Peer Pressure: Not Just for Teenagers Anymore!

After doing a Google search for “peer pressure,”  I found mostly articles about teenagers, advice from parents to teenagers, tweens and the like.  What about us suburbo-types?  Peer pressure really is about comparison:  comparing ourselves to others, then freqently finding ourselves coming up short.  When we do this, our “monkey brain” (as my occupational therapy colleague calls it) takes over.  Monkey brain is assuming the negative, jumping straight to conclusions without intermediate steps.  Take this morning at yoga…

I took my usual 8am yoga Saturday class, and there were announcements that the 10am class was full after the sign-up had been filled to capacity (so you know, there is not usually a pre-sign up for class, nor is it usually completely filled).  I wondered what was going on, and I read a posting in the locker room that said there was a postural clinic available with this class.  I went straight to monkey brain… Why didn’t I know about this, I’m here at least three times a week?  Who was invited?  Why wasn’t I?  What am I missing?  They must not like me.  Why don’t they like me? Then I saw a huge stream of other yogi’s I know coming in the door.  This only intensified the monkey in my brain.  I heard that chimp screeching and jumping up and down and going into full-on histrionics.  What the hell is going on and why am I not a part of it??!!  All Zen obtained during class:  out the fucking window.

Or you may be familiar with the peer pressure from these little snippets overheard in suburbia:

“Both my kids are taking piano lessons at home.  We just really believe music should be introduced early in their lives.  Do you want the teacher’s number?”

You:  (okay, me):  My kids aren’t taking piano.  Should they be taking piano?  Are they already behind?

“Where are your kids going to (preschool, middle school, gymnastics lessons etc.)?”

You:  I haven’t even thought about this yet!  What’s wrong with me!  I have really screwed up now. 

“My last (massage, botox, facial, laser whatever) was amazing!  I feel so good!”

You:  Shit!  I look old.  That’s why they’re telling me this.  I gotta book an appointment.  Wait, I don’t have any money.  Shit!

To avoid monkey brain and the comforting assertion that we actually have some control over what happens in our lives, we attempt to straighten the fuzzy edges and smooth the wrinkly corners.   In other words, we want to be the most perfect we can be, and mistakenly think others are living the perfect life that is as yet just one treatment, class or dollar out of our reach.  Brene Brown PhD, a researcher at the University of Houston, suggests that by trying to straighten the blurry line, we are keeping meaning from our lives.  We are numbing ourselves from the discomfort of unpredictability.  She says we attempt to make the uncertain, certain.  This is obvious in the unbelievably toxic political discourse in our country:  I am right and you are wrong.  Period.  The End.  From this vantage point, how is a relevant conversation supposed to happen?  No wonder I get all sweaty if someone brings up politics in book club or while we are waiting for our kids to get out of school.  The idea of trying to get someone to your side is exhausting and potentially relationship ending.  Ick.

Brown also believes we numb ourselves of our lack of control by perfecting ourselves, or worse, our children.  For ourselves, we go in for a “mommy makeover.”  Okay, don’t even get me started on the mommy makeover terminology because I find it deplorable.  Why do we need plastic surgery simply because we are mommies?  Hey if you want plastic surgery, go right ahead but don’t suggest it’s what I deserve because I stretched my body to accommodate a baby.  That was part of the deal for me, and as far as I’m concerned it was well worth it.   As for our children, we save them far too often from struggle.  I catch myself doing this as well.  It’s not easy to see your child flail and contort against pain and conflict, but it’s how they learn.  It’s our job as parents to lovingly inform our children that life is full of challenges, and that they are worthy of the love and guidance it takes to face them.

Lastly, Brown states that we do a good amount of pretending in order to protect us from uncertainty.  We think that what we do does not affect other people.  That if we put up walls and tuck ourselves away, we are in some way protecting ourselves from the big bad outside world, and from all the pressures that weigh on us.  Actually, what we do has a huge effect on the community at large.  In light of all this, let’s kick this baby into gear and figure out how to live a “whole-hearted” (Brown’s term) life.  This means living without shame, not being afraid to be flawed and releasing pre-conceived notions about what you or your children should be.  She suggests we do the following:

1.  Show up.  Let yourself be seen.  Be vulnerable and open to not being perfect.  You can compare yourself to others if you want, just be aware you may stumble and fall.  Isn’t it comforting to know that even if you screw up, that will lend itself to making you feel like a more authentic you?  That your failures and missteps are in fact badges of honor?  Think about the last insprirational book you read or movie you saw.  Was it about someone who got everything they wanted and was a master of everything?  I know you, you are way more complex than that.  Even Rocky got his ass kicked.

2.  Love with your whole heart.  Open yourself to new experiences and people.  Stop thinking you have to hold back.  Your brain becomes stronger each time you do something new.  More neurons not only fire but are created.  Think of it as your defense against Alzheimers. (Okay, I don’t know if that’s totally true.)  I remember being told in occupational therapy school that you shouldn’t get too attached to your patients, that you shouldn’t cross boundaries and always maintain professionalism.   All very valid points.  But I can’t help telling my little kiddos at work that I love them and give them hugs and kisses.  They’re just so beautiful, I can’t help it!

3.  Practice gratitude and joy.  There are great ideas for these everywhere.  Create a “no technology” day where you just spend time together outside.  For Christmas this year, we did a gratitude chain.  We shared things we were grateful for at the end of every day.  It got long enough to hang all the way around the Christmas tree a couple times.  Do your scrapbook, make a quilt, take the dog for a walk; whatever makes you smile.  Email me ideas, I’d love to hear them.

4.  Believe you are enough.  Because you are.

Peer pressure is partly our brain’s way to try and win the race and conform to groupthink.  But it doesn’t have to be.  It’s nice to know that there are ways to overcome monkey brain and the seething judgment it inflicts on both ourselves and other people.  Imagine the lessons it will teach you and your children.

Now if only I knew what was going on at that fucking yoga studio…