You Have the Right to Feel Safe in Your Relationships (Even with Your Family)


“Anger is a signal, and one worth listening to[…]  It exists for a reason and always deserves our respect and attention.”  ~Harriet G. Lerner, The Dance of Anger

My journey to authentic safety began, at long last, with my discovery of my own anger.

Anger is my least favorite emotion. I don’t even particularly like its cousins—annoyance, irritation, frustration.

The moment that cemented my profound dislike occurred when I was a teenager.

I had tucked myself away in a corner of the house—in the dark den where my family kept the computer. (Just a word processor—this was in the dark ages before the internet.)

I was doing homework, I think, and an extended family member who was staying with us—someone I had always trusted and looked up to—burst into the room to confront me about something. (I don’t recall what it was, but I doubt it was particularly bad. I was a straight-A student, a people-pleasing, we-must-ALL-play-strictly-by-the-rules kind of child and teen.)

I don’t remember what I said or did; I think I felt distracted. In any case, I somehow neglected to give my family member what he wanted and he grabbed the printed pages I’d set next to the computer.

They were the pages of an important piece of writing I’d recently handed in at school; they’d been returned with a good grade, and, to my pleased delight, some specific words of praise scrawled in my teacher’s handwriting.

My family member grabbed the pages and tore them to express his impotent frustration at not getting the response he’d wanted from me. I so clearly remember the distorted, crazed look of pure rage on his face.

I remember thinking something like,

That’s really not okay. Those pages, with those handwritten words, can’t be replaced. You are out of control. YOU are acting like a tantruming, irrational, destructive child.

Looking at this from an outsider’s perspective, I realize this would probably not strike most people as a bad outburst. It’s pretty mild.

But to put it in context: On the one hand, my parents were pretty nurturing, and angry outbursts were rare. There was some dysfunction, but enough stability and normalcy that I had a strong inner sense of what things should look like between people.

At the same time, there was a lot of mental illness in my immediate and extended family—a lot of weird, distorted thought and behavior, a lot of unpredictability. Part of why I was such a rule-follower, or, rule-worshipper, even, was that it made life feel safe. Contained.

I just hated anything that felt out-of-control.

I yearned for things to feel normal, reasonable, safe. My trusted family member’s irrational rage struck me as emotionally chaotic; the kind of extremely disorderly thing I despised.

I remember moving into a very distant place inside myself, and vowing something along the lines of:

I don’t ever want to behave like that. Ever. I will never be like that.

Many, many years later, as a long-married adult, I experienced a dramatic counterpoint to that.

I was in my own home, and thinking about someone I love very much and how they had recently been betrayed in a way that was cruel, unjust, and profoundly devastating.

Thinking about the person who had done the betraying, I imagined picking up a heavy piece of furniture in the room (far too heavy for me to lift, in actuality), and throwing it at the wall.

The image startled me and I paused. And then I realized:  “Oh. I’m angry. I’m feeling anger. This is what that feels like.”

I now realize it was dangerous for me to distance myself so deeply from my own anger. Not because I’ve ever been likely to act out mindlessly on that repressed anger, but because I had placed myself out of hearing range of the vitally important information that anger holds for all of us.  

I couldn’t hear myself scream.

In The Dance of Anger, Harriet G. Lerner writes, “Our anger may be a message that we are being hurt, that our rights are being violated… or simply that something is not right.”

Letting the signals of anger go unperceived is potentially quite risky; those messages may turn out to be important.

It’s also risky to ignore things like: a feeling of discomfort, because something about a situation feels weird or “off,” a feeling of jitteriness. A feeling of I’d rather not be here.

All of these sensations are ones that we’re often discouraged from acting on, but perhaps most especially, with our families. With families, distancing ourselves from our bodies and the unpleasant feelings and signals they may hold for us, is so common that it’s a joke.

“Oh, the holidays are coming up? Time to get plastered!”

The lesson our society seems to be teaching here is: it’s best just to ignore how you actually feel.

Of course, our interpersonal lives are filled with friction; it’s impossible to feel totally at ease with everyone, all the time. It can be noble and constructive to avoid fights, to let little things go.

But sometimes, kindly acting on the information that anger has given us is the most important, most constructive thing one can do.

Friendships and family relationships require care and attention to be healthy. Acknowledging where we feel uncomfortable or angry or hurt, and taking gentle action as early and often as we reasonably can, is a way of honouring and protecting a vitally important connection. So that it doesn’t degrade; so that discord and distrust can be repaired; so that both people in a relationship feel safe and can grow, together.

Ignoring things and hoping they’ll magically get better, well, it turns out, that doesn’t work so well.

Anger deferred too long means that something (or someone) is getting extinguished. In the short term, it’s the person ignoring their own inner signals who is silenced. But that can only be endured so long.

Ignored anger goes underground, but it doesn’t go away. Eventually a person’s boundaries must be protected. After enough pressure builds up, anger erupts, and, too often, breaks trust and destroys friendships.

With families, even more is on the line. We are influenced and affected by family members in ways that are well below our conscious awareness. And there is an active risk of harm to that most vulnerable and emotionally vital part of you—that “inner child” deep within.

I can speak from personal experience about something that all too many of us have had to go through.

When healthier members of a family grow—go into therapy, learn to recognize inappropriate or dysfunctional (even abusive) patterns and behaviors—they naturally want to help bring those insights back into their family systems. To initiate healthier patterns, for everyone.

Attempting that can bring about a negative outcome that is simply blindsidingly bad. (It’s hard to anticipate because most relationships don’t operate like family relationships.)

That blindsidingly bad outcome is: that our family system will not only refuse to change along with us, but our family members will deny that there are any problems at all.

Or, they will tell us both that we are wrong about there being a problem, and, that we are the problem.

Which is crazy-making and awful.

In families, there can be tremendous pressure to let our unallowable anger go unaddressed, to deny our own reality until we extinguish us—our truths, our rights, our authentic selves.

That’s a tragic, awful, unjust outcome. That doesn’t have to happen; instead, find someone—or better, many someones—whom you trust, who believe you, and figure things out in a safe, secure, reliable space.

We are far more whole and wiser,* when we listen to the truths that our bodies, minds, and hearts are desperately trying to communicate to us. This is far from a simple process; listening to our feelings does not mean (as I believed for a long time) melding with the strongest feeling, identifying with it, acting without reflection on whatever the feeling wanted me to do.

Figuring out how to listen well to feelings, how to respond to them from a place of separate-but-compassionate insight, what to do with the awareness and energy they offer—this is a long-term process.

Finding a way to stay safe within a family system, on top of all of that—well, to my mind, there is no absolute right course of action for this.

Having the courage and insight to change, and the further courage to protect our evolving well-being inside our families, it can be so complicated, so challenging, (so grueling!) to navigate all of that.

Self-protection might involve avoiding the family (or certain members) while you take time to figure things out; making gentle requests for a family member to do things a little differently; asking one or more members to go to mediation or therapy with you; it might mean a short, long, or forever period of limited or no contact. It might mean a whole host of other things, entirely.

In other words, it can take a whole lot of exploring and planning with people you trust, who stand outside the family, who have expert knowledge and are absolutely committed to your well-being, to find the path that is right for you, that makes your inner self safe and secure. 

It took years for me to understand that when I said “no” to owning and knowing my own anger, I was leaving an extremely wise, and powerfully protective piece of myself behind.

Anger can feel combustible; but it’s also energetic and fierce. It can lend us its strength and bravery and confidence.

Of course, everything that bothers or angers us does not, by itself, constitute a reason to take immediate or drastic action. A world of hair-trigger tantrummers would be a nightmarish one.

But if we are made to feel violated or uncomfortable, invaded in a way that feels “not right” in certain intimate relationships, especially relationships within our family of origin, there is no higher or more urgent calling than to heed and protect that inner child.*

You have the right to protect your heart. The little one within needs you. S/he doesn’t need you to commit arson or murder; s/he might even be safest if you lay low for awhile; but no external accusation against you has any merit whatsoever, if you are taking good care of him or her.

It is not mean, it is not rude, it is not selfish, it is not disloyal, it does not make you a bad daughter/son, brother/sister, family member/friend, to protect that inner child.

Protecting our hearts doesn’t make us “bad” people; vigilantly and nonviolently protecting our hearts is exactly what makes it possible for us to be good, kind, generous human beings.

I still crave approval, like the kid and teen I once was. I still want people to think I’m a “good” person (daughter/ niece/ friend). I still hate to let people down.

But that sort of concern doesn’t matter in the least when it comes to my inner child. For her sake, it is irrelevant whether anyone else likes me or my choices, my words, my behavior, my values.

Ultimately, all that matters is that I protect her. Because her safety is what makes all the rest possible—my sanity, my well-being, my commitment to my values.

I can offer the world my best when I am whole; when I feel safe in the ways that matter to my inner, sensitive, wisely aware child. She may not have the cognitive tools to make sense of what’s going on; she needs my help, to understand and to take right action. But she has a deep, instinctual knowledge of what is and isn’t safe for me/ us.

My highest, most sacred duty is to protect my vulnerable inner self; if my inner child is crying for my attention, that is a more urgent concern than anything else. Caring for her doesn’t make me rude or selfish or disloyal or bad; it makes me a kind, whole, responsible adult.

I value kindness above almost anything else; in my most drastically self-protective actions, I have tried to speak carefully, act gently. But I am ruthlessly committed to my well-being, because without it, I’m worse than “mean” or any other name you might call me—I’m nothing. I’m a powerless, silenced sufferer.

My goodness is a fount that flows from my refusal to allow my inner child to be invaded or abused.

My intact wellness—protected by heeding my inner signals and guarding my boundaries—is the source of my integrity and insight and strength.

If something feels not okay, you and I have the right to disengage, to step out and walk away. At. Any. Point. Without permission or explanation. Even, and especially, within your family.

In fact, the title of this post could have been:

You Have the Absolute Right to Take the Nonviolent Actions Necessary For You to Feel SAFE, at All Times, Especially with Your Family

Family patterns change slowly. All too often, violence, abuse, and other unhealthy patterns are passed along for generation after generation. We can interrupt this cycle by taking ruthlessly kind and compassionately wise care of ourselves.

Let us make our world one that is safe for children, one inner child at a time.


*I’m NOT an expert on this, but it’s my understanding that sometimes, in threatening, abusive situations, dissociating from the reality of what we’re feeling is actually a really effective coping strategy. Coping with and coming back from dissociation is, unfortunately, outside the humble scope of this article; but I hope it’s obvious that I symbolically lend my love and support to anyone on that journey.

**I’m sensitive to the fact that responsible adults should actively nurture and protect their own actual child/ren first and foremost (and their inner child second). It seems a tricky thing to balance, and I hope that those seeking a resolution to this question will look, broadly and openheartedly, to the spirit and heart of what I have written here. Also, it is my hope, for all of us who parent or teach or mentor children, that we have been given or found the chance to do vital self-parenting work, first.  

Finally: a few minor details included in this piece have been altered to protect the innocent.

About Heidi Juniper

Heidi Juniper is a recovering perfectionist & self-connection coach, who helps people like you use Self-Kindness to connect more deeply to your basic goodness, your emotions, & your innate wisdom. She invites you to visit A Kindful Place--a community to Awaken True Potential thru Meaningful Connection & Self-Growth Tools--or to say hi on Facebook.  <<Blessings, Dear Ones.>>

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  • Anne

    What was the outcome/lesson learned/negative or positive result of the experience shared in the beginning? Thanks for sharing

  • Hi Anne! Thank you for reading my piece, and thank you for your thoughtful question. (You thanked me for sharing–you are sincerely welcome!)

    If you don’t feel able to read what follows, due to the Trigger warnings–no worries. I can give a much shorter, less intense answer, just ask. (Or, anyone reading this is welcome to ask for a wee summary.) Also, I want to invite you to share your thoughts or feelings in regard to what you asked about, if you’d like. And thank you for this probing, interested question!

    [Trigger Warnings for what follows: Long, probing, emotionally intense. Discussions of family “weirdness” and scary adult anger, plus allusions to repression, implications of dissociation.]

    I’m having to think and feel hard, to answer your penetrating question. I’m not sure how “deep” you’re inviting me to go. I think this is a very profound question… I’m going to answer as fully and with as much awareness as I can. I hope my answer doesn’t feel like TMI. 🙂 In any case–if you’re not prepared to read what follows, I sincerely don’t mind.

    The experience shared at the beginning had to do with my family member’s tearing up my cherished document, in anger. In the short term–I felt like I was observing, from a distance, a person who was out of control. I remembered thinking–“This really isn’t an okay way to EVER behave. I will NEVER be like what I’m seeing right now.” I think it’s what made me feel such contempt/ disdain for angry outbursts… And even, triggered me to go to the extreme of believing, I shouldn’t even FEEL anger. (I believe, now, it is important to feel my anger, to own it, to act on it in responsible ways. I still agree with my vulnerable, teen self, that acting out rage, in a red-faced fury, especially to people we have power over, especially within family structures, and ESPECIALLY to the vulnerable and to the young–is really NOT OKAY. I do have a sense of why this family member acted this way, and significant sympathy for those reasons. Unfortunately, having so much sympathy & compassion for those reasons, made it very, very hard for me to really own the VITAL truth that–It’s not fair or right or normal or okay that this sort of thing is/ was happening/ happened to me. Because the Storyline–the story the family told about this, was–“Poor them! They can’t help it.” And also, in many ways–“We can’t blame them, or stop them.” And the “off” behavior wasn’t okay. In their role as an adult, and a family member with significant power to affect me, that person should have had more self-understanding and self-control, and stopped that sort of thing. Also, others should have stopped them. At the very least, I should have had advocates, like a child therapist, to explain to me what this all meant and to be SOLELY on my side.)

    There are SO many outcomes, lessons, results from that moment, and what is symbolizes to me. And I’m still unpacking it now. (There were a lot of “weird” moments in my childhood, like this one–that were sort of… subtly strange. Or, sometimes, NOT at all subtle–just real weird, real strange. I think we all generally tend to believe that our families are normal. Until we realize they’re not. And that changes the meaning of memories that are hard to access.)

    So–the short term outcome was–one of shutting down. Of removing, from my awareness, how weird this all was. By resolving, FIRMLY and unequivocally, not to agree with the weirdness–not to join it or embody it.

    The ultimate results–are manifold. I’m very grateful for what this event, and others like it, have helped me to understand. I’m not grateful that they happened–I’m grateful for the wisdom and growth they led to. Or, I should say–I’m proud and grateful that I took the steps to grow from them. And the many ways in which my family system was healthy, supportive, nurturing, sane–have made it a lot easier for me to do this important work. Many, many other people aren’t NEARLY as lucky as I have been. I also believe I was born with a good brain, some lucky neurochemistry! My life experiences with other humans, most of my life, have been wholesome, loving, blessed. I have benefited enormously from the good “karma” (the goodness and love free-floating around) in the world. (That’s a big part of why I want to add to that “karma.” So others may experience the good luck we create for all sentient beings, through our own healing, kindness, growth, love.)

    Some of the many good eventual outcomes I made happen from this:

    I understand, firsthand, what’s it like to grow up in a family with aspects that feel “off”–for whatever reason. And I have a lot of empathy for that experience. I feel so much tenderness and protectiveness and allegiance to the inner child inside us all. And–to the extent that I have worked on these things, thought and felt and learned as much as I can about these things… (And I have done a lot of self-work, I have gone to therapy, reached out to kind, trustworthy people who “get it”–and read nonfiction and fiction and listened and had conversations and watched documentaries and listened to podcasts and read and read and read some more. I’ve REALLY tried)… So. To the extent I’ve worked this all out: I believe I am generally, hopefully not to imperfectly, able to be an understanding, kind, unconditional ally to people who’ve had experiences like this. To be a… calm, safe (fallible) island and a trustworthy & reliable listening (imperfect) presence (I HOPE!)… for people, when it comes to them sharing about things that were weird/ “off”/ inappropriate/ wrong, when they were young. Or that I’m capable of just being extra perceptive & sensitive if people seem scarred, if they seem to have had rough experiences, and giving them extra space, extra consideration. I should double-check with people who know me well; make sure I am doing these things. I’m not a therapist, I have no training as such and I try to be really clear about that kind of boundary. Plus, my goal is not to be the world’s therapist w/o training or permission. 🙂 But just be a safe & understanding presence in a world that can seem a sea of insanity, reactivity, scariness and weirdness and cruelty, for some.

    Being a safe, understanding, reliable, trustworthy, kind presence, is a responsibility and a calling I take as seriously as I take anything (probably as seriously as I take life itself). And I try (imperfectly) to be a kind, safe, responsible presence with everyone I interact with–however well I might or might not know them, however light & casual (vs more serious & intimate) the interaction.

    So–in the short term—> an experience of emotional distancing and profound disdain and repression. Feeling divided. Especially from my anger.

    In the long term, combined with reflecting and working with this and many other experiences—> awareness and compassion, I hope (and believe). And hopefully, also, I’ve experienced an awakening to a state of more tuned-in and trustworthy, stable, kind presence. I fervently hope. It is what I seek. Likely, above all else.

    Gosh. I’m feeling dang awed and grateful right now, what this led to. I think this is almost as long as the original piece. 🙂 Blessings to you, Anne, (if you’ve made it this far; no worries if not) for asking me–Thank you.

    Also: I want to offer a wish of sincere, non-mystical/ religious Blessings to anyone who reads this. And of course–as always–thanks for listening. An honour to catch your ear, eyes, heart for a few shared moments of connection.

    In Kindness–Heidi

  • Carol Cor

    rticle re: You have a right to feel safe in your relationships. I have a criticism about one paragraph and actually the overall concept and how I have seen it addressed in several articles. The lines I refer to in this article are: If “something feels ‘not okay,’” you and I have the right to disengage, to step out and walk away. At. Any. Point. Without permission or explanation. Even, and especially, within your family.

    I think what is not addressed properly herein is maybe the need to get out of a situation temporarily to assess oneself in relationship to another. It is generally “not okay” to walk away for good without explanation, in my mind, unless there is a threat of harm. As Jeff Brown states (paraphrase) the silent treatment can be passive aggressive and an act of violence in and of itself. And he also explains a simple statement can be enough to hold a relationship safe if one needs to retreat… like ” I need time to think.” I have been on the other side of someone’s retreat, without notice, without explanation… a BPD trait, splitting. And it is hurtful, devastating to be left like that. There are damaged people like that that use unqualified statements like the one in this article to justify this passive aggressive behavior to themselves for their unexplained, sudden retreat and it is unhealthy for them as well as the person who is the target of it.

  • Thank you, I loved this. You’re singing my song with your words!

  • (Attempted to leave this here yesterday–I think editing it made it disappear…) —>

    Before I respond (at considerable length) to Anne’s perceptive question in the comment below, I just want to thank everyone who has reached out, with such incredible warmth and kindness, to leave messages on the Kindful Place FB page, to interact at the site I recently founded (, and more. Thank you, thank you Dear Ones. I feel so seen, heard, and cared about. My hope that the words of my heart might find welcome homes has been met to a degree I didn’t dream possible.

    Shalom, Aloha, A’ho, Namaste… plus nonsectarian/ nonmystical/ Science-based Blessings to one & all.

    In Love & Kindness,
    Heidi Juniper

    p.s. THANK YOU for the comments. I will reply soon. 🙂

  • Anne! I just learned that the arrows below comments have to do with voting up or down… I thought clicking on the down arrow was a way to reply. I hadn’t intended to “down” vote your comment. 🙂

  • You’re so welcome, Meghan! I’m so glad to hear that. Thank you for taking the time to tell me & in such a lovely way. <3

  • Sheila Bergquist

    Wow, what a great article! Family issues are so fragile to deal with and it’s hard to know how sometimes. But you are right…you have the right to feel safe at all times, especially with your family. If not, then appropriate actions should be taken. I love your writing. You really covered this so well. Looking froward to hearing more from you.

  • Camila

    Thank you so much for sharing your story , your story is my guidance. Lots of love

  • Paul D

    I certainly understand a lot of what you’re saying here. Part of what the author is addressing is the pressure we receive – societal, personal and pervasive, that we owe others in relationship more than we owe ourselves. Especially with family. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard, “You’ve got to forgive that [significant violation] because they are family!” It is an extreme pressure. Damaged people can also use this as a tool to control those they are harming. This is also a BPD trait – denial of consensual reality.

    The author is saying that we do have that right to protect ourselves in dangerous situations. This includes psychological harm as well as physical which can be just as painful and often hidden. Sometimes we must choose the best of two un-ideal options.

    I am very sorry that you experienced such painful separations. I wish you much love and healing on your journey.

  • Oh, Camila, thank you so very much. What loving, encouraging, connecting words. Good luck on your journey! I wish you wisdom, courage, resilience, safe connections. It feels like you may already have plenty of all or most of those. But… I wish for you, an overflow. My heart wishes you well. Thank you–Love–Heidi

  • Thanks, Sheila! Your words, and your taking the time to make this comment, really make me feel seen and appreciated. <3 Thank you for the connecting words, the outright praise, the encouragements!

    Thank you for saying you love my writing. <3 That means a lot. I genuinely, sincerely, wholeheartedly look forward to writing more for you to read/ hear! And all the more so for having read your message, here. Thank you so much.

    In Kindness & Love,

  • Tami Parsons

    Thanks for the time and energy you gave for this thoughtful, helpful answer.

    Thanks for your excellent article.

  • Tami Parsons

    Well said, thanks!

  • Cecilia

    Thank you, Heidi! This article has come at the right time for me… your new title “You Have the Absolute Right to Take the Nonviolent Actions Necessary For You to Feel SAFE, at All Times, Especially with Your Family” made me burst into tears. Walking away and doing so to honour my inner self/child (after a lifetime of putting everyone else before me) was the hardest thing I’ve ever done but it was also the best thing I’ve ever done. I truly felt like I was being extinguished… not only by others but by ME. And as soon as I realised that, I knew that there was no going back. I had to take action. Your article has put into words everything I have done over the past year to gain a better relationship with myself… and that self love doesn’t necessitate a gooey heart felt feeling… it’s actually in ACTION that self love resides. No amount of affirmations and telling myself that “I love me” would ever heal me the way that listening and walking away and setting boundaries has done… thank you thank you thank you………! Merry Xmas, Ceci

  • Tami, you’re so welcome! I’m heart-glad to hear you found my answer thoughtful and helpful. I did put a lot of thought into it, and what emerged was something I (personally) found enormously instructive. (Also, it was sort of funny–I wavered about sharing something so personal, and then, it seemed–I hadn’t needed to concern myself, since it seemed unlikely anyone would read that huge, long response!)

    In any case–thank for taking the time to read the article, and the long comment, here. Your encouragement makes me want to share again. <3

  • Oh, THANK YOU, Ceci, and, you’re so welcome!!!!

    I’m so honoured and moved and grateful to hear that the words and whatever wisdom I could be the conduit of, were so powerfully affirming to something within you!

    I feel like I know what you mean, about being extinguished by yourself. If even YOU won’t listen to your heart, to that little one within… Well. It’s very, very hard to do anything in wholeness and for one’s “self-love” to mean much of anything. That little inner person deserves to be heard, and taken with the utmost seriousness. To be given the necessary space and safety to BE.

    It’s what we all deserve, and have always deserved. It can take so much courage to claim that. I’m grateful the timing of this worked so well for you.

    CONGRATS on all the work you have done for an entire year, to gain a better relationship with yourself! Congrats on the self-understanding, and heeding that inner child, and being will to take courageous action on her behalf.

    Taking action is so hard. It takes so much courage. But, in my experience–it changes everything. The right action, taken, as it sounds like you have, after careful consultation with your heart… Oh, life just gets a lot easier, after that big turning point. Inner places begin to heal so much more rapidly, you feel more whole, more at rest in the world–it’s easier to be the kind and giving person you’re meant to be. At least, that has been my experience. I hope it is that way for you.

    Thank you so much for taking the time to tell me all this, and for sharing your heart in this beautiful way! You’re utterly welcome–“any time”, as they say–and I hope that you have a Merry Xmas, too! Love, Heidi

  • Lislorien

    I would love to know how you are getting on now you are putting yourself first?
    And the use of the word ‘extinguished’ is really potent and spot-on. Such a final and permanent word however well done to you for making the choice to put yourself first so you can flourish. Peace.