Humans are social beings. We all want to belong, to be part of a tribe. Without this wiring, the human race may not be as prosperous as it is today.
Fitting in is fine as long as it doesn’t come at the cost of our identity. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to see when the decisions we make aren’t our own.
Why did I take part in gossiping about someone else? Why did I feel the need to buy a name brand over a cheaper alternative? Why did I spend money I didn’t have and take on debt? Part of the reason is peer pressure or the desire to impress our tribe.
The pull of social acceptance is strongest when our own identity is the weakest. When we are trying to figure out who we are, we are at the most risk to fall to this pressure.
During this time we value conformity when authenticity is what the world needs. We want to fit in when standing out gets us so much more in the long run. We tiptoe our way through life by doing things to please others, not because it’s what we want. Over time our actions, appearances, and lives become a reflection of what others want, not what we want.
One defense I’ve found is to always be on the lookout for those that are living different lives. These people have found a way to push back on the pressures of the tribe. These are people I can learn from.
Imagine you had some friends who quit their jobs, sold their house and hiked around the country for a few years. They lived in a tent, carried all their supplies and left society as we know it for months on end. What would you think?
We have friends like this, and I can tell you what I thought when I first heard what they were doing. I thought they were crazy! Who does that? It was one of the strangest things I’ve ever heard.
With time my opinion changed. They weren’t insane, they were lucky. They were living life on their terms. They saw parts of the country that few would ever pass. They were free from the trappings of the world. They could make their own decisions without outside pressure. They experienced a life few will ever have.
It’s a good thing they didn’t listen to what people thought about their crazy idea. Think of all they would have missed if they fell victim to that pressure.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to see the dangers of conformity. It has a way of lulling us into a trance, and we end up making decisions that aren’t our own.
Nowadays I get most energized when I’m going against the grain. If I’m doing something that others think is a little nuts, I know I’m on the right path.
A lot of people thought we were crazy to put our kids in an alternative school. My only regret is that we didn’t do it sooner.
Down the road, I want to take the entire family and live in a different country for 3-6 months. People may not say it, but I’m sure they will think I’ve lost my mind.
I can be confident in these decisions because I know they are my own. I’ve thought long and hard about what matters and that guides my thought process. By focusing on my personal opinions, it’s easier to ignore those of everyone else.
A few other tools to help
I’ve learned a few other things along the way that help me deal with peer pressure.
Just say no.
When I was a kid, there was a national advertising campaign against the war on drugs. It taught kids a way to “just say no.” This simple phrase applies to a lot of life’s choices. The trick is having the courage to say it.
It can be hard to stare someone in the eyes and say no. In times when I couldn’t find the courage to say the right thing, I would try to remember to turn and walk away.
When I was in high school, I had a good sense of what would happen at certain parties. Some would be a blast and others would likely get out of hand. These were the ones I tried to avoid. In my mind, it wasn’t worth the consequence to put myself in that situation.
Rely on true friends
There is safety in numbers. By having friends that share the same values, it’s easier to deal with peer pressure.
Think for myself
Often negative opinions come from a person’s self-doubt and insecurity. Because of this, it can be hard to understand someone’s motivation.
Before I listen to someone else, I try to develop my own opinion first. Once that is firmly planted in my mind, I can better handle the opinions of others.
Use it for good
There are times when peer pressure is a good thing. Back in college, I would study with some of my classmates. This approach helped make sure I put in the right amount of time to do well in school. I also used this method to get in shape. A friend and I committed to working out together three days a week. That pressure kept me going to the gym for months.
Peer pressure doesn’t always have to be spoken. Often times, I’ve questioned myself before someone else has a chance. The little voice in my head is just as harmful as a bully on the playground. It’s crazy to think, but the opinion we often need to ignore first is our own.
When I started writing these letters, I thought about sharing them publicly. My first thought was “no way!” Why would I put myself out there like that? Why would I give other people the chance to ridicule?
I decided to ignore that little voice, and I’m glad I did. This process has helped me live this life lesson and given me so much more. Yes, it’s uncomfortable to share some of these stories, but it is also liberating. These letters capture what I believe and who I am. If people don’t like it, I can’t do anything about that. I won’t change who I am to make someone else happy.