photo by Elen Aivali
by Andrea Blundell
Every week you promise yourself you won’t stay for that final drink that leaves you feeling sick the next morning. You really don’t want to. And yet there you are, saying yes again.
Adult peer pressure is alive and well in your life, as is the guilt and self berating that follows close on its heels.
My lizard brain made me do it
Constantly giving in to adult peer pressure does have consequences, which we’ll get to. On the other hand, aiming to always stand up for our needs and desires is unrealistic when our brains are driven to survive and belong.
The ‘lizard brain’ is the (evidently not official) term for the oldest part of our brain. It brings us such delights as the fight, flight, or freeze response, meaning we respond to some work stress with the same vigour as we would to a hungry bear descending.
The lizard brain’s aim is survival. And survival meant being accepted by the tribe, not cast out to said bear. So an occasional ‘yes when we mean no’ can be the result of a primal instinct to avoid being ostracised.
Social psychology sees our need to belong as an ‘intrinsic motivation’, a behaviour we are driven to do as it feels naturally satisfying. And psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous , ‘pyramid of needs’, placed belonging as only third to basic physiological needs and safety.
Good peer pressure vs bad peer pressure
If your friends have decided to get practical about money and save up, and pressure you to join them, it could be a life change in a good way.
And if giving in to peer pressure is a tactical choice as it benefits you, it might not be such a bad thing. For example, if you are shy, or introverted, going along with others at work, for example, can mean you maintain your privacy. At home and with close friends you might very much speak your mind.
Or if you recently experienced a bereavement or trauma, giving in to peer pressure can mean you save yourself the mental and emotional energy of a confrontation or negative attention. You know who you are and what you want, it’s just that right now is not the time for it.
Adult peer pressure becomes a problem when we are not benefitting from it, but are rather aware that we are knowingly going against ourselves.
How to know you have a problem with adult peer pressure
Sure, you occasionally laugh when you don’t find something funny, or agree with something when you deep down don’t. Is it really a big deal?
A real problem with adult peer pressure won’t be something you can just brush off. Notice next time you say yes or are doing something others asked you to. Do you:
Are you or aren’t you vulnerable to peer pressure?
Still not sure? Try the cake test.
Eating and drinking is the place most of us, even the most indecisive, know what we actually do and don’t like.
That introvert in the office who to you seems so malleable might also be the one easily refusing to eat a piece of birthday cake.
Whereas you, telling yourself you are independent as you like to voice your opinions, eat a piece, despite being on a no sugar regime.
And honestly, how many times a week are you doing things you don’t want to in the name of ‘not being rude’ or ‘not causing trouble’?
Why is giving in to adult peer pressure such a big deal?
Giving in to peer pressure as kids and teens is hard. But it’s also part of learning who we are. We are less aware of our personal power and our ability to say no, so. we try things we don’t like, then recognise that it felt bad. Our courage to resist grows.
Adult peer pressure, on the other hand, is more insidious because we know we have personal power and can make choices. So when we say yes instead of no we are left feeling guilty and cross with ourselves. Our self -esteem takes a hit, and we can start to feel helpless to ever change.
In the long term we can drift so far from our own wants and needs that we no longer know what they are. We have identity issues, and use this as an excuse to continue to go along with things. With time this can become an identity crisis or a midlife crisis.
Why am I still always giving in to others?
Issues with adult peer pressure tend to be deep-rooted and go all the way back to childhood, and the ways we learned to see ourselves and the world.
Somewhere along the line you learned your wants and needs don’t count. This can come from parenting where you didn’t receive the unconditional love and safety a child needs and now have ‘attachment issues‘. You learned you have to earn attention and love, and now do that as adult be being ‘pleasing‘.
Childhood trauma can also leave us someone with poor personal boundaries. Either adverse childhood experiences like neglect or instability, or things like sexual abuse, mean we end up with very negative core beliefs about ourselves.
We might not think we matter enough to have a voice in the first place.
Why do some people seem to navigate childhood trauma better than others? There are far too many factors to give an exact answer.
But when it comes to peer pressure, it might be about the age that you receive help. A study published in the journal Develpmental Psychology found that while resistance to peer pressure grew dramatically between the ages of 14 to 18, it tended to flatline between ages 18 to 30.
So if you got to the end of your teen years without any help to recognise your personal value despite trauma, you might be more likely to be an adult who can’t stick up for themselves.
How to handle adult peer pressure
So what can you do if you are a ‘yes at all costs’ person?
1. Learn the power of the pause.
Saying no would be the ideal. But if you never really have, it can be a steep learning curve. And the first step can be to create the space to think and find that no, by becoming a ‘pause person’.
This means asking for time to think when you are asked to do something. Given that those who pressure others often want quick answers, they might also move on to bother someone else and learn to leave you alone.
2. Befriend yourself.
Confidence at saying no is less about feeling inner strength and more about knowing who you are and what you want, to the point that it seems inconceivable to go against such things.
How to get to know yourself? Try things like journalling, mindfulness, and, yes, therapy. And get to know your values.
3. Zone in on values.
Personal values are the things that deep down matter to us, no matter what. If you knew you had ten years left to live, and an unlimited budget, what would you do? Would you move country, start a charity, spend time with family? What do these answers tell you about yourself? Have you been living out your own values, or those of your friends, partner, family?
4. Get out of your comfort zone.
Going along with things can seem ‘do or die’ if we’ve let our world become limited and have a blinded perspective.
Sometimes it can take meeting new people entirely, or putting ourselves in totally different environments, to get a sense of who we are and what we want.
5. Get support.
Again, issues with boundaries tend to run deep. And unpacking how we became so unable to take care of our wants and needs can be tricky. A counsellor or psychotherapist can become an invaluable safe environment and sounding board for recognising and healing old ways of being that no longer serve you.
Time to stick up for yourself and what you want? We connect you with at team of highly experienced and rated London psychotherapists and psychologists. Not in London? Use our booking site to find a UK-wide registered therapist or online counsellor you can chat to from anywhere.
Want to share you tip for handling adult peer pressure? Comment below.
Andrea Blundell is the lead writer and editor of this blog. She’s trained in person centred counselling and coaching.