Peer Pressure: The Good, Bad, and Ugly

symbolic of social pressure with stick human on red background. One human figure facing several others.

As individuals we like to believe that we are the masters of our destiny; that our choices are unique, and are a representation of who we are. However, human beings influence each other in deep and significant ways. We may be conscious of this influence or not, but it exists.

In fact society influences many major decisions of our life, ranging from where or what to study, to when and who we should marry. Without being constantly aware of it, we live under the influence of some or the other form of social pressure throughout our lives.

This continuous pressure from society to fit in can be overwhelming for many of us.

At times when we do try to follow our inner voice and go against the societal norms, we are met with the famous words: log kya kahenge, which in Hindi means ‘What will people say?’ or its translation in some other language. This is a phrase we commonly hear from older members of family and society.

Not being able to manage such pressure during childhood or adulthood can lead to unfavorable outcomes and adversely impact our mental health.

We try to unpack what peer pressure is and understand its impact in this article.

So what is ‘peer pressure’?

When we think about the term 'peer pressure', we immediately visualize kids sharing cigarettes or having sex, or teenagers doing things the adults or authorities wouldn't approve of. But peer or social pressure goes much beyond.

The way our societies operate is in fact based on peer pressure.

The influence on our mindset and behaviour from a social or professional group is known as peer pressure. Very often it is owing to peer pressure (or social pressure) that we try to fit in and feel accepted by our friends, relatives, and colleagues.

Social pressure manipulates our minds. We end up doing things we wouldn't normally do. It can convince us to dress, act, and behave in certain ways to get acceptance and approval from society.

Illustration of a Teenage Guy Drinking Beer with Hands Cheering and Clapping Around Him.
Drinking and smoking among young adults are often regarded to be the impact of peer pressure

Peer (and social) pressure acts primarily in three ways:

  • Direct: When someone tells us what we should do. For instance, when the older members of family put pressure to marry at a certain age.
  • Indirect: When our friends do some activities together, and we try to fit into the friends' group. For example, drinking alcohol because our friends think its cool.
  • Self-motivated: When we internalize social norms and put pressure on ourselves to conform to them. For example, we may force ourselves to study science or engineering in order to get a high-paying job. It's because we try to fit in with a certain standard of society; standards that society has set over the years.

How can peer pressure affect our mental health?

Whether it is forced or self-motivated, peer pressure makes us do things that we may not have naturally done. It also dissuades us from exploring more options because there is usually one path that is valued by our social groups and is the easiest route to getting their approval.

What this means is that in succumbing to social pressure, we are actually going against our own inner desires, wishes, and even nature. It’s not hard to imagine that this could have severely negative repercussions and lead to irritability, sadness, and anxiety.

Depressed woman sitting on the floor. She is overwhelmed with peer pressure. There are fingers pointing at her and thumbs down to indicate the lack of soicial approval.
When we do something that we're not comfortable with, it can cause depression and lead to mental health concerns

So how can we cope with social pressure?

Given the powerful and insidious ways social pressure works in, here are a few thumb rules that we can follow to fool-proof ourselves against negative peer pressure.

Value your instincts

We’re often asked to ‘follow our gut feeling’. This advice basically means that we should value our intuition when making important life decisions. When we feel something isn't right about a situation or person, it probably isn't.

It’s important to pay attention to our intuition or gut feeling while listening to our peers, respecting it, and following it.

If something doesn't feel right, avoiding it is the best course of action.

Be assertive

Saying ‘no’ to someone or something is not as easy as it sounds. When we go against peer pressure from our colleagues, society, or friends, saying no becomes even more uncomfortable.

A group of fish swilmming towards a bait, while one fish swimming in the opposite direction. That one fish avoided peer pressure and did not follow the group and saved itself.
Swimming against the tide and resisting social pressure can be very hard, but has the potential for great results

However, saying no with firmness is an important skill to hone. When you're feeling uncomfortable with a situation, let others know that and refuse to go ahead with it.

Being mentally strong and communicating our stance can help us deal with the challenges of such pressure.

Accept yourself completely

Society expects many things from us: a good job, a high salary, a successful marriage, children at the right age; and the list goes on and on. However, we have to realize that we cannot and need not fulfil societal expectations.

We don't have to please others to find acceptance from them. Embracing our true selves, exploring our values, and our preferences first, is critical.

This acceptance may in fact lead to true success of a unique kind that is in alignment with our real selves.

Choose your friends wisely

There is a saying that we are the average of the five people we spend time with. Hence, choosing friends wisely can save us from negative peer pressure.

We all have different choices and values. Making friends with people who respect your decisions and acknowledge the differences is critical to our mental and emotional well-being.

Ending toxic relationships and friendships with people who sap us of our energy is also an important step to take.

Ask for help

It can be challenging to avoid pressure from society, friends, and family. Being mentally healthy and learning to say 'no' doesn't happen overnight. We may also be surrounded by people who we cannot avoid and who constantly overwhelm us with their expectations.

In such situations it is vital to seek help. Timely support from a mentor, friend, or a mental-health professional can enable us to overcome the challenges of such pressure.

Not all peer pressure is negative

While excessive and unreasonable peer pressure impacts our mental health negatively, not all peer pressure is negative. At times this same pressure can also be beneficial and have a positive angle to it.

Peers play a vital role in bringing a positive influence into our lives. If the people we spend time with are goal-oriented or committed to their work, it influences us to be like them.

Similarly, peers who are honest, kind, and loyal inspire us to build these qualities in ourselves. For example, when we watch our friends take brave decisions, work hard, practise a skill dedicatedly, or work for meaningful and important causes, it encourages us to do something challenging and meaningful as well.

In our work-life too, we can learn and imbibe positive attributes from our colleagues. This kind of influence is not pressure. It is aspirational and can energize us in the process.

It’s only when we resist social pressure and have the courage to do something different that we also have the chance to become leaders.
Group of people and dog surrounding and hugging or embracing young woman. Friends' support, care, love and acceptance and true friendship
One’s peer group can also be a very positive influence and a great support system

The flip-side of negative peer pressure and bullying is being a cheerleader for your friends and family. Becoming an accountability buddy to someone and helping them pursue their goals and dreams is a great example of positive peer pressure.

Wrapping up

Nearly all of us face increased peer pressure at a particular stage in our lives. It's not easy to cope with negative peer pressure. But, when we focus on self-awareness and learn to say no, it becomes easier to handle.

The possibility of taking actual control of our lives and doing what we truly want does exist. As discussed, social pressure is a double-edged sword and has a negative as well as a positive side to it.

As they say, no (hu)man is an island; we are constantly exposed to each other and are bound to be influenced by each other.

Exploring and learning what we really want and resonate with, is important while we navigate and learn from the choices of other people. At the same time it is important to remember to never become the source of negative peer pressure for anyone else.

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Disclaimer: The content provided here is for informational and educational purposes only. Lokyatha has observed best effort due diligence and all health related content is reviewed by a trained professional before publishing. However, this should not and can not replace personalized medical help. Please refer to a professional in all cases of need.