We all have met people who on the outside look like adults while on the inside they have gotten “stuck” at some level of their development; this process is commonly level as the “Peter Pan Complex”. The Peter Pan complex refers to people who refuse to grow up. More often than not, they label themselves as “Idealists” yet the term as it actually is does not apply.
The modern term of Idealism has become twisted to mean “irresponsible or dreamer”; people who don’t work towards their goals and keep hoping life will just magically happen. However, idealism as the Greeks knew it “is a diverse group of metaphysical views which all assert that “reality” is in some way indistinguishable or inseparable from human perception and/or understanding; that is in some sense mentally constituted or that it is otherwise closely connected to ideas and actions of pure strenght” By this definition alone one could easily confuse what is being said, so let’s examine the word further. Idealism comes via Latin “Idea” meaning “to see”. To see what? to see what the world could be! Idealists aren’t dreamers, they are believers in something greater. Unlike pragmatists who see the world concretely (not a bad trait as it helps keep one grounded. The problem arises when one loses the ability to see other possibilities–it’s about balance) Idealists are those who want this world to become a better place through their actions. Idealists are the heroes we find not only in myths and folklore but in history and every day heroes. They are the ones who believe one can dig deep and reach for the divine within. They are the ones who often have stood against oppression and fought against injustice. The idealist code was the code of the Knights, the Warriors, the Samurai. As you can see the term Idealist was never to be used on someone who was a dreamer without action but on those who can see potential and strive to reach it.
The Swiss Jungian Psychologist and Scholar Marilu Von Franz noticed a disturbing trend in the mid 20th century. It was increasingly common to see men and women who although had reached adulthood, reflected a certain delay in psychological maturity. Broadly speaking, these were people occupying adult bodies whose mental development could not keep up with the physical development. She was partly surprised but also quite concerned; how was it possible that nobody gave the issue the importance it deserved? In 1959 she chose to give a series of lectures on the psychology of the so-called “Puer Aeternus” which literal translation means “eternal child”. Although this term was commonly used in mythology to refer to a child who would remain young forever, there was a famous Swiss psychiatrist who gave the myth a 180 degree turn; Carl Jung.
Carl Jung adopted this myth for psychological purposes, to describe the archetype of a human being who fails to mature. Jung was referring to the common characteristics one would find within a child up to the adolescent age of 17; characteristics which the man child perpetuates over time. He was not referring to “maintaining the inner child alive” or to “hold on to idealism” those are other archetypes, instead he was referring to those who live wishing for life to be different but do nothing to transform it and to those who expose such a fear of getting older, constantly trying to compete with younger people in an effort to prove they are still young.
Jung determined these individuals misunderstood the concepts of archetypes in an unhealthy way, thus cutting off their ability to evolve internally and face life’s challenges.
Why does this happen? the explanation he offered is pseudo-scientific and despite our modern times it is worth listening to in order to rescue some points of interest, which later can be compared with more cutting-edge knowledge…
According to him, the confusion of happiness and fulfillment is one of the great reasons for mental immaturity. The immature desire for continuous happiness that characterizes the eternal child derives from his bucolic and rosy memory of childhood stage, in which the mother and father played a fundamental role in the well-being of the child. This perception of the past as a charming, oversheltered but irreplaceable place torments the person who does not want to grow up because it hardly resembles the real world, which is conceived as cold, hostile and cruel. A similar concept applies to children who went through divorce or who witness parents constantly fighting or having affairs; in an effort to deny what happened they often build a new reality. This “new” reality does not showcase the toxicity or lack of connection between caregivers, making it easier to blame the external world for the destruction of their fantasy world.
Usually within toxic families, neither parent wants to address the issues the family is facing or they may blame each other; most likely out of shame or false ego. Instead of adressing “the elephant in the room”, they tend to deny everything or they overcompensate by always being the understanding parent or the rescuer. Parents who overcompensate believe by doing so they are alleviating the trauma while avoiding personal responsibility; in reality such behavior leads to perpetuating the cycle of immaturity within their offspring. More often than not, these children will continue to expose immature behavior, lack resilience and may become “tyrants” who indirectly demand amends at all costs. Carl Jung tried to remind us of very ancient wisdom: “overprotecting or ignoring both harm a human being”— issues don’t disappear, they simply extend over time.
The infantilized subject feels all effort he or she invests in order to improve a situation will be completely useless yet according to them the world will continue to demand continuous sacrifice. Since the infantilized individual feels powerless or likes to take the passive aggressive role, his or her reality becomes a source of constant dissatisfaction; by taking the passive agressive role, they quietly but effectively punish caregivers and anyone whom they feel challenges them into growing up. Since they fear or simply don’t want to confront traumas, they punish their parents demanding they accept all their irresponsible or passive aggressive behavior. Even after they become “adults”, they fail to learn from their own lives; they are quick to accept praise but lack the maturity to face their own mistakes or shortcomings. In their inmature world, it’s always someone else who has to take responsibility, either because they see themselves as “perfect” or because they feel the world owes them.
Infantilized individuals, despite their age often find refuge on externally behaving like the “good” little boy or girl or “acting out” in mental and physical unhealthy ways while expecting protection and acceptance from their parents. Although deep inside they are aware there are things which require their attention and which need to be addressed, fear of confronting the past or having to accept responsibility for their current actions often leaves them feeling paralyzed; seeking refuge in a make believe world of perfection or a world of false acceptance where they desperately cling to the idea of prolonging youth, for when one is young (child/adolescent) one is innocent of most blame.
Jung disapproved of such attitude, even more so he condemned the parents and others who would encourage such attitude under the false mask of “unconditional love”. He knew those who do not learn anything about the most cumbersome facts of life, force the cosmic consciousness to reproduce it again as many times as necessary, until the person is willing to understand the lesson; what you deny controls you, what you accept transforms you.
The idea of living like a child or young adult; competing to stay “young” mentally or physically, trying to remain free of any responsibility; may seem tempting, nonetheless it is a deadly trap based on bias idyllic hindsight. Eventually they will be swollen by the truth of reality, for no one can escape time. Physically, no matter what, the wrinkles and saggy skin will show. Mentally people will notice blame is always put on others, lacking responsibility for one’s own choices. It is important for the infantile adult to recognize at some point there won’t be a mom or dad to blame or to overshelter; all that will be left is a person with regrets, anger and sadness, desiring to turn back the clock in order to make the choice to grow up.
Unresolved trauma or living without taking responsibility for one’s actions usually manifests as addictive and dysfunctional behavior. If not correctly channeled, it leads us to judge the past disproportionately – some people are labeled as holy and others are the devil incarnate. Normally the saints are those who do not challenge the immature person to confront reality and who cover up their mistakes; on the other hand, the bad ones are those who are against the saints or those who challenge the immature person to grow up.
The man/woman child seeks refuge in the protective circle they had when they grew up (overprotective parents) or they seek to create a circle of protection they didn’t have (absent parents). Either way they seek to be free of responsibility towards their own persons and towards society; which despite denying it; they fear for it demands their awakening.
According to experts this psychological disorder is only increasing given the new models of parental education, a culture based on instant gratification and the elimination of certain initiation rites into adulthood; young people are being given more freedom and less responsibilities. Instead of striving to create their own path, they opt for immediate pleasure to alleviate their suffering. To top it off they like to discredit those they envy, those who they know are real idealists not dreamers; people who have chosen or are choosing to grow up mentally. Since immature people are loaded with resentment, guilt and hatred towards their own persons, they often find someone else to lash out or provoke. Instead of considering just how much effort those they envy, blame or resent put in their lives towards healing, working on themselves and their goals, they choose to mock, blame, bully, discredit or try to trigger them– that is much easier than to choose to develop the strength to heal.
Let me explain a bit more about Jung’s ideology on how the roles of a father and mother help built healthy individuals or perpetuate immature adults; let me remind you these archetypes are based on times much different than ours but like all great teachings, there are still valuable lessons to be learned from these theories:
Throughout history men and women have assumed different parental roles; on the one hand the performance of mother was to develop a deep emotional bond with the child, while the role of the father was focused on teaching the child the proper mental and material tools he would need in order to build a better future for himself. The more important part of a father’s role was to help the child as he grew to gradually free himself from the mental string developed towards his mother. This severing of the cord was imperative in order for a young person to grow up and be able to build and offer a proper life to someone else (in no way it meant to cause animosity towards the mother, it was about teaching independence). The role of a father was particularly challenging as he had to be conscious of his choices, making sure the child didn’t grow overprotected.
According to Jung, mothers who tend to emasculate fathers in front of their children or who use manipulations techniques in order to make excuses for their children; specially when the child is supposed to learn a valuable lesson (more often seen when it comes to sons) are not doing their offspring any favors; instead they are collaborating to immature physically grown adults. In the same way, if a father chooses to make excuses for his child (usually daughters) he gives no room for the mother’s role to unfold, forcing her to become the disciplinarian; the result will be the same as the previous example…Once again Balance proves to be key.
In our modern era, where there are so many single parents, the relationship between parent and child becomes even trickier; a parent needs to become aware of when to be lenient and when to help the child understand his responsibility on something and if needed face the consequences. Modern therapists agree no matter what, all a child needs is “one good role model“–be it male or female. Someone who understands the importance of balance and guides the child not from a place of false ego but a place of health. In order to do this, the role model needs to have strong character, which is usually the result of having had the courage to confront his or her own wounds and setbacks in order to better guide.
According to Jung, ideally parents should face their own setbacks before having children, otherwise in a difunctional family either parent will become the “devouring parent”; a parent who overprotects the child and under the guise of building a deep connection with the offspring, is actually attempting to obtain from the interaction everything he or she lacks in the relationship with the spouse. From the outside this is mistakenly seen as the “devoted parent” who is always there, while in reality children become ammunition; allies in a passive aggressive war. When a parent behaves that way, he or she has unresolved issues of their own but because they refuse to acknowledge them, they often raise children who become dependent even as adults. In that particular dynamic one parent plays the role of “saint” while the other gets blame for everything.
Parenting isn’t easy; we got to love our kids enough to want to confront our wounds and our own mistakes while also making sure we don’t try to overshadow the other parent. Parenting isn’t a race and it should not be a place where one seeks to win accolades; often living through the child. To enable dysfunctional or narcissistic behavior in our children; just so we can hide our own mistakes; only leads to non lenient children or children who expose other mental disorders.
Psychologist Antoni Bolinches ; Clinical Psychologist, Humanist writer and thinker; expressed how as immature adults get older, they will undergo more and more mental crises due to their inability to accept life’s pace. He also noted in the past, the term “man child” became popularized as it was seen mostly as a male issue. However, in modern times, more and more we see a rise in numbers within the female population. He concludes this is not only the result of poor role modeling but adds to it a poor educational system within a society where girls are oversexualize; growing without proper understanding of what it means to be confident and independent, “often confusing sensuality with raunchiness”. He emphasized how the more they “sell” themselves, the more they erode at their self esteem. That type of behavior only promotes more rigidness and a sense of “holiness” from their counterparts who also confuse such “liberated” attitude as sensual; resulting in them labeling everything as “dirty”. Neither one aware they are both hiding from growing up behind “fake walls”, which later on will unfold in unhappy relationships or the inability to maintain a stable relationship.
In essence what Jung was trying to teach us is to be aware when parenting. To see your child self destructing and do nothing isn’t “unconditional love”. In the same way to keep making excuses for your child, relieving him or her of any responsability for his or her actions, using life’s setbacks to stop mental development isn’t love.
Most parents have no problem sharing experiences from their lives; however, most of the time those stories are based on times when we were in the victim seat or stories that make us look good. It is imperative to acknowledge our own mistakes and the hurt we ourselves caused others, otherwise our children will grow up mimicking our behavior which in this situation means “it’s always someone else’s fault”.
Love is about actions more than words; we as parents need to learn to be strong enough to take a step back and allow our children to really know us. Let them know we too have made mistakes and will possible make some more; sometimes we have screwed up royally and we too have hurt others (who hasn’t? this is not Disneyworld). In the same way we need to love our children enough to be strong to say NO when the situation calls for it. “NO, I will not contribute to you doing that or behaving like this because it isn’t good for you”/ “No, I do not care what people think of me or if you like me, I will do what is best for you”.
We need to learn to stop using our children as pawns and be willing to be the unpopular parent if needed; for if that is what it takes to stop a child from growing to be manipulative or self destructive or a passive aggressive punisher, then that is what we need to do.
Parenting isn’t easy, it helps to remember life didn’t give us children to play a popularity contest. We will struggle, but we have to try to heal ourselves in order to allow our children to really know us, not the mask we portray. We will struggle balancing between being a friend and a mentor but here is a good piece of advice someone very wise once gave me “when times get tough always choose being a parent first. A friend looks for approval, a parent looks for the welfare of his or her offspring; despite the fact that in doing so, one is running the risk of not being liked”
To conclude; we all have been wounded and we all have made mistakes. It is time as parents we choose to stop hiding our shortcomings, more importantly our own mistakes. To those who are having a hard time accepting the fact time waits for no one, life is calling you to mentally grow. Growing mentally doesn’t mean you will leave the “inner child” behind, nor does it mean you will become “serious”, sarcastic and detached from life; that is another extreme; it just means you’ll build resilience and learn to love yourself. It can be scary to have to look in and vomit all the crap kept inside but it is better to start confronting your wounds, fears and secrets sooner rather than later. It’s time for you to start the process of healing for that will be the greatest gift you can give yourself. It will be scary, it will take time, but it is better to invest in your healing and self development now than to look back at life with regrets; the choice is yours.