Why peer pressure still affects us as adults

We’ve all had moments where we want to fit in with our friends, colleagues, or community. And sometimes that means we do or say things that aren’t completely true to who we are.

We feel a need to behave in a certain way in order to be part of the group. But why are we so susceptible to peer pressure?

Our need to feel we belong is deeply wired into our bodies and minds. In nature, being part of a group increases the likelihood of finding food and gives us some protection from predators. And as humans we have an added psychological need to connect with others. Not only to be physically in their presence, but to feel that we truly belong with our community.

That need for belonging is born in utero when we form a life-giving connection with our mother. A link that brings us food, warmth, safety, and love. And so it is wired into our brains from the moment we start our human journey, that connection is vital to our own survival.

Any sense of ‘otherness’ or being different can trigger feelings of fear, so we are prone to feeling pressure to fit in in a variety of ways. There are actually six different kinds of peer pressure: spoken and unspoken, direct and indirect, positive and negative.

Spoken peer pressure involves one or more parties verbally trying to influence someone through persuasion, while unspoken pressure is a feeling of obligation or expectation to follow others’ actions, rather than being explicitly asked to do something.

Direct peer pressure is overt and can be spoken or unspoken. It often involves some kind of behaviour or request that puts the recipient in a position of having to make an on-the-spot decision to comply. Indirect peer pressure is more subtle and is experienced when someone feels swayed by popular opinion. They are not directly asked to do something, but feel a need to go with the group consensus in order to be accepted.

All of the above can result in either positive or negative peer pressure. For example, if the influence leads someone toward risky or compromising behaviours it would be considered negative, but if it has a healthy outcome such as deterring someone away from such risky behaviours, it would be considered positive.

As adults, we may assume we are passed the point of being prone to peer pressure. That it is something teenagers are more likely to experience. But peer pressure is not age-specific and can affect us at any stage of life. Maybe as adults we have grown passed the phase of racing hormones and self-consciousness at our very existence, but peer pressure doesn’t evaporate, it just changes form. Like working late because we feel we need to fit in with company culture and prove our worth. Or changing our image to adhere to a social idea of beauty. Or even going along with our family’s expectations so we don’t disappoint them.

The ways we compromise ourselves for others are numerous and can be less than obvious. While it is good to be flexible sometimes, we also need to have boundaries and be mindful that we are meeting our own needs. And to do that, we need to be true to who we really are.

The question is, while we may want to be liked and appreciated, can we achieve real acceptance and connection if we are not being our true selves? Where we alter some aspect of ourselves in order to fit in with others, we are masking our true personality. Therefore any connection we build on that is based on an alternative less authentic version of us. It might seem that we fit in because we gain peer approval, but can we be our genuine selves in that situation?

True belonging comes from being accepted as our whole, real self. While we cannot force others to like or accept us as we are, we can choose whom we stay friends with, where to focus our energy, and what relationships are good and healthy for us. We can also take ownership of where we are willing to compromise and where we draw the line.

So when we feel peer pressure, maybe we should try standing our ground and see what happens. If we are not accepted, maybe those people are not right for us. But if we are accepted, then our sense of belonging might be better than we could have ever imagined.

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