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As States Open Up, Peer Pressure Is on the Rise

Young Woman With Face Mask Talking On The Phone
As states open in some form, many people face pressure to socialize.

 ArtistGNDphotography/E+/Getty

Key Takeaways

  • With states opening up, there may be increasing peer pressure to engage in social activities.
  • This can lead to added stress on top of what people are already feeling.
  • It's crucial to do what feels comfortable, and communicate your wishes clearly.

Open up your social media feed and you’ll likely be flooded with an onslaught of very firm opinions on what you should and shouldn’t do in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. From what qualifies as true social distancing to the divide on wearing masks to discussions on whether you should get your haircut or go to the gym, there are many areas in our lives where peer pressure has quickly come into play.

Below we’ve broken down what peer pressure is and how the uptick in our daily lives might impact our well-being. We’re also helping you navigate how to effectively respond to peer pressure, including ways to avoid doing it yourself.

A Quick Definition of Peer Pressure

At some level, we all want to feel like we belong. In order to feel that way, we often follow societal “rules,” lean toward political correctness (or away depending on our circle), and do our best to get along without controversy. This is where peer pressure comes into play.

“Peer pressure is when we feel influenced, or pressured, to act as our peer group does, whether we believe the same way or not, in order to hold or gain their respect or friendship,” says Dr. Colleen Mullen, a psychologist and licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT). “Peer pressure can be subtle or overt and can range from influencing things from as simple as what you wear or eat, or even who you associate with and why you act as you do.”

COVID-19, Peer Pressure, and Our Mental Health

This desire to fit in—and the peer pressure associated with it—begins when we’re children and continues throughout our life. In the context of COVID-19, there are many instances in which we might feel that pressure strongly.

Colleen Mullen, PsyD, LMFT

We’ve all seen the critical posts, from outright name-calling to condemning statements. Now that many of the states are in some level of re-opening status, there is a new debate about who’s going to get out and ‘live their life’ again and who’s going to stay home and wait it out.

— Colleen Mullen, PsyD, LMFT

She says that she’s seen, through a number of her therapy clients, how this peer pressure—whether on the peer-to-peer level or on a larger level through social media messages—is adding to our society’s mental anguish.

“On either side of the apparent ‘argument,’ people are seeking to be validated in their preferences,” Dr. Mullen explains. “The internal struggle that happens when we start questioning our judgment based on others’ feedback causes cognitive dissonance. That internal noise often stops us in our tracks. Not only do we feel confusion, but self-doubt, resentment, and comparisons of perceived ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ comes into play.”

How to Navigate Peer Pressure in Light of COVID-19

It can be quite tricky to navigate this new world we’re living in, where simply wearing a face mask—or not wearing one—can elicit feedback from both strangers and dear friends. Though it’s a complex issue with many nuances, you can start by following the expert advice below.

Be Kind to Yourself

One can argue that the level of dissonance, anger, and sadness around us is even greater given the emotional, financial, and psychological impacts our collective communities have felt as a result of COVID-19. One of the best things you can do right now is to take care of yourself.

“Beware of the things you can handle and the things you cannot handle. Tell someone the difference and remove yourself from spaces where you don’t feel emotionally or mentally safe,” says Asha Tarry, a psychotherapist, life coach, and author.

Also, accept that it’s not your responsibility to educate others or convince them of your stance—even if they’re coming at you hard. It’s likely you’re already feeling drained, and those additional, energy-zapping arguments aren’t a great use of your time right now.

Avoid or Diffuse the Great Debate

The above noted, we understand you might feel passionate about educating or sharing your findings with others. In such cases, default to gentle language and utilize credited, expert guidance.

“I find that people don’t like to be told nor forced into doing things against their will. As we’ve learned, this approach, at times, has caused a negative effect on the well-being of others,” says Tarry.

It can also cause others to lean harder into their existing stance, making both parties further pitted against each other.

Tarry says, “Instead of shaming people, give people articles to read from legitimate sources, and afterwards you can follow up with conversations about their ideas with what they’ve read and understood.”

We're not saying you shouldn't voice your concerns or share information, but do make a conscious decision to do what is best for yourself. That includes avoiding angry social media rants and actively stepping away from arguments that aren’t going anywhere.

Try Not to Judge

There’s so much judgment being cast on others right now. Adding to the already boiling fury with your own condemnation likely will take you nowhere.

“Remember, we don’t know what is influencing someone’s thinking,” says Dr. Mullen. “We have tens of millions of people unemployed who are desperately waiting for signs that the economy will come back from this. We have people with underlying health issues we may not know about (and it’s really none of our business).”

This accumulating stress from the shutdowns has also been creating very emotionally fragile people, she adds. There’s anxiety and fear about the virus, the economy, loved ones’ health, the loss of what this year will not be, the trauma of all of this happening.

It might be hard to bite your tongue, but do your best to trust that others are doing what they can to get through this, and that they’re dealing with their own personal struggles.

Gently Ask for the Same in Return

Maybe your friends are inviting you to hang out or your stylist is nudging you to book an appointment and you don’t feel comfortable. Or perhaps a friend has expressed they’re not keen on coming to your small backyard BBQ or out to brunch. Whatever the case, afford them the same non-judgement you’d like to receive.

Something you can say to diffuse the discussion is, “I’m so happy you invited me, but I’m not feeling comfortable doing activities like that at this point. I understand everyone has different levels of comfort right now, and I can’t wait to be able to see you again when I’m feeling safer.”

Or if a friend expresses that they don’t feel comfortable, you can say something like, “I completely understand this is a complex issue and I’m so glad you let me know how you’re feeling. I’ll be so happy to see you when you’re feeling comfortable!”

If you’re the person planning a get-together, do your best to create a judgment-free zone. You can say something like, “I know everyone has different levels of comfort right now, and there will be zero judgment if you can or cannot come!”

Depending on your relationship, you might also be able to have a candid, curiosity-fueled conversation to better understand their stance.

What This Means For You

It’s unlikely you and everyone you know will see eye-to-eye. Instead of defaulting to anger, condemnation, or judgment, rely on kindness, conversation, and understanding. It’s very clear that COVID-19 has created a very difficult world to navigate, and the reality is that we’re all trying to do our best to deal with that multifaceted pressure. Love will go much further right now than the opposite.

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