Tackling peer pressure

Today’s contributor recalls how a rethink of his and others’ worth helped him respond productively when college friends began conversing inappropriately about women.

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In college, I had a fun group of friends that I liked to hang out with. While we enjoyed doing lots of things together, sometimes the conversation turned to the subject of girls – and not in a complimentary way.

These guys were good friends and did have many good qualities, but I hated the way our conversation could so easily slip into this trash talk. And while I did have other friends, I didn’t have another group like this that I could just sit down and hang out with. So I was nervous about saying anything, even though I knew these conversations were wrong.

In retrospect, I can see that my biggest fear was that if I spoke up, I would be judged – seen as weak or unworthy of their friendship. But operating from that standpoint put my sense of self-worth in the hands of others, and I wanted something more solid than that. People’s opinions change all the time.

I knew I could find a more secure foundation for my sense of self-worth. I had seen in other areas of my life how praying to get a better, more spiritual sense of myself and others could open up solutions that blessed everyone involved. So I started to pray.

I remembered a passage I was familiar with from Christ Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept.” It continues: “Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand – shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14, 16, Eugene Peterson, “The Message”).

I suddenly realized that my worth wasn’t variable. My “light” was shining not because of what others thought about me, but because of the way God created me: not as an uncertain mortal, but as His unique creation. God loved me!

It felt a lot better to know that my identity and worth were completely safe in God. But I still didn’t know what to do during those conversations. It didn’t feel right to cut this set of friends out of my life, but I continued to feel uncomfortable with the idea of speaking up. So I kept praying.

One day it occurred to me that I could just leave the conversation whenever this topic came up. Not in a way that made a scene. It simply felt natural to slip away when the trash talking began.

At first, there was no change in the conversation; as I left, I could hear my friends still talking and laughing. But by the third or fourth time, they started to notice, and finally they asked me why I was leaving. I said that I didn’t like being part of the conversation when they started talking about girls that way.

“Why didn’t you say so?” they asked – and immediately switched to another topic. There was never another conversation along those lines when I was present.

Of course, I don’t have a clue what they talked about when I wasn’t around. And as I think back on this today, it’s hard not to wish that I could have been more courageous in speaking out against this inappropriate behavior. But for where I was at that time in my life, I was grateful for this solution. As it turned out, “letting my light shine” wasn’t about making others feel “burned”; it was simply about showing that there was another way to think about things. And that other way blessed all of us, lifting us into more constructive conversations and lifting me out of the trap of peer pressure.

As we keep our mental gaze on the One who truly loves us, we’re able to walk forward without needing to look for approval in misguided human opinion. We find ourselves with a deeper, more spiritual sense of security and worth, and a reliable compass for our actions. And as we follow this compass, we’re able to be a blessing to others as well. Instead of feeling victimized by peer pressure, we can show how good it is to live as God made us: loving and loved.

Adapted from an article published in the Q&A series of the Christian Science Sentinel’s online TeenConnect section, April 13, 2018.

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