Have you ever been on a diet and had a well-meaning friend encourage you to eat that piece of chocolate cake, to just “live a little”? Or perhaps you’ve actually lost some significant weight and your friend takes you out to eat to celebrate?! “You’ve been so good – try the French fries and the cheesecake!”

Are these really friends? And are they really well-meaning?

People sometimes sabotage our diets for personal reasons. They really want that chocolate cake and they feel uncomfortable eating it if you’re not. Or they want to go out to eat and really indulge but they don’t want to sense (or even imagine) your disapproving glance. If you don’t have dessert, how can they? It doesn’t matter whether you are actually judging them or not. The feeling is hard to shake. The influence of peers is powerful, whatever our age.

My daughters tell me that there is always one girl in seminary reading the calorie count on everything they eat. That is peer pressure in the opposite direction. “Don’t you dare enjoy that.” “If you gain weight, you’ll be sorry, you’ll be unattractive.” It may be obnoxious but it stops them in their tracks.

Our peers can lift us up or they can drag us down.

Studies have shown that the most powerful incentive to get teenagers and young adults to stop smoking is the belief that none of their peers think it’s cool to smoke. And vice versa. We are never immune to the behavior and values of our friends and colleagues, no matter how old we are. So we need to choose carefully.

Except in extreme circumstances, the situations above don’t really make a difference. Our lives will not be changed significantly by that piece of chocolate cake (unless it’s really good!). But our responses to our peers, the way in which we allow ourselves to be subject to their influence (willingly or unwillingly, consciously or subconsciously) is not limited to our caloric intake.

What if we want to grow and change? What if we think a certain type of entertainment is inappropriate for our family? What if we think our daughters should dress a little more modestly than is currently in vogue (a friend recently referred to his 14 year-old daughter’s party attire as “early hooker”)? What if we want to be more careful about not gossiping, more sensitive to the feelings of others? How will the viewpoints and behaviors of our peers affect us then?

“C’mon, just one tidbit of dirt,” they cajole. “We know you have the inside story.” “I know that outfit doesn’t fit within your budget but you only live once!” “Everyone says this movie is fantastic; how could you not see it?” “It’s not inappropriate; it’s art.”

These are everyday situations and everyday challenges. Our peers can lift us up or they can drag us down. They can encourage us to call them to learn every day or to call to talk about our friends. And it’s not just their words that affect us; their actions do too. Even if they don’t actually urge us to behave in certain ways, we are affected by their behavior. If we are with a group of people speaking negatively about others, it affects our sense of what’s right and wrong. It becomes tempting and acceptable and even appropriate to participate. If all of our friends dress a certain way, we don’t want to be out of step. We may not even notice how we are affected by their fashion sense. And their goals and values on deeper levels affect us as well – what they do, what they talk about, where they vacation, how they allow their children to speak and behave.

We tend to think the peers are only powerful in adolescence (they may reach their peak there) but they affect us our whole lives. True friends support our choices – whether it’s to exercise self-control and not order dessert, whether it’s to dress in a more dignified way (and less high fashion), whether it’s to steer the conversation away from people and onto more meaningful topics and whether it’s to work on our character and growth as opposed to focusing on our leisure and relaxation.

When our children are teenagers, they don’t always choose their friends well. And, at that point in their lives, they are not amenable to our constructive suggestions about choosing better comrades. But we are adults and we should know better. We are in a position to choose friends and we need to choose well. I personally like the combination of being growth-focused and enjoying that chocolate cake…