A frequent topic of conversation among my girlfriends is what psychologists call “Peter Pan Syndrome.” While it’s not categorized in the DSM or recognized as an actual mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association, the idea of the “lost boys” has been around since the early 1980s. Psychologist Dan Kiley popularized the concept with his book The Peter Pan Syndrome: Men Who Have Never Grown Up and followed it up with The Wendy Dilemma, meant for women who fall for these men.
Kelsea Ballerini even had a No. 1 song on the concept – “Peter Pan.”
I know a number of guys who, by definition, fall into this “Peter Pan” category. They’re in their late 20s and 30s, single, some even still live at home. They’re also intelligent. Successful. They have multiple degrees. They go to church on Sundays. They are doctors, lawyers, business owners, musicians, writers, chefs, crafters of (some of my favorite) artisan cocktails, engineers, the list goes on.
Despite all their positive attributes, they seem to live in Neverland.
When asked why they don’t own a home or in a few cases, still live at home, the answer is generally a financial one. I get it. Rent in Charlottesville is ridiculously inflated. I don’t especially like paying it either. And just last night, a local real estate expert was discussing the lack of inventory for home buyers in Charlottesville’s most desirable neighborhoods. All valid excuses, really.
When asked why they’re single however, the answers vary. “I just haven’t found the right girl yet.” (If this were the Hunger Games… I’d have volunteered as tribute in at least one case). “I’m focusing on my career.” “I’m not in a place financially to support a marriage.”
My girlfriends and I, usually with a glass of wine in hand, like to hone in on those answers. We get annoyed. Here we are, single, eligible women, with a lot to offer, and we can’t find a date. When we do go on a date, it never seems to make it past a second or third date before someone ghosts someone or someone says they aren’t looking for a relationship and that’s that. We rant about the great men we know who would make someone a wonderful partner and we wonder what is wrong with them? Why are they still hanging out in Neverland?
The phrase “he needs to just man up and ask me (or Jane or Sally or whoever) to coffee/for a drink/to dinner!” comes out often (somewhere around the two-three glass of wine mark).
If you happen to be a male reading this, you’re probably ready to form a mob and come after me with pitchforks and torches. That’s generally the response I get from my guy friends on this topic. But, stick with me. I’m going somewhere.
Christmas night, as I finished off the last pages of my most recent journal, I flipped back through the pages. I highly recommend that if you’re a journaler like me – my old entries are fascinating. Some of them are heartbreaking, some are joyful. Others are hopeful, and once in a while, one is downright inspiring.
In late April, not long after I turned 30, I wrote an introspective entry reflecting on my first 30 years. Five words jumped out at me.
“I needed to be selfish.”
I was selfish in my twenties.
I had to be.
My twenties started off with a crippling heartbreak that took far longer than I care to repeat to push through. I needed to be selfish to get my life together. I needed to leave my small town and finish my degree at Tennessee. I needed to move to Nashville and work in the music industry. I needed to live on my own, far away from my family, in a tiny little hole of an apartment. I needed to stand on a chair precariously balanced on a coffee table while wearing a pair of heels to change a light bulb and sit alone in the dark, clinging to my puppy, listening to tornado sirens and wondering if there was going to be anything left when it was over.
I needed to find my way back to Charlottesville and work a few jobs I didn’t necessarily love, but that taught me invaluable skills, both professionally and personally. I needed to live in a little bit nicer place, but pay a lot more rent. I needed to board a plane and fly to foreign countries, sometimes all alone. I needed to find a passion for health and fitness through my own struggles with weight and body image.
The selfish years were necessary to become who I am right now. There are a lot of pieces that make up who I’ve grown into in my first 30 years. I love literature and writing and music. I live to teach barre classes. My hands are callused from lifting heavy weights. My favorite outfit is still a dress and heels. I love to bake, despite an equal love of eating clean, healthy foods. I pass over the latest Netflix or Amazon Prime hits to watch episodes of Friends for the umpteenth time over and I’m optimistic to a fault.
All of this to say I get it. I get the “Peter Pan” complex some of my male friends have, at least to a degree. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my twenties were my selfish years because I needed to figure myself out.
Just like some of my male, single, living at home friends are figuring themselves out.
I’m not entirely letting them off the hook. Sometimes its just time to “suck it up buttercup” and face your fears, be it of mortgages, dinner dates, or traveling to a foreign country all by your lonesome.
However, I’ve realized I can have a bit more grace for them. I was a bit of a Wendy for a while – perhaps I still am, in some ways – while I worked through my own obstacles and growing pains. Why shouldn’t they be allowed to do the same?
I do think the “Peter Pan” generation is part of a bigger problem – insert “millennial” here – but that’s a topic for another day.
Besides, right now, I think we could all use a little grace, whether you’re Peter Pan, Wendy, Tinkerbell, or Captain Hook.