Dear Therapist:

Can you please give me some good guidelines on how to deal with peer pressure? I am very affected by what the people around me are doing.  I don't know if it's that I'm afraid of people getting angry with me or I need to be the center of attention. I think that that is my most difficult challenge and if I could just not be afraid to be different I would be a much better person.



Most often, issues with peer pressure are due to low self-esteem.  Self-esteem has been defined in many ways by professionals in many fields.  What they almost all have in common is their reliance on external factors to define self-esteem.  Therefore, self-esteem is typically viewed as a self-image that is subject to fluctuations in mood, situation, or surroundings. This is not what I would call self-esteem. Self-esteem, by my definition, is not subject to change based on external factors.

Laymen and professionals alike tend to confuse self-confidence with self-esteem.  The reason for this is that the popular notion of self-esteem is of someone who has confidence in himself (i.e. in his abilities).  However, sense of self that is based on externalities like abilities is not indicative of true self-esteem. Thus, self-confidence is a false form of self-esteem, since it speaks to people’s abilities rather than to their intrinsic attributes.

It is interesting that most of us can view, and feel, about others based on who they really are, although we cannot do the same for ourselves.  It may be quite easy for me to say, “Robyn is a caring person,” almost as an instinctive reaction.  It requires little or no thought and is simply the way in which I see Robyn.  When it comes to myself, however, it is much more difficult for me to “simply” see myself as something entirely separate from how I think others see me, what I do, my job title, etc.

The important distinction between a false sense of self-esteem and one based on true internal feelings is the basis for the feeling.  If the feeling is clearly tied to external factors, it is generally not based on true internal feelings.  For instance, if your attribute is “funny,” but you only feel humorous in social situations where you can monitor others’ responses, you don’t feel that “funny” is something that defines you.  Rather, you feel that “funny” is something that you do.

On the other hand, someone who recognizes that he is intrinsically a funny person can sense this attribute within himself.  Without relating “funny” to other people or to specific situations, he simply feels funny.  That is, he recognizes aspects of himself—his thoughts and feelings—that are humorous.

Because the common conception of self-image is based on external factors, it would be natural to conclude that boosting one’s external sense of self would be part of the solution to issues with peer pressure (as well as other issues related to low self-esteem).  Although this might work to some extent in the short-term, it unfortunately only reinforces the initial problem by continuing to focus on self-image as opposed to self-esteem. In the long run, this would require a constant mental reinforcement of the external quality.  In addition, there would always be anxiety relating to whether this quality is good enough and whether it is sustainable.  For instance, you might only feel good about yourself when you can accept your ability to socialize in groups.  As soon as this breaks down, your “self-esteem” would take a hit.

As a more general example, if you were to define yourself largely as based on your job (i.e., “I am a brilliant doctor,” or “I’m a powerful CEO”), problems related to your job can have a profound impact on your self-image. This can cause high anxiety, not because of the specific job issue, but because your self-image would have been assaulted and you would have no internal sense of self on which to rely.

The first step is to clearly recognize whether your issues with peer pressure are in fact due to an underlying issue rather than a realistic source that you are defining (e.g., “People won’t like me,” or “People will be angry with me”). If you are able to identify an unconscious basis for the problem (e.g., “I don’t feel good about myself when I’m around others unless they constantly validate me”), the next step would be to begin focusing on the true meaning of sense of self.  That would be the first stage of directly working on your self-esteem.

-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

  psychotherapist in private practice

 Brooklyn, NY

 author of Self-Esteem: A Primer / 718-258-5317


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