Ways to feel healthier by saying “no” when we need to:
It’s the third pandemic winter, and I admittedly did not make it fully through Dry January.
And it got me thinking about triggers for our addictions as adults, like alcohol or chocolate. There are many times when it’s easy to say, “I’m good”—but we don’t.
In middle school and as teenagers, peer pressure was more widely talked about. Parents and everyone else would warn us about the dangers of bad influences if we hung out with the wrong crowd. Why, as adults, is it still hard to apply those same principles to our everyday lives?
We are often worried about our desire to be accepted because social support is key to our survival. And sometimes, we do things that make us feel like we fit in. Adopting similar values, beliefs, and goals, or participating in the same activities as our friends, is something we’ll always do, whether we’re 15 or 50 years old.
For example, while a 15-year-old may respond to peer pressure by wanting the newest brand of jeans, the same pressure may influence a 50-year-old to buy a new car or to keep up with the Joneses. We can also be pressured into living a life that is not authentically ours or strive for some “success” as defined by someone else.
Yet, peer pressure is neither good or bad. One the one hand, it can help us eat healthier foods or exercise more, and on the other, it can drive us to get way too drunk.
It’s often discussed in our teenage years because that’s when we’re finding out who we are and want to be—and we often adopt the routines of our desired group or circle. This can vary from joining a group smoking cigarettes after school, to meeting up with those who opt to run cross-country. As adults, we face similar choices, especially when we must cope with whatever we’re facing. We can either numb it with addictive behavior or engage with our pain in a healthy and constructive way. Addictive behavior is, well, addictive for a reason. Conforming to our addictions or egos can be a help or a hindrance.
Our need to conform is totally normal. A famous social experiment on social conformity in the 1950s involved 50 male students from Swarthmore College (more details here) who participated in a “vision test.” In short, the study found individuals conformed with a clearly incorrect majority one third of the time. We’re wired to want to impress people in social settings.
That’s why it’s hard, sometimes, when an individual wants to make a life change, and others in their lives do not accept it. Instead of offering support when someone is working to make a significant life change, like to stop smoking or drinking, some people create a sense of guilt or even shame for them wanting to do something differently.
It’s like a movie scene with zombies where the person who has fallen behind is trying to escape the undeads’ hands. When they cannot escape, they are grabbed hold of by the mass of zombies and pulled down. If we don’t know how to deal with the pressure of others’ opinions, we can internalize their projected wants and self-sabotage by ultimately giving up our goals and reverting to old bad habits.
As mentioned, conformity or peer pressure can be good or bad. It’s proven to be especially helpful when people try to be healthier or learn a new skill. According to a 2005 study from Brown Medical School and Dartmouth University, teaming up with someone who is serious about dieting and has successfully lost weight on their own increases our chance for weight loss success. We often need someone to hold us accountable—a person or partner who can offer us advice and support to keep us going when want to give up.
When we make positive choices, we influence our partners, who make their own positive choices, which influences us back, creating and completing a positive influence loop. If we’re with the right person and achieve our short-term successes, that then ultimately determines both of us achieving our long-term goals. This is also known as “positive peer pressure.” So, peer pressure can be a positive influence, like calling friends when we want to give into an unhealthy craving.
While it’s great to support each other’s positive efforts, it’s hard to always have someone to rely on to help us achieve our goals. So how can we still maintain our courage to say “no” when we need to?
Here are three tried and true ways to respond to peer pressure:
1. Say no, assertively:
This definitely happens when we’re teaching our kids how to deal with peer pressure (like we learned with D.A.R.E.) but it’s true for adults, too. When someone is pressuring us to do something unhealthy, they are often seeking validation for their own reckless or unhealthy behavior. When we say “no” with eye contact and conviction, they often step away from pressuring us. If they want further explanation, using “I” language (i.e. I think, I feel, I want) helps them understand why we’re opting out.
2. Validate who we are and the choices we make:
“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”
~ Frank Outlaw (often misattributed to Gandhi or Lao Tze)
Our ego is a powerful thing and we’ll always question our choices. What matters in the end is not how much we grapple with our egos, but whether the active choices and efforts we make reflect our values.
Cultivating self-confidence when you’re feeling down is a powerful way to tap into our inner values. One tip that has worked for me when I’m feeling blue is to make a list about what I’ve done and who I am. So often, we focus on what’s next—but taking time to reflect and acknowledge what we’ve done already helps to remind us of why we’re worthy of any future change.
3. Find your positive vibe crew:
When we become adults, our social circles grow beyond recess. If we’re with friends who make us feel uncomfortable or alienate us, we can aim to find a more positive group of people. There are so many resources such as MeetUp or Facebook groups that make it easy to find like-minded folks with similar interests.
Severing ties with close friends is hard—and might sound harsh—but taking time to evaluate if the friendship is based on unhealthy behavior or contrasts with your values or goals is important.
What matters at the end of the day is finding the strength to stay true to your own convictions — and that includes saying “no” if we need to.