“If Sally jumped off a cliff, would you?”
“I don’t care what Kimmy’s gets to do. Kimmy’s parents are not your parents.”
“I don’t care if Jane did it first. You aren’t Jane.”
My parents said things like this to me a lot when I was a kid. When I followed the lead of my friends, just because they were doing it, even if I knew my parents wouldn’t approve. When I wanted to go places or do things that my friends got to do, but I wasn’t allowed. When I begged my parents to buy me clothes or other things that my friends had, so I could have them too. At the time when they said these things to me, I thought it was so unfair. I was too young to realize that they were teaching me to think and act for myself instead of following the crowd, and to make good choices based on the values they were instilling in me. I never knew how valuable these lessons were until I got older.
Peer pressure stinks. It starts so young that you don’t even know what it is. The older you get, the worse it gets. It is the second worst part of being a teenager (the worst is teenage acne, in case you are wondering). When you’re a teenager, peer pressure is everywhere – pressure to wear the right clothes, hang out with the right people, and get invited to the cool parties. And often, even when you give in to the pressure, you don’t end up with the results that you hoped for.
When I was in 5th or 6th grade, there was this one girl who started to hang out with my group of friends. She was perfectly nice, but someone in our group got it in their head that this other girl was “following” us around and that she was annoying. All it took was one person saying it and soon, every single one of us had followed their lead and gone along with characterizing this girl as an annoying hanger-on. She had to put up with a lot of crap that she didn’t deserve. She just wanted to fit in, and no one would let her. None of us had the guts to say no or stand up for this girl, who really wasn’t doing anything wrong. She liked us even though we didn’t deserve to be liked. I hate to think of how unaccepting we were. In high school, I ended up working with this girl and we actually became real friends. But I always had to live with the guilt of how that group of us had treated her those years earlier. I am lucky that she was clearly a bigger person than me, and able to forgive us for how we had acted.
When I was in high school, Abercrombie & Fitch was ridiculously popular (also, for those who remember, it was ridiculously expensive). You just couldn’t be cool if you didn’t have “Abercrombie & Fitch” written across your t-shirt or their signature pocket designs on your jeans. I begged and begged for clothes from Abercrombie & Fitch. My parents refused to buy them, saying that it was a waste of money to pay for a name. I was desperate to have them, so I eventually saved up enough of my own money for one t-shirt and a pair of jeans from Abercrombie. But guess what? Having those clothes didn’t make the popular kids like me any better. Also, being expensive didn’t stop the rhinestones from falling off my shirt or holes from wearing in my pricey (but cheaply made) jeans. I can look back on it now and wish I’d listened to my parents. It was a colossal waste of my money, and giving into the pressure to be like everyone else didn’t get me anything that I wanted.
And then there was college. My sophomore year, we went to a Halloween party. I have never been big on costumes and didn’t know what to dress up as, but I did know that most of the other girls going to the party were just using Halloween as a reason to show way too much skin. So I bought some tight jeans and a revealing tank top, even though that is totally not my thing. I was not comfortable in those clothes, but I was wearing the same thing as all the other girls, so I thought I was safe. Instead, one of my friends made fun of my outfit in front of everyone. It was a tough lesson to learn, but a lesson learned nonetheless. You can do all the right things to fit in and still not fit in. It’s so much better to just be yourself.
Luckily, after I got past those teenage years, I found that peer pressure started to let up a little. The older I get, the less I notice it, to the point where I’ve reached my mid-twenties and don’t really feel much peer pressure at all. I think it was after college that it really let up, but I can’t pinpoint any specific event that changed things. Part of it is me being a little selfish – thinking of myself, rather than the people trying to tell me what choices I should make. Outside of my parents and Nathan, I don’t really give a rat’s ass what anyone else thinks. So when I make my choices now, I ask myself what is in it for me. Will I reach my goals or be the kind of person I want to be if I make certain choices? Will it benefit me financially, physically, spiritually, or emotionally? Who cares about the designer on the label; the important question is, will it make my butt look good? I also reached a point where doing what everyone else is doing has become somewhat of a turn off, to the point where I will actually avoid certain things specifically because other people do them.
These days when I feel peer pressure, it comes in different forms, and it’s usually easy to say no. Like when I met up with a friend from high school who exclaimed, “I can’t believe you’re still driving your Toyota!” Yes, I drive my 13 year old car from high school instead of a shiny new car like so many people I know. You know what? It runs fine, and I don’t have a car payment. I’ll chalk that up as a win. Or like when I deleted my Facebook account, and I had a lot of people tell me all the other actions I could take to keep the account and avoid deleting it. I couldn’t believe how many people tried to get me to stay, or to just deactivate my account temporarily so that I could come back later. But I made up my mind that I was done with Facebook, and I refused to let anyone talk me out of something that I felt so strongly about.
Don’t get me wrong – I am not trying to say that my choices make me superior to anyone else, or that I am immune to peer pressure. From time to time something does come up, and it’s not always so easy to ignore it. I feel a lot of pressure sometimes seeing people my age (or even my sisters’ age) in a different stage of life with babies and houses and all that stuff. I compare myself to them, and it makes me think I am falling behind and I get all freaked out. Sometimes it takes me a little while to remember that we all have different paths, and things happen when the time is right. We have very good reasons for not having a baby or a house right now, and we have a lot of other positive things in our life that the people who settled down early don’t have. (And most importantly, I can rest assured that I won’t ever be a 40 year old grandmother). Once I get back to thinking about it rationally and realistically, I regret ever having let the pressure get to me in the first place. Because the truth of the matter is that I would much rather blaze my own trails in the world than follow someone else’s path.
Now, I didn’t tell you all these personal and embarrassing stories just for fun, so let’s get to the bigger point. I have always assumed that since peer pressure faded for me as an adult, and it became so much easier for me to say no to things, that it must be the same way for everyone else. But there have been several instances with people in my life lately that have made me realize that it is not so easy for everyone. A lot of adults still feel peer and societal pressure, just in different forms.
Some people never grow out of the materialism and never stop comparing their possessions to those of their peers. Instead, they just move from comparing clothes and toys to comparing cars and houses. And in the effort to keep up, too many people end up with cars and houses that they can’t really afford. Someone I know recently admitted to making a huge business decision simply because they saw other people doing something and wanted it for themselves. I thought this was unfortunate, a little sad, and a really bad rationale for an important decision. No one should feel like they have to make huge personal or professional decisions out of fear of being ridiculed, or based the decisions and actions of others. You should feel confident and comfortable enough to make the unique, individual decision that is best for you, your family or your particular business. And if someone is pressuring you to do otherwise, they don’t have your best interests in mind.
Other people just never learn to say no. Which is also sad, but in a different way. The word “no” has so much power if you can say it, mean it, and stand behind it. If you can’t say no, then you risk saying "yes” to actions that you’ll regret later, making commitments that you don’t want to make, or letting people walk all over you. How many times have you or someone you know started a sentence with, “I didn’t really want to, but . . .”? Often, the answer is too many times. Saying no is not easy. It can be really scary to say no. It took me a long time to have the courage to say no and stand behind it, because I would try too hard to be nice or simply didn’t think my opinion mattered. But everyone’s opinion matters – we just have to be brave enough to say it, before it’s too late and we regret not saying anything at all.
I’m not trying to criticize anyone who still feels or concedes to peer pressure, because it’s a really tough thing. I’m also not trying to say that I’m some sort of expert on it, because I’m not. I’m simply making an observation of what I see in the world, and what I want to change. Peer pressure will never be completely eradicated, but we all can pass on the same lessons that my parents passed on to me. My hope for everyone is that they can get to that place where they can live in our society with all its pressure, but not let that pressure define their world. That place where they feel like they can be themselves, make their own choices, and just say no if that that is what they want to do. The place where everyone – young, old, and in between – can look in the mirror and say truthfully that they don’t want to be like anyone else except for the unique individual staring back at them.
In the end, I think that kids and adults both need the same message. Giving into pressure from our peers or society never gets us the end results that we are striving for. It just keeps us from being true to ourselves. Don’t be afraid to go against the grain. It is so much cooler (and easier) to be yourself than to try to be like someone else. Others will respect you more for being yourself. Even if they don’t realize it now, they will later. There is a great quote by the feminist Rita Mae Brown: “The reward for conformity is that everyone likes you . . . except yourself.” There may be a lot of “everyone’s” in the world, but there is only one “you”. And the “you” is the only one that really matters.