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Understanding Peer Pressure in College: Why Fitting in Can Sometimes Hurt

By HERWriter
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Besides academics, college is known as a place to find tons of friends.

What people sometimes forget to mention is that it’s also a place to find yourself, and sometimes this means losing friends who don’t share the same values and gaining others who do. The process can get even stickier before the gaining and losing stage with peer pressure and the desire for acceptance.

I know from my own experience that sometimes values can be compromised, especially when you’re trying to fit in and escape the loneliness that can happen when others don’t share the same values and morals.

Haley Geddes, a psychology intern at the University of Washington’s Counseling Center, said some reasons that friendships in college are different from high school and earlier are because the environment lacks the same amount of structure and there are people from a wide variety of backgrounds.

Also, college-age students sometimes come in with unrealistic expectations, like making the best friends of their life, and that can cause some anxiety.

“People come in expecting to make those life-long friends right away, to be involved in all kinds of social activities right away, and the truth is that it can be much more challenging to find that, and it takes some time for people to settle into college, and it’s never going to be the way that our cultural story is of it, that you see in movies,” Geddes said.

She said peer pressure can be a problem for some students.

“When you’re coming into a new environment and you don’t know anybody and you’re really wanting to have that sense of connection and find your place and find that group of people, that there is a little bit more inclination to do what the group is wanting to do in order to fit in,” Geddes said.

Parents might not be as involved with their students in college, so the students might be more likely to then bend to peer pressure and engage more in activities involving alcohol, drugs and sex.

For students who do have issues with peer pressure, Geddes said she helps them “gain some trust in themselves and clarify what their values are,” as well as being respectively assertive about how they feel.

When people compromise their values and act differently than how they want to behave or participate in activities not in line with their values, it can have different negative effects, including on academic performance.

“When you consistently are not living your values, it can cause you to not trust yourself as much or to feel uncertain about yourself,” Geddes said, like when other people think something is cool but you feel uncomfortable.

Sarah Griess, a pre-doctoral intern at the University of Washington’s Counseling Center, said she thinks “peer pressure comes from a lot of socially imposed expectations,” including pre-conceived notions of what college is about and what college students should be doing.

“College students come in and have this construct of ‘college is B’ and then that kind of creates a social norm or a social expectation that everybody’s feeding into, and because it’s what you're expected to do, there’s that social pressure and that feeds into peer pressure,” Griess said. “Because you are doing it, you want your peers to do it, because it makes it seem normal and the way the experience is supposed to go.”

Sometimes students engage in activities that aren’t in line with their values because of these expectations.

“They encourage their peers to do it, because if my peers are also doing it, then I don’t have to feel so bad about doing it,” Griess said.

She said in college, men and women can be pressured to conform to gender roles.

For example, women might suffer from body image peer pressure, like the amount of food eaten and clothes worn.

Students might give into peer pressure because of low self-esteem and because they are going through identity development.

“Some students come in with more of a core sense of self than others,” Griess said. “Those are the people who are less likely to give into peer pressure because they have a greater sense of who they are and are more likely to accept themselves.”

Others still “rely heavily on the approval of peers,” she said.

In order to avoid peer pressure, it’s a good idea to surround yourself with people who share similar values, especially when you’re still developing a sense of self.

“I also am a big believer of empowering yourself to stand up in those situations and let people know where you stand,” Griess said. “The more that you’re able to do that, the more people are less likely to harass you about those types of things.”

The impact of challenging one’s self-identity can be emotional, she said.

“It can be a false sense of acceptance, which can feel really empty, or it could feel really rejecting,” Griess said. “Because interpersonal relationships are so important in the college years, I think that definitely it can have a huge emotional toll, leading to depression, leading to anxiety.”

Anxiety can form from “fearing if I’m hanging out with this group of friends, what am I going to have to conform to next,” along with worrying about how to handle the pressure.

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EmpowHER Guest

I don't doubt that at all.

November 4, 2018 - 2:48pm
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.