Be Your Own Woman
All Grown Up
Peer pressure does not afflict only children and teenagers -- we grown-ups are every bit as susceptible. "We like to think that as we mature, we grow to prize our individuality," says Lauren Solotar, PhD, chief psychologist of the May Institute, in Norwood, Massachusetts. "But most of us don't want to stand out. We worry all the time about what others think. You have to be very comfortable with yourself to risk public disapproval."
Americans like to see themselves as rugged individualists, but experts say puh-leaze. "We live in the United States of Generica," says clinical social worker Toni Raiten-D'Antonio, author of The Velveteen Principles: A Guide to Becoming Real (HCI, 2004). "If we don't conform to these generic standards of what we're supposed to be, punishment is heaped upon us from a culture that says we're inadequate if we don't have the right clothes, the right car, the right body -- or the right ideas. These messages swirl around us like toxic gas."
That's not to say that peer pressure doesn't have its upside. Humans are, at heart, amoral mammals: Left to our own devices, most of us would be bathing once a year and eating our neighbors' pets. Happily, there is this phenomenon called civilization, which demands certain niceties of behavior toward our fellow humans. The Ten Commandments may represent the ultimate form of peer pressure, but it's probably useful to feel ashamed of, say, murdering, stealing, or dishonoring your parents.
But those are the Big Issues, the rules that keep society intact. In our day-to-day lives, the pressure to do what we think those around us want can, at minimum, keep us from realizing our potential. At worst, peer pressure can create perpetual anxiety, sink us into debt, turn friends into enemies, and alienate us from our true selves.