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.