s talents not only prevents them from reaching a higher achievement potential than they otherwise would, an unhealthy fear of exercising good health behaviors can prevent them from becoming a better version of themselves. So, why would someone not want to become a better version of themselves? Either in career achievement or improved health?
This is a defense mechanism first clarified and formulated by the psychiatrist, Abraham Maslow, to describe how people fear achieving their greatest potential. They resist and shun personal responsibility in return for the tradeoff of being comfortable and cozy. He called this the Jonah Complex, named after the Biblical prophet, Jonah, who as you may remember after God sent him a message telling him to tell the people of Nineveh that, because of their immoral behavior, he would destroy the city in 40 days, ran in the opposite direction, fleeing to a ship where he hid in the hull of the ship. He fled personal responsibility. The Jonah Complex.
When it comes to their health, what some people are running away from is achieving a better, a higher level of health. And of course this usually comes with stepping out of one’s comfort zone and executing health practices that require conscience effort. Like instead of reading the newspaper or drinking a beer on returning from work, taking a walk around the neighborhood.
But sometimes the Jonah Complex is subtle – not brushing our teeth or attributing a breast mass to a “cyst” and deferring an evaluation, or attributing rectal bleeding to hemorrhoids, for months on end before checking it out. They kid themselves, saying they are in control and could change their mind and be healthier if they wanted. But they don’t.
And so some will project this on to others to the point of ridiculing others who have changed their bad health habits, referring to them as oddballs or health nuts. Vegetarians are the object of such scorn. These Jonah-types resent the fact that though they know what to do to be healthy they resent that others have made the changes.
Some people after making health-changing strategies will resort to their old habits. The guy who quits smoking then lapses back. The person who loses weight then resorts to their old habits, regaining their weight. Unable to sustain the intensity of the transcendent, psychological, spiritual experience every waking moment. Why?
Why do Jonah-types have difficulty? Well, the answer may lie not so much in their “doing” as in their “being.” Our efforts in improving our health extend beyond simply doing things to improve our body. Our efforts in improving our health also extend to our emotions, how we feel, and our spirit. How we are, or how we “be.” And some folks feel so comfortable in their current “being” that “doing” something to raise their self-knowing, self-awareness is too daunting and imperils their current way of “being.” They’re very cozy like they are. Their magnitude of being is much less than what it should be. They are health-wise, and maybe professional-wise, a lesser version of themselves.
Here are examples of how our “being” effects our health even more than what we “do.” Between the months of January 1 and April 15 the cholesterol of some CPAs increases as much as 100 mgm%. By the same token, one study showed that men could lower their cholesterol by 30% by meditating as a form of relaxation twice a day. The point being that when it comes to something as measurable as cholesterol that there are factors of being that enter. It is how we live, not only what we do, that counts.
So, what is the way out of the Jonah Complex? Abraham Maslow says that at some point you must be aware simultaneously of the greatness and goodness within you as well as your human limitations. You must be able to laugh at yourself and all human pretensions. Consciousness, insight, and a “working through” is the best path to accepting whatever elements of greatness or goodness you’ve been concealing or evading.
Often this “working through” that Maslow describes will involve a physical illness. Typically a serious one that jolts one out of the Jonah Complex making them realize they need to “be” something different, something better, than what they are being. And so they begin to realize and no longer have fear of those healthy actions and ways of being that move them to become healthier. We all probably know of people like this who’ve had catastrophic or major physical health issues and who are now in better health than they were before the event.
So sometimes we must be forced temporarily into the belly of a whale, so to speak, in order to become enlightened and incorporate and institute those things that make us healthier, that make us better versions of ourselves.