I vividly remember my teenage self reassuring me that once I became an adult, I wouldn’t have to contend with peer pressure, that sense of being influenced to change our values, attitudes and behaviours in order to essentially follow the herd so that we are acceptable, liked, and safe from scrutiny.
Peer pressure activates the people pleaser within and pushes the buttons of feelings that based on the past, we associate them with rejection, embarrassment or even humiliation.
As people pleasers, we are trained (and yes have trained ourselves) to put the needs, expectations, desires, feelings and opinions of others ahead of ours, even if it’s to our detriment. We will significantly inconvenience ourselves and put us in great discomfort just to stop someone from experiencing the discomfort of their own poor boundaries or to protect them from receiving a no.
We often know our values in principle but the moment that we experience the discomfort of saying/showing no whether it’s in actuality or quite simply the thought of doing so, something shuts down and we go into autopilot. It can almost be an out-of-body experience where it feels as if someone else has taken over and we’re not in control. The ‘no’ or what we truly feel or think is frozen and these experiences are often followed by shame.
As a result of peer pressure, we call bullies ‘friends’, go further than we want to on dates, say or show yes when we mean no, hold on to friendships we’ve outgrown, agree to try or do things that we know we don’t want to, pretend to like things that we don’t, forgo the career, interests or passions that we truly desire, and grapple with anxiety, resentment, anger, sadness, depression and loneliness. Yes, after all this peer pressure, we can feel so cut off from who we really are and so afraid of bad consequences that even when we’re surrounded by people, we feel incredibly alone. This will be further accentuated by the self-criticism we batter ourselves with as a result.
Due to how chaotic things could be at home in my teens, falling in with the crowd gave me a level of control, safety and a bit of a boost. I took up smoking at fifteen to appeal to a group of people who I was convinced did not like me. Despite initially hating the taste of alcohol and not liking to feel out of control, I eventually managed to ignore that discomfort because I discovered the confidence boost and escapism it offered me in the toxic relationship wilderness years. But it was drugs that taught me about sticking to my values despite it offering the possibility of rejection.
As the rave and clubbing culture took off, so did usage of ecstasy, speed, coke etc. I was offered drugs many times by friends or even strangers and my insecurity would initially kick in and I would wonder if I should “just do it”, but I would get this feeling–I instinctively knew that it was a bad idea, that I would be in the percentage of people who keel over after trying it, but also that I fundamentally didn’t want to.
Here’s the funny thing: When I felt guilty and insecure about not partaking and as if I was making a judgement about ‘everyone’, I was offered drugs all the time. As soon as I happily owned my decision and stopped carrying on as if I was inferior, incidences became few and far between.