When we reach adulthood, we often think that some of the pains of childhood are behind us. But, worries about how we look, the desire to be accepted, sometimes even the willingness to do something just to fit in continue to affect us whether we're teenagers or seniors.
The good news is that there are ways to ensure the people in your life are there to lift you up, rather than bring you down.
Like bumpers in a bowling lane
Health psychologist Shilagh Mirgain explains that the people we surround ourselves with have a major influence on how we feel, think and behave. And that can be a very positive thing.
"I think of these people as being like bumpers in a bowling lane, making sure your choices are in alignment with your values and you don't veer off track," she says.
Trying to lose weight but have trouble fighting off the temptation of that triple chocolate cake? Have trouble refraining from spending too much when you walk into your favorite store? Mirgain shares that surrounding ourselves with people who possess a high degree of self-discipline will help us maintain our own healthy habits when faced with challenging situations.
But sometimes our social group can exert a negative influence as well, and rather than helping us reach new levels of success, they can hold us back.
"Pressure from peers might cause us to feel like we have to keep up with the 'Jones,' pressured into a lifestyle that isn't authentically ours, or leading us to strive for 'success' that is someone else's definition," says Mirgain.
Peer pressure can come out in other ways as well. One situation Mirgain says she's seen countless times is the pushback that can occur when someone works to make significant life changes, like stopping smoking or drinking, starting exercising or losing weight. Rather than offer support, some peers create a sense of guilt or even shame.
"The metaphor I use is a crab in a bucket. Whenever one of the crabs tries to climb out and escape, the other crabs will grab hold and pull him back down. If we don't know how to deal with the pressure, we can internalize it and self-sabotage by giving up our goals and reverting to old habits," she explains.
To help combat the negative pressure, Mirgain offers a few tips.
If you're faced with a decision on how to proceed – whether it's purchasing a new house, taking a new job, or trying to stick with good habits – Mirgain recommends taking some time to find your inner compass.
What feels right to you? Is the house right for your family or do you feel pressured to move into a bigger/better place that might be more expensive? Is the new job one that would be fulfilling to you, or are you taking it because you feel your parents/spouse/significant other would want you to?
What activities make you feel good about yourself?
Can you make a daily choice to invest in your health, your wealth, your well being?
Where do you want your life to head?
Are you more susceptive to negative peer influence when you're in a particular mood?
Your body will give you clues about what is good for you. When you think about answers to the questions, how does your body respond? Does it feel constricted or relaxed? If you're faced with a decision, give yourself some time to figure out what response feels right to you.
Helping kids cope
Shilagh offers tips for helping kids learn to manage peer pressure in our Growing Up Healthy blog. Read her post
If you're a parent, you may have even coached your kids on this tactic. But it's true for adults as well. Be assertive in your responses. When someone is pressuring you to do something unhealthy, use eye contact and say "no" directly. If you have to explain yourself consider phrasing your thoughts in terms of, "I think, I will, I want."
You can anticipate what your friends or family may say or do. Consider rehearsing how you will respond. Plan a script for what you might say and try finding an ally who will support you in your decision.
To paraphrase a speech given by Teddy Roosevelt, it's not the critic who counts, but the person who is actually in the arena striving to do the deeds.
There will always be someone questioning your choices (most parents are familiar with the experience). What really matters in the end is whether the choices you make reflect your values and support your efforts.
"Often, criticism comes from a place of insecurity. Rejecting the status quo and trying to make changes feels to some as though you are rejecting them. But it's not. The choices you make, you are making for your own well-being and it's critical to remember that," says Mirgain.
She recommends creating a list of all the things that make you feel good about yourself. If you're trying to make changes in your life, the list can help remind you of why you're worthy of the changes you're trying to make. This is especially helpful to keep yourself on track when you don't get the support you need from others.
Peer pressure exists for all ages. What matters is finding the strength to stay true to your own convictions.