Peer Pressure and Self Identity

The Rambam writes, (De’os Ch. 6) “Man was created to be drawn after the attitudes and actions of his  friends and peers and to act in the manner of his countrymen. Therefore, one should associate with  righteous people and to sit with wise men so he may learn from their ways…”

Clearly, peer pressure and influence is not a new phenomenon if the Rambam was concerned about it over  800 years ago. We are all influenced in one way or another from our friends, family, and society at large.  These influences can be positive or negative. When we associate with people who live their lives  according to noble and virtuous values then peer influence is positive. When we associate with people  who are involved in inappropriate behaviors then peer influence can be very detrimental.

What can be quite perplexing about peer influence is that it seems to not affect all people in the same  way. Some people are extremely susceptible to outside influences, whereas other people seem to be able  to be true to their values even in the face of negative influences. What is the difference between these two  people?

The difference often lies in having a coherent self-identity. When we modify our behavior due to negative peer influence, we are acting in a way that may be inconsistent with our core values or principles. Therefore, the stronger your self-identity, the less likely you are to succumb to social pressures.

What exactly is self-identity and how does it offer protection from negative influences? Self-identity is  the basic sense of who you are as a person. It includes many aspects of your identity including your  gender, religion, ethnic background, family of origin, your values, and even your aspirations and goals.  Your identity can be a road map for your life. If you are with people who act a certain way, you can refer  to your “road map” and determine if these people are helping you live your life according to who you are.

The catch is that one cannot have a sense of self-identity unless one has a sense of self. People have a  sense of self when they feel that they have inherent value as a human being and that they matter. People  who are victims of abuse often lose a sense of self since at a very young age they were given the message  that they don’t matter and that others can take advantage of them as they wish.

It was once said, “One of the greatest tragedies in life is to lose your own sense of self and accept the version of you that is expected by everyone else.” Therapy can often help you regain a healthy sense of self which will give you the freedom to live your life according to your own goals and values.