Remember when you were at school and you did something a bit stupid or irresponsible and when your mother asked you why you did it, you said ‘Everyone else was doing it?’ And if your mother was anything like mine she probably then said ‘If everyone else was jumping off a cliff, would you do that too?’
This is called peer pressure, and we’re very conscious of it in the context of teenagers. If you have teenage children yourself you’re probably very aware of how it affects them. But have you ever thought about how it affects you now?
As adults we’re supposed to be able to make our own decisions, and most of the time we do. But an awful lot of the time, if we’re really honest, a big driver for what those decisions are is peer pressure.
Sometimes it’s not called that. It can be called motivation, or holding you to account, or advertising. Posts on Facebook about whether you’ve set any goals for this week/month/year or what you’re doing to look after yourself this year are peer pressure. An advert telling you that this face cream will make you look younger, prompting you to think ‘Ooh, I’d better get some then’ even though *89% of 75 women agree, which is really not very many people, is peer pressure. Someone looking at you critically when you say you aren’t going to the BLM rally, or met a friend for coffee even though it’s lockdown, is peer pressure. In its extreme form it’s called emotional blackmail. (For more details, see any advert trying to encourage you to donate to a charity).
Peer pressure has its place. It made drink-driving unacceptable, abolished slavery, promoted equal rights and brought about the signing of the Magna Carta. However it also vilified homosexuality, created three generations of smokers and held back the cause of women’s suffrage for anywhere up to 60 years depending on what you read. So it’s definitely a two-edged sword. This time last year it was staying at home and clapping for the NHS. Then it was BLM. Now it’s the Covid vaccine.
What is peer pressure?
Peer pressure is anything that tries, intentionally or otherwise, to make you feel bad about something you are or are not doing. Everyone is doing this, it says. If you aren’t, there must be something wrong with you. In advertising this is called Fear of Missing Out, and it’s the basis of every single advert everywhere. People who have this product are cleverer, happier, handsomer, healthier and richer than you are, and probably love their kids and the planet more than you do. Better get some of that action right away.
When it comes to what kind of face cream you use, that doesn’t matter all that much. It’s not quite so good when it comes to encouraging you to buy the latest iPhone even though you can’t afford £1000 for a box that does exactly what the slightly larger box on your desk does. If it’s encouraging you to take up drugs or something equally harmful, that’s bad. And when it destroys your comfort by promoting guilt, self-reproach and abuse of others, that’s really awful.
Can it really do that?
Absolutely it can. Cast your mind back to the Facebook discussion about BLM. Any dissenting voice was a closet racist. (A fabulous example of closed-minded thinking if ever there was one). People who didn’t agree loudly enough were closet racists. Very upsetting.
I was in a discussion last week with two other people about the Covid vaccine. One is against it. The other is trying to make an informed choice but is so bemused by all the information, misinformation and peer pressure on the subject that they’re too paralysed by the fear of making the wrong decision to make any decision at all. Whatever they decide there will be people only too happy to tell them they’re stupid, irresponsible and possibly mentally ill to consider it.
Even positive peer pressure, to take up more exercise or reduce your carbon footprint or organise your underwear drawer, can be harmful if you take it too much to heart. All these things suggest, sometimes in the sweetest, kindest way, that you aren’t quite good enough the way you are and need to be better. This is bollocks.
If you want to take up exercise or file your socks by colour, then fine. Peer pressure is a great way of helping you stick to that when you’re in a hurry or it’s raining. If you don’t really want to, then at best all peer pressure is going to do is leave you feeling vaguely dissatisfied with yourself. At worst, it destroys your sense of self-worth. I said I was going to file my socks by colour, but now look! There’s a blue pair in with all the black ones! I’m so rubbish I can’t even maintain a sock filing system! You forget that you only said you were going to do it in the first place because your friends all said they were, and now you’re lying awake at night thinking about all the other things in your life that are crap and how it’s all because you can’t keep your blue socks and your black socks apart.
I’m exaggerating for effect (which is a recognised comedy tactic) but there’s more truth in it than this flippancy suggests. Peer pressure can generate guilt, promote abuse and normalise envy. You do not need these things in your life if you’re going to be happy and emotionally healthy.
To avoid falling victim to unhealthy peer pressure, do these things:
Stay true to your own values
Keep a flexible mindset and be open to learning
Decide who's opinions matter to you and disregard anyone else's.
And most importantly, make your own decisions. Whatever you do there will be people who agree with you and people who don’t. Most of those people, particularly on the bottom end of Facebook, don’t matter. Nobody else is you, so what’s right for them might not be right for you and that’s okay.
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Caeredwen is a counsellor, coach and physical therapist based in Coleford in the Forest of Dean. If this blog has touched you and you would like to contact her in confidence, you can reach her at email@example.com or via her website at www.magichandscalmminds.com.