No one ever said growing up was easy, but some people seem to resist it more than others. Apparently I am one of those people. However, at 31 it seems I may finally be more ready than I was before. For most of my life I have felt, acted, and looked fairly young. I was an extremely late bloomer (still kind of waiting to bloom in many ways) and have somehow maintained a child-like wonder of the universe.
In psychological terms folk such as myself are referred to as "puer aeternus/puella aeterna," or Latin for "eternal child." Who is the eternal child? We all know one (or many as in my case) and they are characterized as being a free spirit, youthful, and adventurous. They are often chasing the next adventure or searching for the perfect job, partner, or circumstance. In other words, somewhat living in fantasy.
The best examples of pop culture puers would be:
- Peter Pan,
- Jack Kerouac,
- Don Juan (a lady charmer in search of the perfect woman and here is a plug for the Don Jon movie if you haven't seen it yet as it addresses fantasy and illusion as destroyers of intimacy),
- Michael Jackson (who wanted so much to be young forever he even named his amusement park Neverland).
- (I couldn't find any good examples of puellas, but it seems Western society values youth in women so much that I don't need specific examples?)
It would be too easy to blame society for my immaturity (and the other eternal children's as well), but it does seem important to note the role society plays in idealizing youth--particularly adolescence. The downside is that many of the "free spirits" begin our 30s, 40s, and 50s still having the emotional characteristics of an adolescent. In many ways our entire Western society is a puer and puella as it emphasizes youth and doesn't necessarily respect its elders. In many ways American society is in an adolescent phase of maturity as many of us are unsure how to relate to the powerful forces of emotions, sex, and money.
Without a mature relationship to power, we can tend towards illusions. Women in the media are objectified as a way of maintaining a goddess-like image without the reality of being more than just a fantasy. Men must appear free of emotion in order to appear confident and powerful. The cycle of immaturity in Western consciousness makes it difficult for many of us to want to truly grow up and face reality, so instead we avoid it with substances or mental dillusions.
The eternal child mentality dislikes authority, rules, or being "tied down." Perhaps one of the most recognizable elements of a puella and puer is their love of illusion and fantasy and avoidance of responsibility and reality. The puer’s main pursuit in life is ecstasy, many times at the expense of everything else. Today most puers and puellas can be found in ashrams seeking a religious experience or using drugs or alcohol to escape reality.
Some of the signposts of puellas and puers:
- overly close connection to family so as to remain the child
- constant travelers living out of suitcases without creating roots to a place or circumstance
- usually without steady job or intimate, close relationships
Susan E. Schwartz describes the difficulty of intimacy facing the puella as:
"The paradox is that the puella is driven by desires to be seen, to excel, and to be loved but not to be known intimately. Her fantasy is that one day she will become this ideal self that she cannot achieve now because she flees from reality. There is always a "but" preventing development or commitment because each situation is for the short term, and relationships are with others of similar bent."
As I read this I feel kind of sick as I notice how much my "puellaness" shows up the most for me in relationships. It is so much more fun to continue my search for the ideal mate than be willing to get rid of a fantasy of who he will be (Jake Gyllenhaal, obviously). Ultimately, as a puella in relationship I avoid intimacy as it requires a maturity I don't feel quite capable of yet. It also continually keeps me at a distance from those I care about as my emotional self seems continuallysecond place to my shiny, energetic persona.
This ultimatelyvery much pervades my taste in men as I find myself consistently drawn to men who also have this same mentality and would prefer my charming, youthful energy than my womanly, powerful confidence. They too would rather live in an inaccessible, idealistic daydream than actually be in the day-to-day, somewhat boring experience of true intimacy and connection. I fall in love with them in exotic places, chase them across the globe on an adventure, and daydream of them from a far without the worry of having to face them in person.
However, while a part of me would prefer to remain 16 forever, I feel the mature woman in me calling me forward. She is exhausted with the false sense of closeness that fantasy provides. She is critical of those who are unwilling to explore their darkness before the Himalayas. She yearns for a man of integrity with emotional maturity to match the one brewing in her.
As with all psychological imbalances there are indeed positive and negative aspects. I have listed some below to help me acknowledge and notice how they show up in myself and others (I'm realizing as I type this just how many other puella and puer friends I have)...
Looking on the bright side puellas and puers are:
- charming (this is on many lists, not just my own);)
Looking on the dark side:
- depression (while he or she may appear happy and free, behind the charm is the depression of the soul and the over enthusiasm is only an over compensation for this inner turmoil)
- tendency towards substance abuse
- procrastinates as keeps waiting for "the ship to come in"
- shirks responsibility
- inability to commit to people, jobs, situations
- emotionally stunted
- I would like to add my own that the continuation of being drawn to other puellas and puers, which in turn contribute to the inability to cultivate deep, lasting relationships
In case you noticed, the "dark side" list is longer than the "bright side" and very purposefully so. As a puella I have a tendency to avoid the more depressing or not so pretty parts of life. This list attempts in some way to balance out that part of my nature and not necessarily be a Debbie Downer.
So, given the information in list form above...what is the "anecdote" or "cure" for this personality temperament? In archetypal terms, the opposite of the child is the parent or wise old man or woman (Crone). In mythology and fairy tale the crone is the witch or the Wise Woman. She represents the maturity of girls into women with wisdom, freedom, and personal power. In the Hero's Journey Joseph Campbell discusses the crone as saving the hero from obscurity by showing him/her magical powers of darkness.
Author Linda Schierse Leonard describes the self-transformation process of the puella as giving up her "...girlish dependence, innocence, and powerlessness and to accept the strength which is already there--to really value herself." This acceptance of power changes her girlish innocence into a youthful, feminine elan and vigor, with spontaneity and openness to new experiences that then makes creativity and fruitful relationship possible.
Robert Bly says that the task for the puer (and puella) is to descend, in psychological terms, to experience hardship of some kind. This could mean experiencing major loss of some kind, such as a job, a bereavement, an illness, a divorce.
He says, "Experiencing the descent enables the puer to become aware of the painful feelings that have always been there but not previously acknowledged. In working through the hardship, knuckling down to life’s blows where previously he would have flown away, the puer begins to grow up. Accepting the parts of him that previously he ran away from--the shame, the sadness, the feelings of not being good enough--is another way of saying that the puer begins to discover his own ‘shadow’ (or the parts of us we don't like and therefore deny)."
In Peter Pan, Peter actually loses his shadow and then Wendy helps him sew it back on. Like Peter, puers and puellas need to acknowledge their shadow shelf, the part of themselves that they have rejected, in order to mature and truly be in relationship with a man or woman or even find material success. Many of these shadow elements relate to sex (sacral chakra), power (solar plexus), and fear (root chakra). Interestingly as a puella I seem much more comfortable in the chakras from the heart (which is not uncommon for our society as well) and above than the ones more closely related to the human body and experience.
As I more fully lean in to "growing up" and leaving Neverland, I am reminded that the Crone in me has shown up subtly over the past year ready for an integration with my puella. It was she who helped me complete my thesis and M.A., commit to getting a cat, and reveal this pattern of mine. It is also my inner crone who reminds me not to attempt to get rid of my puella as she is my energetic, youthful (sometimes naive) spirit and therefore an important part of me. My work is to integrate her with the more mature part of myself and walk the line between old and young, between wisdom and child-like wonder. May we all remain young-at-heart, while growing up gracefully. In the meantime, I need to start planning for Halloween as I think I might be an aged Wendy from Peter Pan...