Tired of Playing Peacekeeper? Here's How to Put Yourself First
Every office, friend group, and family has a peacekeeper—the person who defuses all disagreement and smooths over every confrontation. Assuming the peacekeeper role is truly an art form—from practicing perspective-taking to balancing empathy and neutrality—finding yourself in the middle is a juggling act that requires careful attention and patience.
But while having the ability to broker harmony between friends and family can come in handy during dinnertime disagreements and other uncomfortable situations, it can also wear you down over time. Plus, say experts, the ability probably doesn’t stem from a place of impartiality.
“Becoming a peacekeeper could be the result of past trauma, but more than likely it developed within one’s family system,” explains Hannah Paull, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist at the Berman Center, in Atlanta. “For instance, when an individual was triangulated between their parents, or when one sibling or member of the family was continuously rewarded for keeping the peace.”
The Consequences of Being the Mediator
Many are under the impression that having a peacekeeper personality is pretty benign. After all, what’s the harm in seeing both sides of a situation and helping your loved ones compromise? But those who are frequently thrown in the middle may find themselves putting others’ needs ahead of theirs and violating their own boundaries.
“The main consequence of being the peacekeeper is that your focus is on others rather than yourself,” Paull says. But consider, she points out, how this may set up expectations that you'll swoop in to mediate every situation where conflict arises. “We often fall into the trap of fulfilling the expectations of others in order to avoid conflict or tension.”
How to Stop Being the Peacekeeper
Whether you’ve played the peacekeeper for as long as you can remember, or fall into the role when you’re around specific family members or friends, these tips will help you gain awareness of the habit, become familiar with your needs, and ultimately advocate for yourself.
1. Take Note of Your Behavioral Patterns
The first step to making peace with your peacekeeper identity is to become aware of what triggers it. Paull recommends journaling as an easy, accessible way to get familiar with your thoughts and reactions.
Through your writing practice, the rhythms will become clear: Maybe you’re more likely to mediate when family gets together during the holidays, or you’re usually the go-between when your sister and mother are arguing, or you play the peacekeeper because you hate hearing people yell.
“After developing this ‘knowing,’ you can work on being more mindful of your thoughts and feelings throughout the day and consider your behaviors carefully before reacting,” says Kristine Danback, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and divorce coach in New York.
And though journaling and mindfulness practices like deep breathing can help you gain self-awareness and keep calm in stressful situations, Danback says you may want to consider psychotherapy if peacekeeping feels like your full-time job. Why? Because once you begin changing your behavior—and not assuming the role of mediator when others expect you to—those individuals will have a response of their own, which can be difficult to face.
2. Reflect on Your Own Needs and Boundaries
More often than not, you check your personal needs and opinions at the door when stepping into the middle of conflict. Such a practice is a sure way to feel overlooked, and over time, you’ll probably have your fair share of resentment toward those who looked to you as their unpaid mediator.
To counter this, ask yourself questions like “What do I need in this situation?” and “What will best serve me right now?” You may realize that playing peacekeeper isn’t helping you in any way, and removing yourself from the situation or revisiting the conversation down the road once hot tempers have cooled is the way to go.
3. Remind Yourself of What Is—and Isn’t—Your Responsibility
When others have looked to you to manage their emotions, it’s easy to feel like you have to continue to play peacekeeper to maintain your relationships. But remember: Relationships are two-way streets. It's not solely your responsibility to do all the work.
Making a list of what is and isn’t on your shoulders can help you differentiate between the two. On your responsibility list, you may find items like respecting your personal needs and allowing your loved ones to have their own opinions on the situation. And on your nonresponsibility list, peacekeeping should be at the top.
4. Take a Stern but Fair Stance
“Once you identify your own needs, utilize effective communication strategies, such as ‘I’ statements, to express those needs and maintain boundaries,” Paull suggests. A phrase like “I am feeling stressed right now, and I would prefer we talk about something else” will center the conversation on you and leave less room for others to become defensive.
You may also want to consider the three T’s: the time, tone, and turf of the conversation. Voicing your needs and setting your boundaries is most effective when done at an appropriate time (a family dinner may not be the best moment to air your grievances), in a calm tone, and on neutral turf, or at least a place where everyone feels comfortable.
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