photo by: Priscilla du Preez
by Victoria Stokes
Social pressure can perhaps best be summed up in the iconic words uttered by Rachel in the first season of Friends.
“Everyone I know is either getting married or getting pregnant or getting promoted, and I’m getting coffee! And it’s not even for me!”
And the pressure can feel worse than ever right now, if you are one of the many people who found themselves putting everything off during the pandemic. A recent Stanford study found that up to 68 per cent of us pushed back major life milestones.
What can be done if we constantly feel we are falling behind as our friends succeed?
Is social pressure really a big deal?
When it comes to mental health, yes. Social comparison can cause anxiety, and scupper your self-worth and self-esteem. It might even have a negative impact on your friendships. Or, ironically, leave you with mild depression that prevents you from taking steps towards the milestones you want to achieve.
So then how to stop feeling you are racing to keep up?
It can be easy to get caught up in self-imposed deadlines, believing that you need to achieve things to a certain timescale. But it’s possible to make peace with the feeling of falling behind and even embrace living life at your own speed.
photo by Markus Spiske
1. Catch your thoughts.
Recent research using new formulas for translating brain imaging suggests we have a huge 6,200 thoughts a day. While it’s certainly impossible to notice them all, you can take pause and review the ones that are making you feel bad.
Useful tools here that therapists use with clients include journalling with intention, where you write out your thoughts (without judgement) then ask good questions. This can look like, what is this thought really telling me? Is it actually true? It can help here to learn how to turn a negative thought into a balanced one, which is a technique that is at the core of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
And then of course there is mindfulness. If we commit ten minutes a day or more to ‘listening in’ to our thought and emotions with mindfulness meditation, we can recognise which thoughts really ring true and which ones are just static. It gives us the power to choose a new perspective.
2. Note down your achievements.
Social pressure has a nasty habit of leading you to believe you have to do things by a certain age, a specific deadline, or at the same time as your friends. It can even convince you that you haven’t done anything meaningful or worthwhile, and are a failure when compared to your peers.
We can spend so much of our attention looking to what we haven’t done, and what we feel we should do in the future, we entirely forget all that we actually have achieved.
Make jotting down your achievements at the end of each day a regular habit. Maybe you overcame an unexpected challenge, or aced a new skill. This simple practice reminds you that just because your achievements might look different to someone else’s, it doesn’t mean they are any less valuable.
3. Remove your social pressure triggers.
photo by Yasin Yusuf
When does social pressure rear its head for you? Is it when you’re scrolling through social media, or catching up with an accomplished group of friends? Or when you hear someone close to you has gotten engaged, become pregnant, or bought a house?
Pre-empt these situations and consider how you can either remove the trigger (think closing Instagram and logging out of Facebook), or learn to manage it better.
Of course removing the trigger won’t always be possible. You can’t avoid congratulating a friend on her big news, or walk away from an otherwise great group of friends, simply because you think their lives seem to be moving faster than yours. But you can quietly excuse yourself for a few moments when you need to give yourself space to gather your thoughts.
In these moments, consider having a positive affirmation you can whip out. Affirmations can challenge self-sabotaging thoughts and stop anxiety and negativity in its tracks. This might sound like, “I trust the timing of my life. Everything is working out as it should.”
4. Brain dump your thoughts, feelings, and fears.
Anger. Frustration. Failure. Guilt. Shame. These are just some of the emotions you may experience when social pressure causes your thoughts to spiral. But when you get your thoughts out on paper it can feel cathartic and less overwhelming.
Putting pen to paper can also aid problem-solving, helping you to see solutions you previously might not have thought of, and allow you to notice unhelpful patterns that have been holding you back.
A ‘worry journal’ does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a space for you to ‘dump’ your worries and fears. And it can help you get a handle on the feelings of falling behind by allowing you to interpret things differently.
5. Find what you can control now.
Focussing on what we can’t control leaves us feeling small and anxious. When we instead set a goal that is achievable and realistic, we feel on purpose, and our self-esteem raises.
So no, maybe you can’t have the high-flying career right now, or hotfoot it down the aisle like so many of your friends are doing. But there are stacks of wonderful things you can achieve in the here and now. Learn how to set SMART goals and move forward to feeling better about yourself.
There is no right or wrong way to do life
Whose timeline are you actually trying to keep up with? Is it really yours? Or are you caught up in believing that you have to do things before a certain age, or achieve things at the same time as your friends?
The reality is that there’s no schedule you need to meet. And that that feeling of falling behind can be crushing, but it can also be a gift if you see it as a signal to take a moment to check in with yourself.
Is the feeling of social pressure trying to show you what you need to catch up on? Or is it more that it’s asking you to look at what really want from life? And to remind you to live on your own terms?Use it as a catalyst to redefine what you really want and appreciate where you are right now.
Drowning in the feeling of being a failure? We connect you with some of London’s best talk therapists who understand just how you feel, and can help you move forward. Or use our booking platform to work with a UK-wide registered therapist or online counsellor as soon as tomorrow.
Victoria Stokes is a Belfast-based writer and journalist who has written thousands of articles on mental health, emotional wellbeing and personal development. She is fascinated by the inner workings of the mind and lists espresso martinis and the colour pink among her favourite things. Keep up with her on Instagram @writtenbyvictoriastokes.