I remember in vivid detail the first time I succumbed to peer pressure. At the tender age of seven, I was told by a new “friend” that I was to march across the playground to my existing BFF, Emily, and inform her she would no longer be holding the position of my numero uno. I recall feeling queasy, completely aware of and saddened by what this would do to sweet Emily. I desperately wanted out of the predicament.
I walked sheepishly over to the balance beam she played on, my schoolmate bully following, prodding me like a baby calf on the way to the slaughterhouse. She hovered over us with a twinkle in her eye as I proceeded to rip the precious heart from my kindred spirit and smite out any remaining chance of reconciliation.
At that precise moment, I became (punch to every mother’s gut) a follower. This single event set the stage for the rest of my formative years. This bully, acting under the guise of friendship, remained in my life for far too long. As in any abusive relationship, my self-confidence was repeatedly shattered, convincing me that she was a necessity in my life, serving as the only link to the super cool clique every girl wanted to be a part of (or so I believed). Her specialty was shaming me amongst our peers, as my parents had a relatively humble home and weren’t the owners of any luxury vehicles. My position on the bottom rung of that shiny ladder was solidified through high school. I was 20 before I finally shook her like an old dirty coat.
Flash forward to my mid-30s. I’m not known for a warm inviting smile. The fact that I keep a straight face most of the time has commonly led people to make negative assumptions about my personal character. My “resting bitch face” has proven to be very effective in the art of “how to not make new friends.” I’ve sufficiently managed to keep prospective friends at arm’s length, maintaining the sentiment that I just don’t need them, they require more than I have to offer.
Well, my theory was just plain wrong. I became acutely aware of this a few years ago when my middle daughter started school. I would see other moms at pick up time (looking fabulous in their active wear) and feel instantly intimidated by the daily small talk they’d engage in. “They must all go way back,” I thought, “longtime friends with established play-groups.” I instantly labeled myself an outsider and was resigned to waiting in the car until the moment before the bell rang. I made assumptions, stereotyping these innocent, possibly kind-hearted women, all in the name of self-preservation. After all, what could we have in common? My kids eat frozen corn dogs and I don’t even have a Facebook account. I don’t remember connecting with anyone for most of that school year and, consequently, neither did my daughter. I became aware that my social issues and standoff attitude were directly affecting her potential friendships. I knew I had to man up and force myself to dive headfirst into a cesspool brimming with every variety of female shark known to science, all sharp-toothed and anxious to rip me to shreds.
As it turns out, it wasn’t all bad, my daughter made a great friend and so did I, and that meeting has led me into contributing to this very website.
In hindsight, all these social struggles seem so unnecessary. I’ve done a lot of reflecting trying to figure out what about the seven-year-old me made a good candidate for being pushed around. I had no obvious reason for having low self-worth. My mom had always modeled social confidence and taught me, “it’s none of your business what anyone thinks about you.” Maybe it’s just a simple human tendency to desire to be part of a pack. But, some children simply lack the good judgement required to choose the right pack to run with. Unfortunately (as my father always reminded me), you are who you hang out with. And, I got myself into plenty of trouble throughout the years, along with my pack. Damnit, why didn’t I recognize my parents' wisdom sooner?
I want my daughter to decide for herself whom she will call “friend”. I’m doing my best to help her grow in confidence while also humbly accepting personal failure. I also need for her to understand (in eight-year-old terms) that if a peer pushes her into something she’s uncomfortable with or makes her feel shameful, she is under no obligation to continue that relationship. Friends will no doubt disappoint at times, and that is okay, but there needs to be a threshold. More importantly, I’m trying to teach her to trust her instincts in determining the difference between genuine and phony. She doesn’t necessarily have to be a leader, but she also needn’t be a follower, she can just be exactly who she is. While insisting she be kind to everyone, she is given the right to decide what qualities are important in a friend and whether or not she will invest in that personal relationship because any worthwhile friendship requires a sizable investment on both ends.
It’s a learning curve for the both of us. I’ve met some pretty great women lately. As hard as it may be to trust they are women and not rabid coyotes, I am making investments. Some of these ladies are cynical and jaded, like me. We share a common perspective and love to hate the same things. I find comfort around them because I know I’m understood. And some are refreshingly positive and sweet, seeming never to have a sarcastic thought. This I find fascinating as my mind is proficient in all things negative and social assumptions are as natural, for me, as breathing air. I am learning from them how to assume the best of others, and I have yet to be disappointed. Finding good people has taken me far too long, but I do believe I’ve arrived. I’m hopeful that my daughter is observing what healthy relationships look like and will also choose to surround herself with authentic humans who have her best interests at heart.