I started getting good at basketball in high school. I was physically growing into a more athletic body and my hard work in the gym and weight room was finally paying off. I remember it being an exciting time as I made varsity as a freshman and zeroed in on basketball being the one sport I was going to fully dedicate myself to. Enter: peer pressure.
Unfortunately the girls around me didn’t share in my excitement, especially the ones who were slowly watching their ‘best’ status fade away, either because their 5’10” stature in middle school wasn’t really cutting it anymore or because the mall was more important to them than working on their jump shot. So I remember that initial positivity about my success slowly disappearing and jealously, back-biting, and general nastiness taking its place.
The worst part was that I knew I was holding myself back.
My game slowly started getting worse as a result of this negativity. I’d stop shooting and focus only on passing to make other teammates happy. I’d keep my points down on purpose so I didn’t always get called the best on the team and jar the other girls’ egos. As a result, I was miserable, unable to reconcile some of my teammates’ insatiable appetite to watch me fail my own drive to succeed. The worst part was that I knew I was holding myself back. Still, I didn’t know what to do about it.
What was happening in my brain
Looking back, it’s easy to think “Why did I care so much? I don’t even know those people anymore!” But what was happening in my brain at the time was very real. There are two reasons women are potentially more susceptible to peer pressure than men:
1. We have prioritize harmony because of our dependence on groups for survival (think cave women).
2. We are typically smaller physically, so we have adapted to reading people as a way to anticipate a threat (once a biological necessity).
Because of this, a young female pays attention to other people’s reactions earlier on in development and she does so better than males. Research shows that girl babies pick up facial cues up to two years earlier than boy babies. They even start developing mirror neurons—the ability to mimic someone else’s body language—in order to anticipate others’ reactions faster. This mimicking was also once key to survival.
It’s either their happiness or mine. Which do I care about more?
In short, at a young age women start trying to figure out what another person is thinking and anticipate their actions. This survival tactic leads women to care about what other people are thinking and feeling more than men do. There is also more peer pressure because females in general prioritize the group harmony. Men, because of testosterone, are much more comfortable with a hierarchical dynamic. In a female group, collaboration and harmony are more highly valued; in a male group, domination and respect rule.
What changed for me
In retrospect, it felt like the change in me from yielding to defiant happened overnight, though there is no way it did. But I do remember distinctly thinking to myself: it’s either their happiness or mine. Which do I care about more? The answer was crystal clear for me, but it’s not always so easy to simply ask yourself that kind of question. It’s hard to know what will make you happy sometimes, especially for women. And this is why…
The social cost of success
According to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, my experience was not unique. In fact, research shows there is a positive correlation between successful men and likability but a negative correlation for women. While I’ve never been a successful man, I can 100% relate to the fact that success for a woman is not always socially encouraged. And success is sometimes even discouraged by women themselves! So it’s not always easy to tell what will truly make you happy, after all being liked feels pretty good, too, right?
While I do believe women are mostly wired to care more about what other people think and, therefore, are more susceptible to peer pressure, not all is lost. Just because we are more prone to this behavior, doesn’t mean we can’t choose another path. With that in mind, this is my…
5-Step Solution to Dealing with Peer Pressure
Step 1: Awareness
Wanting to be liked is not a weakness unless you let it run your life, seeking approval in every situation and spending your life chasing it. Alternatively, acting like you don’t care but really caring a lot is a recipe for getting yourself in trouble. Acknowledging when you care and what your feeling is okay. Only then will you really have the power and the awareness to choose your actions from a place of power.
Step 2: The simple question
Sometimes knowing what single simple question to ask yourself can help you sort through the muck of your mind and emotions. In high school, mine was obviously “Whose happiness do I care about?” but for you it could be something else, like “Does this action align with the person I want to be?” or “Do these people have my best interest at heart?” or “What will I be most proud of in 10 years?” Asking the right question is just as important as acknowledging there is a question.
Step 3: Gather support
If you act contrary to what other people want, chances are you’ll feel alone. This may cause you to pull in further like a turtle in its shell. Resist that! Instead, find support elsewhere. Find family, friends, chat rooms, or even read books about people who have taken the unlikely path. You aren’t the first person to forge a path outside of what others wanted. Don’t let yourself be fooled, or isolated.
Step 4: Own it every day
Once you make the decision to let go of peer pressure, you have to remind yourself of why you chose that path every day. There will be days you regret choosing your own path; you may be lonely. That’s okay. Remind yourself constantly of the big picture and why you are sacrificing now.
Step 5: Inner armor
Do something to build up your inner strength: Work on your positive self-talk, meditate, journal, whatever you can do. (If you’ve read anything by me, you knew this one was coming. I like actionable tools.)
You are a strong, powerful person, but maintaining inner strength takes work just as it takes work to maintain a strong body. Put in that work and you will see those benefits in all aspects of your life.
Also published on Medium.