Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Emotional Safety: What It Is and Why It’s Important

Emotional safety is critically necessary—and widely misunderstood.

Key points

  • Emotional safety is a basic human need and an essential building block for all healthy human relationships.
  • Emotional safety is the visceral feeling of being accepted and embraced for who you truly are and what you feel and need.
  • Feeling chronically emotionally unsafe causes intense psychological distress—and, often, greater isolation and more difficulty reaching out.

“Emotional safety?” exclaimed George, one of our clients. “What are you talking about? No one’s carrying a knife here. You can’t walk around worrying about getting your feelings hurt all the time. That’s not the way life is!”

George has a point. “Emotional safety” does sound rather “soft.” Couldn’t all this talk of being “emotionally safe” be harmful? Aren’t we encouraging people, especially young people, to be fragile? Isn’t it important to learn how to toughen up at times and not let things get to you to get through hard times without breaking?

Of course it is. And, yet, despite that—or maybe because of it—emotional safety is still important. In fact, it may be the most important thing for emotional health, for you, for me, for George’s wife and kids, and for George as well. Without emotional safety, you can’t love well or even live well. If you don’t feel emotionally safe when you’re with someone, you can’t feel close, and you don’t feel good.

But contrary to what some might think, emotional safety doesn’t mean bubble-wrapping yourself or others so that nobody ever feels hurt or even uncomfortable. Emotional safety is something very different, and fundamentally rather simple. It’s the visceral feeling—that is, a feeling that you feel physically, in your body—that with this person or these people or in this place, you don’t have to feel scared to be really you.

That’s it. And feeling it with at least one person in your life is vitally important to feeling OK. Conversely, the lack of it within and between people is at the core of many emotional and societal problems.

The Evolutionary Roots of Emotional Safety

Why is emotional safety so important? Because it’s based on a need that’s even more elemental: physical safety.

For every creature on Earth, the prime directive is safety. Food and procreation are important, but survival tops the list. And survival is rarely easy. To survive in an environment full of things that can kill you, you need a very well-tuned system for staying safe. Notwithstanding your reckless 18-year-old nephew and his friends, survival, with its concomitant need to maintain safety, is still our most powerful instinct.

What does this have to do with emotional safety?

We human beings are among the most defenseless and vulnerable creatures on the planet. We have no claws, no sharp teeth, no quills, and we can’t even run very fast. For the first 12 years of our life, and even more so for the first six, we can barely protect and take care of ourselves at all.

We evolved one primary way to stay safe: staying physically close and connected to a group of other human beings. It’s easy to forget this in our modern world, where we can live as alone as cats and still be safe and get our physical needs met. But this “modern” way of living is not what we’re designed for. For 99.98 percent of the time Homo sapiens has been on this planet, living apart and disconnected from others simply wasn’t possible.

To stay connected and work together for such long periods of time—usually, in the past, for one’s entire life—humans needed to develop a way to maintain such a close-knit system and to know when it wasn’t working. That system, the thermostat for keeping the whole thing going and keeping us alive and safe, was our emotions. And it still is. Our emotions—love, anger, fear, sadness and happiness, shame and disgust—are the coins we exchange to hold each other close or to tell each other when something has gone wrong to break the connection.

Emotional safety for us, then, is tied to physical survival itself. It’s very, very real and very, very deeply woven into our nature.

What Happens When You Feel Emotionally Safe

When you feel emotionally safe with someone, your heart rate and respiration go down and even synchronize with the other person's. Perspiration, a sign of stress, is reduced. The muscles in your body relax. You’re likely to express more of your thoughts and feelings, both positive and negative. You can better tolerate physical pain when they’re with you.

Since emotional safety is a feeling, if you have it with someone, you know what it feels like. George feels it most with his “little” brother Tom, two years younger than him. He can go fishing with Tom and barely say a word for hours, but still feel totally at peace. Tom was the one person other than his wife that George turned to when his son was in the hospital, and Tom came through for him.

Emotional safety with at least one person and preferably with a group of others is what you need to feel OK in your own skin and to venture out into the new and the unknown.

The Impact of a Lack of Emotional Safety

If emotional safety comes from feeling loved and accepted for being who you are and feeling the way you feel, feeling emotionally unsafe comes from its opposite: feeling that either the people who matter most to you or those whom you most depend upon for survival consider the “real” you and the expression of your true needs and feelings unacceptable, unlovable, even contemptible. It comes from being emotionally attacked, belittled, or simply ignored. Lack of emotional safety can also come from simple lack of physical touch and comfort, especially when it’s ignored or withheld and the need for it is denied.

When you don’t feel emotionally safe, you feel emotionally threatened, which causes the same bodily reactions as feeling physically threatened. You “freeze.” You hold your breath and tense your body. Alternatively, you may go into attack mode. Or you may shut down. Brain studies have shown that social rejection activates the same pain centers in the brain as getting physically injured. To your brain, physical and emotional pain are practically the same thing. And if you can’t get back fairly quickly to feeling safe and accepted, you’re essentially living in a state similar to constant physical threat.

Life is full of experiences like this, past and present. It could have happened at a previous job, or in the one you’re in currently. It could have happened in school, at the mercy of bullies or “mean girls.” It could happen in an abusive relationship. Or you could have felt emotionally unsafe all through your childhood. These experiences leave psychic scars, most commonly in the form of emotional reactions that try to protect you from ever feeling that kind of pain again—or from ever risking being attacked or shunned.

Tragically, the very reactions that try to shield people from greater harm frequently lead them to become even more isolated, miserable, and in danger. But to a powerful and primitive part of us dedicated to survival at all cost, these reactions, no matter how harmful they are, feel safer than emotional vulnerability.

The Need to Build More Emotional Safety

But the root of this problem isn’t personal—it’s cultural.

Over and over, we get the message that we shouldn’t need anyone, that heroes and successful people “go it alone.” We’ve “privatized” all emotional needs for safety, connection, and belonging to the smallest circle possible: spouses, and children with their parents and grandparents. That’s too big a burden for such a small circle. When it fails, as it frequently does, there’s no commonly available emotional safety net.

All around us, we’re seeing the danger of people, especially our young people, not feeling embraced, protected, and wanted just for being who they are. We have made competition our god, we have classified and categorized the people around us, even children, into winners and losers and ignored the basic human need and right to feel accepted and worthwhile by the people around them. Then we wonder why some people break.

When people feel chronically unsafe, their emotions become heightened to where those emotions feel overwhelming, and even frightening, to themselves and others. People who feel chronically cut off from others and unsafe can feel, and sometimes become, unsafe to others.

But when people feel emotionally safe, their emotional system calms down, and they become saner.

Now is a time when building more emotional safety—in ourselves, our families, and our communities— is critical, possibly more critical than it’s ever been in our lifetime.

In your own life, the first step to building more emotional safety is to realize that you and everyone around you, including men like George, need it more than you, or they, think. And emotional safety comes when we treat each other with care.

It doesn’t mean never expressing anger, or never (for many of us, though not all) playfully teasing. It’s about creating homes and communities where our true human experiences, in all their beauty, joy, and tragedy, are freely spoken and lovingly welcomed, honored, held, and embraced. It’s about respecting the vulnerability of your own heart, your partner’s heart, and, indeed, every human heart.

For the heart, as much as it is resilient, is a tender organ.

More from Helene Brenner, Ph.D., and Larry Letich, LCSW-C
More from Psychology Today