People rave that you’re easy to work with…you’re the world’s nicest person…and groups get along better when you’re around. As glowing as that praise is, if you receive these compliments frequently, it also could be reason for concern. You may be sacrificing your own happiness and success for the sake of keeping the peace—and the effects can erode your self-esteem.

Here’s what you need to know about “harmony addiction” if you go to great lengths to avoid discord…

Excessive Pursuit of Harmony Is Not Altruistic

People who chronically set aside their own interests tend to tell themselves that they are making personal sacrifices for the sake of loved ones, friends, coworkers…or total strangers. They may not realize the sacrifices they’re ­making—putting other people first may have become second nature. Harmony addicts often strive to dodge discord even when doing so works against everyone’s interests. 

Example: A husband never tells his wife when she does things that bother him. He convinces himself that not saying negative things reduces conflict and increases marital harmony. But because he never speaks up, his wife continues to do the bothersome things, leaving him frustrated with her. By avoiding conflict, he inadvertently creates distance.

Why don’t harmony addicts speak their mind? Because despite what they tell themselves, they’re not avoiding discord for the sake of other people—they are doing so because discord makes them feel anxious or unsafe. 

For some, this means staying out of arguments at all costs. For others, even lingering interpersonal tensions or a sense of disengagement is too much. 

The Roots of Harmony Addiction

Adults addicted to harmony almost ­always faced one or more of these challenges during childhood…

They felt they had to act as peacekeepers for parents who argued (or, less often, for other family members). 

One or both of their parents were themselves harmony addicts, and the child learned to imitate this behavior …or one or both parents reacted explosively during disagreements, and the child learned to avoid conflict at all costs. 

They were regularly punished or admonished for making waves or voicing opinions. Such children often become adults who are afraid to speak their minds.

They grew up surrounded by chaos. Such kids often prioritize peace and serenity as grown-ups. 

They felt different from and/or teased by their peers and learned to prioritize fitting in over their own needs and feelings. This is common among children whose families had fewer financial resources than their peers…and children who are physically different from their peers. 

The oldest child often has an exaggerated sense of responsibility for others. 

Overcoming Harmony Addiction

A three-step plan can help you become aware of your behavior and release its childhood roots…

1. Try being less agreeable for a few days. You don’t have to be difficult—just stop saying “yes” to everything. When you have a differing opinion, voice it. When someone needs something that isn’t your responsibility, don’t volunteer to do it. When you catch yourself monitoring other people’s moods and opinions and wanting to keep emotions at bay, stop and consider what you think and want. Harmony addicts often have overactive scanning reflexes—they devote a tremendous amount of time and energy to interpreting the words, facial expressions and body language of the people around them, ready to set things right at the first hint of displeasure. Warning: Not jumping in to smooth things over is likely to make you feel anxious. Anticipate this and leave the room if necessary. Keep a journal of the times you were not 100% agreeable and how doing that made you feel. What happened? You should begin to see that the world did not come to an end just because you didn’t acquiesce to demands. If you felt uncomfortable, that’s not a reason to stop—it’s a wake-up call that your drive to foster harmony is excessive and likely interfering with your own life. Understand that discord makes you feel anxious or unsafe. On the plus side, you actually may surprise yourself when you stop feeling responsible for things that are outside your realm. 

2. Reflect back on your childhood, and consider how your childhood challenges still affect your behavior today. How would it have affected your childhood family life and/or your interactions with your peers if you didn’t strive to create harmony when you were young? Would there have been a price to pay? The answer probably is yes. A child whose parents argue takes on the role of peacemaker because the bickering intensifies if he/she doesn’t. A child who is admonished for speaking his mind bites his tongue because it’s the best way to avoid punishment. A child who feels excluded by his peers puts his peers’ priorities ahead of his own because it’s better than being an outcast. 

But the behavior patterns that helped you survive childhood challenges are probably preventing you from being fulfilled as an adult. An adult has the ability to create boundaries in relationships…to discuss disagreements calmly with other adults. It is important to remind yourself that as an adult, you can now walk away from a heated situation. An adult usually can stand up for what he believes without being punished. There are times and places where a price must be paid for standing up for one’s beliefs—but an adult might decide some of these are worth it. An adult can walk away from friends who don’t value and respect him. Be aware of childhood patterns continuing in your adult life, and write about these in your journal. You can decide that being the peacekeeper may not be the best option. 

3. Reassure your younger self that you’re safe now. Come up with a sentence or two that reminds you of how your current situation is different from your childhood situation. Examples: “It wasn’t safe to speak up when I was young, but now I’m a grown-up and not in danger.” Or, “It’s not like it used to be. It’s not my job to keep everyone around me happy, and it won’t harm me if they’re unhappy. My opinions are important, and people want and need to hear what I have to say.”

Repeat these words to yourself out loud or internally when faced with ­discord—if possible, multiple times a day. Write them on a card so you can remember them when the world around you becomes unharmonious and anxiety kicks in. Or better yet, use your smartphone to record yourself speaking these words, then listen to them when needed. 

Don’t expect instant results. Lifelong habits are hard to break, and putting your interests ahead of harmony will feel uncomfortable at first. But each time you do so and the world doesn’t come crashing down, you’ll be one step closer to achieving a healthy balance between your own goals and the pursuit of harmony. 

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