Peer Pressure

When I think of peer pressure, I usually think of my teenage grandchildren. Yet, strangely enough, I’ve encountered more peer pressure in retirement than I thought possible. Oh, it’s not the type of pressure kids face like being hassled to smoke a cigarette or drink alcohol or experience an illegal drug. Rather it’s the push by peers to join the activities they enjoy assuming you will enjoy them, too. Or it’s the pressure to take part as a volunteer because volunteers are needed by their chosen organization. Or, it could be the person likes your company and may want to further the friendship by doing more together.

In just the last few weeks I’ve been asked to join book clubs, a monthly mahjong game, a gym, another writing group, a gardening club and a political action group. While I may certainly enjoy all of those activities, if I said, ‘yes’ to any or all of them, what is important to me would be swallowed up. In the past, saying, ‘no’ was not one of my strong points and sometimes it still isn’t. Why we agree to do something we really don’t want to do is usually based in our wish to keep the relationship.  Thus we try not to offend the other person by saying, ‘no’ to their request.

Twenty-five years ago, when I was busy nearly going down in flames because I didn’t say, ‘no’ often enough, I learned a valuable lesson. I learned to say, ‘yes’ to me. This twist in my thinking made it easier to turn down the requests to join in too many activities. Not to sound mean, but I also figured out sometimes I was agreeing to partake with someone I didn’t really enjoy being around. My wish not to hurt another person’s feelings was taking a toll on me.

How did I arrive at this change in thinking, making self-love (not selfishness) a priority? I remember a spring day where I sat on the couch recovering from pleurisy. The night before Martin drove me the six blocks from our house to the local hospital. I didn’t think I was having a heart attack, but the hospital staff did. Describing chest pain and difficulty breathing got me an immediate wheelchair ride to the inner rooms of the ER where two nurses shoved oxygen tubes up my nose and took my pulse and then blood gases. Finally, a chest X-ray revealed inflammation of my lungs. Whew! In comparison to a heart attack, pleurisy sounded good. The ER doctor told me rest, rest, rest.

The thought of a heart attack scared me. Between naps, I spent the next day in deep retrospection of what my life was at the time. I likened myself to a small plane in a fiery nose-dive about to hit the ground, exploding into flames upon impact. This was not the first time I was in a nose-dive going down in flames. But, I knew it had to be the last.

As I sat in my internal revery that afternoon, a friend, who knew I was home from work sick, called to ask me to watch her eight-year-old daughter as “something” had come up that she just had to take care of. To my surprise I heard myself telling her I couldn’t possibly watch an eight-year-old in my condition. When she coaxed me with how quiet her daughter would be (I knew this kid was not quiet), I said, “Look I know you’re in a bind, but I’m also in a bind. I need rest. I have to take care of myself first.”

Even as I said it, I felt guilty, selfish. Yet, after we ended the conversation, I felt empowered. I felt good. I had said, ‘yes’ to me. That’s when I realized the operative word in these situations isn’t ‘no’; it’s ‘yes’… ‘yes’ to me. I needed to say, ‘yes’ to me and clear my life of activities and relationships that were not passionately important to me.

Although that may sound selfish, participating in activities because we feel we ‘should’ can take a toll on our psychological well-being. I call participating in activities we ‘want’ to partake in self-love as these are the activities that feed our spirit. Conversely, if an activity drains your spirit, it needs to go.

With the possibility of so much unstructured time in retirement, it’s more important then ever to know what you want, what is best for you and how to say, ‘yes’ to your priorities. In order to stay focused, write it down. The bucket list is a good place to start creating your agenda. If you are unsure about an activity, ask yourself if you are truly passionate about participating in that activity. With an unambiguous agenda it’s easier to set clear-cut boundaries with our peers. And, that helps us limit peer pressure at any age.

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