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Under Pressure to Hide Your True Self

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As it turns out, the behaviour of people around us is contagious. This is truer the closer these relationships are – we are much more influenced by the attitudes of friends and family than we are by those of strangers.

We often think of peer pressure as a bad thing we should resist, but it can also be a powerful influencer in terms of shifting social attitudes for the better as well.

I recently read an interesting article in Scientific American about the power of social pressure and how it can influence our behaviour.  For example, one 2003 study found:

  • If a person gains weight, the likelihood their friend would also gain weight is 171%
  • When smokers quit, their friends are 36% more likely to also quit
  • Having happy friends increased the likelihood of an individual being happy by 8%

It’s also true that fitting in feels good.  We all want to feel a sense of connection and belonging and these things are hugely important to our personal wellbeing.  The difficulty is, of course, when fitting in means feeling pressured to change parts of ourselves in ways we are not comfortable with.  And feeling under pressure to force yourself to be something you’re not can cause a huge amount of psychological distress.

It’s a no-win situation – we either change (or pretend to change) for the sake of fitting into the group – and feel awful and uncomfortable about not being able to be who we really are – or we stay courageous about our convictions, but experience ostracisation and pay another kind of emotional price for that, too.

So what’s the answer?  I’m really not sure, to be honest. When I was younger, I felt huge amounts of pressure to hide my nerdy and academic interests because they didn’t seem to be shared by the people around me.  I didn’t talk about my love for sci-fi, comic books, and video games with anyone. I share the shows I loved or my love for attending classes and soaking up knowledge anywhere I could. I simply never seemed to have any friends who had the same interests.

But through my 20s, I became a lot more comfortable in my own skin and more confident that being different in some way was okay.  Just the other day a colleague pointed out a nice, but expensive piece of jewelry online.  She asked, “Wouldn’t you like to own that?”  I replied, “Actually, I’d rather have a new Xbox!”  We laughed about it.  I didn’t feel like an outcast.  I felt like I was being genuine and appreciated for that.

And maybe this is the key.  Sometimes a lot of the pressure to conform is external, but I wonder how much of it is internal as well.  I wonder if my friends in my younger years would have accepted me for who I was if I had given them the chance to.

Or maybe my hard-won comfort with who I am helps other people to feel more comfortable being themselves around me, too.  We’ve removed that pressure, together.

But I’m curious – how affected (or unaffected) do you feel by social pressure?

Barbara has a Masters in Health Science and is a registered Counselling Psychologist with the New Zealand Psychologists Board. She is also a full member of the New Zealand Psychological Society and the Institute of Counselling Psychology. She currently works as therapist within a specialist public health service, supporting clients with both mental health and substance use concerns. She is also the part time content manager for DPSN, where she blogs regularly about issues of diversity across all areas of society, but particularly in relation to mental health and addictions

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