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Handling Peer Pressure as an Adult

Peer pressure is hard at any age, but it may be even harder as an adult. Peer pressure is defined in the Cambridge Dictionary as “the pressure that you feel to behave in a certain way because your friends or people in your group expect it.” It can be a powerful force.

When you’re a kid, though, you can blame your parents for ‘stopping’ you from engaging in behaviors that are risky, or make you uncomfortable or that you know are wrong. Amy wants you to spend the night even though her parents won’t be home? Emma wants you to sneak out of the pep rally and go to the mall? Greg thinks you should break your curfew? As a teen, you’ve got an easy out – you can’t. Your parents would kill you. In college – you can’t, you’ve got to study. 

As an adult, though? Peer pressure doesn’t go away. What does go away are many of the excuses you could make as a teen or young adult. As an actual adult, there are fewer excuses, so what do you do?

One choice is to give in. In some cases, peer pressure can be a good thing, a great thing, even. Examples of behaviors people under the influence of good peer pressure might undertake include meeting up with friends to walk during a lunch break, going to an after-work yoga class instead of happy hour, spending less money or joining a book club and reading more. A positive peer group can help someone stop smoking or swearing or biting their nails.

Negative peer pressure is a different story. We can all think of an example of having been pressured into doing something we either didn’t really want to do, or something we knew for a fact was not the right thing to do. Caving to peer pressure could be something relatively small, maybe spending more money than you’d budgeted on a shopping trip with friends, to behaving in an unkind way by ostracizing someone at work or more dangerous behavior like drinking too much and then driving home or doing drugs. In extreme cases, succumbing to peer pressure can lead to adopting a lifestyle that is beyond your means, putting the people and things you hold dear in jeopardy or changing the way you think and speak in order to fit in with an unhealthy crowd.  

Peer pressure can take a number of forms. Verbal/ spoken peer pressure is when someone tells or directs another person to do something. He or she will use language designed to persuade that person to do something. They may apply verbal pressure in a one-on-one situation, but they may also use pressure tactics in a group setting. It’s harder to say no or decline the request in front of a group. This is true for young people and adults.

Unspoken peer pressure happens when a person or group of people engages in a behavior and you’re left to decide whether or not to follow suit. Maybe you’re at a party and someone offers the group some drugs, or maybe your already-tipsy friend calls his wife and lies about where he is in order to stay out later. You must make an on-the-spot decision, and that can be hard.

Indirect peer pressure is subtle but can still be toxic. Maybe you overhear some gossip about another person and your behavior toward them changes based on the gossip alone.

Or maybe you hear that part of getting promoted at your company is based on being ‘one of the guys’ and engaging in binge drinking or using unethical tactics to beat the competition for a project.


How to avoid the trap of peer pressure:

Assert Yourself

Maybe your parents encouraged you to stand up for yourself as a child, or maybe you’ve helped your own kids learn to say no when something feels wrong to them. As adults, we may need to remind ourselves that just because someone else thinks something is a good idea, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for you. Even if it’s someone you think is really cool. So don’t be afraid to be assertive in your responses. Assertive is not rude, it’s clear. And being clear is polite. 

If you feel someone is pressuring you to do something that is not healthy or is wrong, take a deep, calming breath, look her (or him) right in the eye and just say “No.” Or “No, thank you.” Or “Not my jam, but thanks for the invite.”  If you feel that you need to explain yourself consider using language like “I think, I will, I want.”  Examples: “I think I’ll pass.” “I will need to think about that.” “I want to build more down-time into my schedule, so I think I’ll pass.”

If the person pressuring you is someone you know well, you can probably anticipate what they may say or do. With that in mind, you can plan (or even rehearse) how you will respond. Map out a short script. Find an ally who will agree with your decision and talk it through with them.

Take a minute to find your center.

Ask yourself: 

  • Does this feel right to me? Say you’re trying to make a decision about buying a new house and it’s a bit out of your budget. Ask whether the house is truly right for your family, or whether you just feel pressured to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ and move into a bigger or better place? If you’re thinking about a new job, ask yourself if the new one will be fulfilling to you? Are you possibly only considering it to make someone else happy? 
  • What makes you feel good about yourself?
  • Does this option improve your health, your financial situation or your well-being?
  • What direction do you really want your life to head?
  • Are you more susceptive to negative peer influence when you're in a particular mood?

When you aren’t sure how to proceed, take some time to locate your moral or inner compass. Your unique true north. Be still and see how the situation makes your body feel. In many cases, your physical reactions will offer you insight about what the best decision is for you. To tap into this, think about the question at hand and notice how your body responds. Does your stomach drop? Do you feel tense or relaxed? When faced with a decision, try to give yourself some time to figure out what feels right to you, and only you.


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