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Puer & Puella: Time to grow up

Peter Pan, in J. M. Barrie’s classic 1904 play, shouted, “I’ll never grow up, I’ll never grow up!” He ventured to Never Neverland for adventures with mermaids and Captain Hook. Interesting to note, the play’s full title was “Peter Pan, or, The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up.”

Archetypically, this image of a boy reluctant to mature is referred to as Puer aeternus, Latin for “eternal boyhood.” Psychologically it refers to an adult man whose emotional life has remained at an adolescent level. He lives out experiences for their excitement, lives in fantasies, and ‘flies high.’

Trapped in his boyish ways, he has poor boundaries, flees from commitments and difficult situations, sees the world and himself through rose-colored glasses, and essentially resists growing up.

The Puer typically leads a provisional life, due to the fear of being caught in a situation from which he might not be able to escape. He covets independence and freedom, chafes at limits, and tends to find any restriction intolerable.

The Puer seeks casual, spontaneous and whimsical relationships. However, when these eventually do require responsibility or commitment he will end or run from them. He tends to feel a sense of satisfaction in being attacked by his female partner. He does not fight back, but prefers to retreat to his cave to brood.

The Puer’s female counterpart, Puella, is the archetypal image of “eternal girlhood.” This energy is often expressed in the perpetual little girl and in women afraid to grow old (although they will not admit it).

A Puella is somewhat reckless and impulsive, vacillates on making important decisions, and then, acts suddenly with almost immediate regret. She seeks the fountain of youth, tries new diets and make-up, and rarely tells her age. She plays the ‘buddy’ to her children and a girlish flirt to men.

Positive attributes of these archetypes bring enthusiasm, boundless energy to carry out a task, spontaneity, new ways of thinking and solving, and starting new paths. During individuation, a well-controlled person will need to get closer to this spontaneous, instinctual life. Conversely, at mid-life, the Puer/Puella person will need to grow up by gaining control and responsibility.

However, this youthful energy lacks wisdom, discernment, experience and staying power. All Puer/Puella ideas require the archetype of Senex/Crone (wise old man/woman) which preserves traditional values, control, rationality, and responsibility, and applies clear-headed judgment.

The wish to ‘never grow up’ – to live in paradise forever – is to refuse the transition from a fantastical child to a reality-oriented adult. What is required psychologically to overcome this desire to remain a child is the emergence of the “heroic” – a surge of ambition and energy that pushes one out of the security of the Garden of Eden to meet the exciting challenges offered by the real world.

The Hero courageously and trustingly asks for and takes up the challenges of real life. The Hero maturely accepts that life will bring both ascends and descends, rest and work, sorrow and joy.

He or she will be all grown-up.

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Diane Hancox, MA, CCC provides counselling services to Parksville, Qualicum Beach, Nanaimo and Vancouver Island.