A few years ago, I went to a political primary in my neighborhood. I’d been too busy to study up on the two candidates, and went hoping to hear something that would tell me which person should get my vote. I was still on the fence at the end of the evening. But then everyone was asked to stand and pick their sides, literally going to one side of the room or the other to support the candidate of their choice. I and one other person stood at the front of the room, “the undecideds.”
Then the peer pressure started. From each side, I heard things like, “Teresa, what’re you doing over there? Come stand with us. You know this is the right decision. What’s wrong with you?” I tried to explain, “This is too important. I want to do more research.” But they shouted me down. Remember, these were my friends and neighbors. It’s hard to say no to your friends and neighbors.
After several minutes, the other undecided person sheepishly chose a side, and everyone cheered. Then they turned up the pressure on me. I planted my feet, crossed my arms, and refused to move. Finally, I was counted as the one “undecided” of the night.
As we filed out of the room, my neighbors wouldn’t let it go. “I can’t believe you didn’t come over,” they said, as we walked to our cars. But I didn’t care. I’d stood my ground. I’d held to my principles. I’d refused to be peer pressured. I patted myself on the back the whole drive home.
I like to think I’ve been that way since I was a kid, unwilling to bend to peer pressure. And many times, that was true. It didn’t make me popular in school, but I didn’t care.
The thing is, it hasn’t always been true. There have been many occasions I’ve acted or failed to act out of fear for what other people might say to me or about me or what they might do. There have been as many instances I have not stood up for someone being bullied as there have been times I have. I can’t take credit for the moments I stood strong, without also acknowledging the times I caved in.
What makes us hold our ground? It’s different for every person in any situation on any given day. Sometimes, we’re too tired or overwhelmed to fight. Other times we worry if we don’t stick with the crowd, we’ll be left out in some important way. Other times, we’re concerned if we state a firm opinion, we might seem arrogant or willful or judgmental or any of the other negative terms lobbed at people who refuse to budge.
But sometimes we do stand our ground because we can’t take it anymore, the hypocrisy, the lies, the bullying, etc. Or because someone is threatening something or someone we love. We may hold firm to honor the people who raised us or the values they instilled. Or make a stand because we’ve learned or experienced something new that makes us realize how important an issue really is.
As artists, we’re often called on to take a stand. There’s even a certain expectation that “true” artists will produce work that provokes controversy or pushes boundaries. Sometimes our audiences go so far as to decide for themselves that something we produced backs up a certain stance, whether we intended it that way or not.
While I think it’s important for each of us to touch base now and then with our firmest beliefs, restate our values, and recommit to walking our talk, it’s also important to remember we’re human. There are going to be days when you just don’t have it in you to fight. And when those weak moments arrive, when you fail to do the right thing, you need to show yourself a little compassion and forgive yourself. Beating yourself up just leaves one more wounded soul on the battleground. After you’ve recollected yourself, if you can, reach out and try to make it right.
In the instances when you do stand firm against the peer pressure and bullying and hating, go ahead and pat yourself on the back. We need all the encouragement we can get to stay the course in this exhausting world. Then maybe share your story. Let others know how/why you took a stand so we can gain a little courage and confidence from seeing it’s possible to be the people we want to be. At least part of the time, right?
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