Navigating the Peter Pan ComplexRyan Adamczyk
My name is Ryan Adamczyk. I’ve been living in Charlotte North Carolina for 7 years and work as a mental health therapist. I graduated with my Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology from the Adler School of Professional Psychology in April of 2010 and earned in my PhD. in Depth Psychology in June of 2018. For more information about my therapy practice follow this link.
In the story of Peter Pan, we are introduced to a character that remains an adolescent boy forever. What is striking about the character of Peter Pan is that he refuses to grow up into a
man. He is a character who is content with living in childish delight, despite the fact, that it means he has to sacrifice other things such as a meaningful relationship with Wendy Darling.
In the book titled: The Boy Crisis (2018), Warren Ferrell and John Gray record an interviewee’s statement that articulates the grip of the Peter Pan complex astutely. “You know, in that moment, I finally understood Peter Pan. You see, I wanted to stay a boy, not become a man, because a man, as I now knew it, was a mix between a father, a brother, and attacker, mostly the latter” (p. 3).
This aforementioned statement presents a negative view of masculinity and it reflects a dread of growing up. Psychologically, this complex is constellated by the archetype of the Puer Aeternus and its influence can easily overwhelm many men. It is the goal of this article to explore the psychological dynamics of the puer aeternus and offer a way of discharging the psychic energy of the Peter Pan complex. Additionally, the writings of C.G. Jung, Marie Louise von Franz, Mircea Eliade and other scholars will be consulted as we embark upon our investigation.
Forever Young: The Psychological Impact of Not Growing Up
The attitude of an individual who is influenced by the puer aeternus is one who shirks responsibility. Anything that would hold this individual accountable for his actions is actively avoided. Many scholars have long wrestled with questions as to why certain men have difficulty growing up. Moreover, what often results with such cases is the stultifying effects upon the individual’s psychological disposition. In the book titled: The Problem of the Puer Aeternus (2000), Marie Louise von Franz describes the influence of this archetypal energy:
In general, the man who is identified with the archetype of the puer aeternus remains too long in adolescent psychology; that is, all those characteristics that are normal in a youth of seventeen or eighteen are continued into later life, coupled in most cases with too great a dependence on the mother. (p. 7)
Von Franz’s description can be characteristic of the man who experiences a failure to launch. Ferrell and Gray (2018) offer a statistic that captures the essence of von Franz’s statement. “Today, young men between twenty-five and thirty-one are 66 percent more likely than their female counterparts to be living with their parents” (p. 2).
I will be addressing the role of fathers in the life of their sons in a later section. The point is clear, however, that unhealthy attachment to one’s parents can present a roadblock to the individual who is navigating the path of psychological development throughout his lifespan. James Hillman, in his book titled: The Soul’s Code (1996), shares some unique insight concerning the parental fallacy. “The parental fallacy does not help anyone grow down. It pulls us away from the acorn and back to Mom and Dad, who may already be dead and gone though we remain stuck with their effects” (p. 77).
The roadblock is the parental fallacy. What archetypal energy is fueling the parental fallacy? To answer this question, it is necessary to turn our attention to the archetype of the Great Mother.
All Hail the Great Mother
The archetypal energy of the Great Mother fuels the parental fallacy. Hillman contends, “The myth of the Great Mother in our culture carries the higher dignity and force of theory, and we are a nation of Mother-lovers in the support we give her by adhering to the theory” (1996, p. 67).
The theory that Hillman refers to here is the parental fallacy. What is immediately striking about this psychological dynamic is that it is something that is culturally ingrained. Moreover, whether or not one’s culture can be identified as the sole culprit of this dynamic, the point still stands, that adherence to the parental fallacy theory can lead to the activation of a complex. The mother complex activates and its grip keeps the son bound to her. Jung describes a man who is gripped by the mother complex as someone whose, “…Eros is passive like a child’s; he hopes to be caught, sucked in, enveloped, and devoured. He seeks, as it were, the protecting, nourishing, charmed circle of the mother, the condition of the infant released from every care…” (1959/1968, p. 20 [CW 9, pt. 2, para. 20]).
The emotion that drives the mother complex forward is fear. This fear aligns the man with the mother complex as James Hollis, in his book titled: Under Saturn’s Shadow states, “The child’s experience of the mother is internalized as a complex; an emotionally charged cluster of energy beyond the control of the ego” (1994, p. 109). Hence, it is a fear that halts psychological development into manhood for the individual boy.
And it is this same fear that keeps the individual steeped in childhood ignorance. Jung describes the negative impact of the puer aeternus archetype. “He is the spirit of regression, who threatens us with bondage to the mother and with dissolution and extinction in the unconscious” (1956/1967, p. 342 [CW 5, para. 551]). The puer aeternus secures this bondage to the mother as von Franz (2000) observes, “A man who has a mother complex will always have to contend with tendencies toward becoming a puer aeternus” (p. 10).
It is important to note, however, that the grip of the mother complex negatively impacts the mother herself as well. As aforementioned, fear is the emotion that drives the mother complex forward and makes the man child dependent upon the mother. The woman who is gripped by the mother complex accepts this projection and a codependency develops. Jung states, “Behold the secret conspiracy between mother and son, and how each helps the other betray life” (1959/1968, p. 20 [CW 9, pt. 2, para. 21]).
How does the mother and son betray life? The son’s refusal to grow up and the mother’s overprotection of the boy betrays life. By returning to what was written previously, we discover that the fear that fuels the mother complex is a fear of failure. Fear of failure brings into question the role of the father and how he can help the son free himself from the influence of the puer aeternus.
Oh Father, Where Art Thou
The importance of the father’s involvement in the boy’s life is unquestionable. The interaction between the father and mother reveals an archetypal interplay between the anima and animus. These archetypal energies project themselves upon the parents so that their influence on the son can be psychologically effective. Jung contends, “The dilemma here consists in the fact that anima and animus are projected upon their human counterparts and thus create by suggestion a primitive relationship which evidently goes back to group marriages” (1954/1966, p. 177 [CW 16, para. 441]).
The influence of the anima and animus goes much deeper than the representation of external group marriages. Moreover, a more profound internal archetypal marriage occurs that aids in the psychological development of the man child. Jung states, “But in so far as anima and animus undoubtly represent the contrasexual components of the personality, their kinship character does not point backwards to group marriage but forwards to the integration of personality, i.e., to individuation” (1954/1966, p. 177 [CW 16, para. 441]).
A healthy interplay between the anima and animus contributes to the process of individuation for the boy. The involvement of the father also contributes to the son’s overall sense of purpose, which is another aspect of individuation. Ferrell and Gray (2018) suggest, “Dad-enriched boys tend to fill the purpose void with constructive new senses of purpose; dad-deprived boys are more likely to either drown in their purpose void, or fill it with destructive senses of purpose” (p. 105). Dad- deprivation is one way in which the father perpetrates the parental fallacy. Whereas, the mother enacts the parental fallacy through her dominance the father does so, through his absence. Why does the boy’s psychological health rest upon the involvement of his father? The father fills the purpose void for the son.
The father teaches his son how to become a responsible adult; he leads by example and his son learns from him. Hollis (1994) writes:
Sons also have to watch their fathers in the world. They need him to show them how to be in the world, how to work, how to bounce back from adversity… They need the activation of their inherent masculinity both outer modeling and direct affirmation. (p. 89, 90)
Hollis presents a masculinity that is different from the one that Ferrell and Gray (2018) describe in the introduction of this article. This difference reveals that the puer aeternus functions as the shadow side of masculinity. Moreover, the Peter Pan complex is activated by dad-deprivation. Hollis’ aforementioned statement exemplifies the psychological dimensions of a dad-enriched son and it reveals a way of discharging the energy of the Peter Pan complex.
The Masculine Initiate: The Psychological Impact of Growing Up
The son learns from his father through initiation. Unfortunately, in modern times emphasis on the psychological importance of initiation is pitifully lacking. In the book titled: Rites and Symbols of Initiation (1984), Mircea Eliade makes a relevant observation. “It has often been said that one of the characteristics of the modern world is the disappearance of any meaningful rites of initiation” (p. 31). There are certain milestones that are recognized as an entrance into adulthood such as learning to drive a car and reaching the appropriate age for drinking alcohol, however, these two “milestones” are hardly meaningful initiations. Edward Tick, in his book titled: War and the Soul (2005) provides a good description of a meaningful initiation and its impact.
Rites of passage are necessary for healthy human development. We need them to prepare for, demarcate, and celebrate our changes through the life cycle and in relation to our society. They are not just leftovers from primitive eras; they are archetypal, so they show up in substitute forms when ignored. When we reach one of life’s thresholds, it always challenges us to grow, change, and deepen. Simultaneously, we let go of our old identity and the accouterments we no longer need. (p. 45)
Tick’s reference to the archetypal nature of initiation is an important piece of information for our investigation because it reveals the psychological significance for the individual. The initiation guides the transformation of the boy into a man. One aspect of initiation that should be recognized is wounding. Hollis (1994) contends, “Wounding has always been a crucial dimension of male initiation to adulthood, to sacred societies and even sometimes to profession” (p. 65).
The act of being wounded is something that we as humans avoid because it is very uncomfortable, however, it is a necessary experience that initiates the boy into manhood. It requires the individual to be vulnerable. This requirement is also actively avoided, especially in American culture because vulnerability is seen as weakness. Hollis presents an example of male initiation from the Mandan Sioux culture. Moreover, the masculine initiate has a skewer driven into his pectoral muscle and he is raised by rope from the hooks toward the ceiling of the ceremonial lodge. It is from this hook and rope that the masculine initiate swings until he faints (c.f. 1994, p. 65). Though this kind of male initiatory practice is graphic it serves a purpose. Hollis (1994) explains:
Those swinging by their pectorals from the ridge poles of the Sioux lodges were, through ceremony and pain, vouchsafed an ecstatic experience. That is, they were translated from childhood existence in the here and now into the transcendent realm of sacred history, the history of their gods, their people and male mysteries. (p. 66).
The masculine initiate is taken from the protective world of the mother and enters the vast world of an adult man. Though this new world can be uncomfortable it is psychologically necessary for healthy development. Furthermore, the archetypal dynamic of Hollis’ example reveals an exchange. The boy exchanges his dependency upon his mother for an identity among the other males within the tribe. There is an element of individuation involved where the boy learns how to separate his old identity with his mother and establish a new one among the tribe. It is not my intention to suggest that we must adopt initiatory practices from other cultures such as the Sioux but rather, we must adopt rites of passage that satisfy the psyche within our particular cultural background. Masculine initiation opens the path of individuation and loosens the grip of the Peter Pan complex. Additionally, individuation protects the boy from becoming a puer aeternus so that he can experience healthy psychological development throughout his life time. Conclusion
The goal of this article was to answer the question of how the Peter Pan complex can be discharged of its psychic energy. My focus in this article was on the psychological development of boys, however, a similar study can be done with girls surrounding the influence of the Puella Aeternus. Moreover, a case is made that the influence of both parents is equally needed to help the son develop in a psychologically healthy way. Jung’s contention that the projection of anima and animus doesn’t point exclusively to group marriage is important (c.f. 1954/1966, p. 177 [CW 16, para. 441]). Even though the mother and father may be separated by divorce, their positive influence must continue through co-parenting because they remain a model of behavior and relationship for the child. This dynamic is how the parental fallacy can be avoided (c.f. Hillman, 1996, p. 77). If the child remains connected to the acorn he will be able to resist the tendency to become a puer aeternus. Furthermore, an initiation process or rite of passage introduces the boy to the archetypal realm. An integration of these archetypal energies align the boy with the Self. Depth psychology maintains that the development of the personality through the individuation process is an effective way to become who we are meant to be in our life. Additionally, life is a gift and to refuse it’s archetypal dimension is to evade what it has to offer.
Eliade, M. (1984). Rites and symbols of initiation: The mysteries of birth and rebirth. Thompson, CT: Spring Publishing.
Ferrell, W. & Gray, J. (2018). The boy crisis. Dallas, TX: BenBella Book, Inc.
Hillman, J. (1996). The soul’s code: In search of character and calling. New York, NY: Warner
Hollis, J. (1994). Under Saturn’s shadow: The wounding and healing of men. Toronto, CA: Inner
Jung, C. G. (1966). The practice of psychotherapy (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.). Princeton NJ:
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von Franz, M.- L. (2000). The problem of the puer aeternus. Toronto, CA: Inner City Books.
Thanks for this, Ryan. As someone who has spent two decades working with youth I see an especially growing problem among males. I also believe lack of parental involvement from fathers and a missing “right of passage” for boys into adulthood has given rise to a population of young boys in adult make bodies. In fact, I have to look at myself and wonder about the Peter Pan complex. I have shunned relationships and serious responsibility for much of my adult life by staying to myself and in my comfort zone. Only in my work do I take risks and assume more responsibility than necessary. I’m going to follow up with some of your additional reading sources.
Thank you for sharing.
I can’t help wondering how divorce which is so common these days will affect our boys and girls for that matter. We are all affected in some way or other by our parents and the influence they have had over us. We can blame them for it or we can become aware of our shortcomings as a result and take responsibility for our lives and make the necessary changes etc!! No one is perfect including our parents and yes acknowledge the so called mistakes made but then take action whatever that may be and move forward. I personally think that with women’s liberation movement and women leaving babies at a very young age to return to work and their carreers etc! There will be more abandonment issues, more fathers absent, more anxiety and generally far more psychological problems for the younger generation to contend with. Psychologists and psychiatrists will be very much in demand sadly!!!!
I comment not as a therapist, but as someone who was in Jungian analysis for six years in my thirties and has continued the process. First, I would like to complement the author of this article. He has managed to keep psychological jargon to a minimum, so a non-specialist can understand his points. This ability is, in my experience, the exception.
Beginning with my 60’s generation but increasing with each decade, I have seen a predominance of this type of man in the U.S. because of “father absence” and the lack of initiation rites. I studied this lack of initiation (including Eliade’s work) from the theological aspect as I was in church ministry and graduate theology studies during my time in therapy.
My own father absence happened in the 1950’s and 60’s when most homes were intact. War veterans have been forced into deeper psychic realms, but with the ending of the draft in 1975, this rather brutal path of initiation became less prevalent. Note: Richard Rohr has very insightfully written about “father hunger” in a book with that title which describes this current American experience.
Dealing with the childhood absence of my own father perhaps hooked me into dealing with men who experienced the same absence. I’ve struggled during and after my therapy with this type of man.
In my experience, what it comes down to is simply psychic and spiritual laziness: refusal to take responsibility for one’s emotional life. We’re all lazy, as one of my theology mentors said once, we may be destined to rest in an easy chair in heaven but most of us want to climb into the chair while we’re still in this earthly life. True.
At the same time (regarding projections), as long as “the patriarchal arrangement” is in place culturally, it’s very difficult for men to realize the need to take that responsibility. That arrangement is “(men) you provide the income, the space of a protected dwelling for me and the children, the social status for me and (women) I take care of your emotional life so you don’t have to feel your feelings and grow up.” I can’t see that feminism or women working has made a dent in this cultural reality, which I constantly see around me in marriages.
Any therapist knows that with a male analysand, he/she will spend most of the time helping a man to feel his feelings, which he was forced to suppress beginning around the age of seven at least. This block to the father, along with the mother complex attachment, just seems to be worse in the Puer. So we have not a man, but a “man-child” – as Robert Bly has noted, a man who will not pick up the sword even to defend even when he is attacked emotionally. We end up with men so cut off they buy into trying to “sneak a life” through midlife affairs and drugs.
So far I see no answer to this predicament except individual therapy for men. And men who engage this way are the exception, forced into therapy by personal pain that has become worse than the pain of therapy itself. And that usually happens through an experience of profound loss.
Perhaps the experience of loss in a Puer’s life, how he/she responds to loss of the father or later a loved one, needs to be more deeply explored. In my experience, this is primary thing that pushes a man either into repeating or, finally, into therapy.
There’s some great insights in the book ‘romancing the shadow.’ The author suggest that too much maternal influence in boys leads to the peter pan syndrom.