How Peer Pressure Changes With Age

Hi MR. Just wondering…

Do you ever still feel peer pressured to do things you don’t want to or know you shouldn’t? (I’m in college and the partying is getting to be a lot.) Or does it go away or get better when you get older? And what do you do about it?

– Anonymous

Hi Anonymous.

I often announce my age in pieces where I offer advice or discuss learnings-related personal experience to provide responsible context. For every year of life, it’s assumed but not guaranteed that one grows an inch in wisdom, so I like to let people know where I measure up. The reader can then decide to trust me, ignore me entirely or heed cautiously.

In this case, I am 29. I am not so sure how relevant that information is. What I do know is that peer pressure, as it relates to age and “getting older,” is similar to acne: it vanishes entirely in areas where it had consistent prominence during adolescence. It appears in new, unexpected territories at the start of 20. In some “adult” cases, it is just as infuriating if not paralyzing as it was during teenage years. Other times, it is present but manageable — easy to ignore, even — because, finally, we have the tools, strength and emotional capacity to deal with it.

The difference between peer pressure and acne is that there are people who will be blessed with perfect skin for all of eternity, but everyone experiences peer pressure, again and again, over the course of a hundred ages, across a million degrees of variation. Where drugs and alcohol are concerned, some will have a harder time than others. Some will find themselves struggling in social situations where it feels their personal codes of ethics are compromised. Some will feel peer pressure in areas of appearance, or social media performance, or love or career or success. Remember that peer pressure is not always some slick guy in a leather jacket offering virgin lungs a cigarette. We all have our own demons and achilles’ tendons. It’s part of the human condition.

So yes. I still feel peer pressure, but it looks different at 29 than it did when I was in college. Things that would have had more influence on my decision-making back then now feel laughably insignificant. My personal experience has proven that people care less about what you do and far more about how they’re being perceived. Once you realize everyone’s self-conscious, it becomes easier to prioritize your own track.

You’ll care less about potential social damnation once you leave behind the confines of a school system. I assure you that as your post-collegiate world becomes a priority, you will barely remember the name of the popular girl who encouraged you to chug (or whatever it was) for the lame consolation prize of an ephemeral Cool Badge. As your life gets busier, friends who encourage you to go against your gut, beliefs and conscience become exhausting, boring and un-fun. At a certain point, it becomes instinctive to pull people into your orbit who support you for your positive endeavors rather than your contributions to the Legends Hall of Fame; in your late twenties, you’ll be so tired by the existential exhaustion of humanhood that you’ll choose the option to nap over nearly everything — so your friends better be friends as fuck.

As for those new pressures, well, you deal with them. At the risk of sounding like a Portlandia-character sex therapist, “what you do about it” is you get to know yourself. Maybe this part does come with age, but you start to become more self-analytical and thoughtfully critical, not in a mean way but as though you were your own advisory board: “Why did I do that? Why do I think like that? What made me crave this particular kind of outside validation?” You start start to parse out what kind of people, friends, (peers), values and lifestyle choices are important to you, bit by bit. I bet you already have. You start to figure out who you want to be “when you grow up,” even if you still feel like a crunchy bug and your ideal future self seems hypothetical and almost out of reach. You start to hold a microscope to who you’ve become thus far, and examine if you’re happy with it. As these things begin to clarify, it becomes more and more apparent what you will and won’t compromise, including those parts of yourself that are vulnerable to peer pressure. Those parts may still quiver, but they’re less likely to break.

Right now, though, given that you’re in the same body of the same age of the same person who wrote this question, next time you feel peer pressured to do something, remember that pressure is relieved by poking holes in the swelling. Sharp tools I’ve previously used include: Will this experience be wholly mine, or someone else’s? Who reaps the benefits? Who bears the consequences? How will this make me feel tomorrow? Will I want to be this person in a year? Would I want to watch this on playback? Do I actually want to do this?

Be kind to yourself, Anonymous. You are doing great.

Feature photo by Keystone View/FPG via Getty Images.

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