Trust is a funny thing; it can take forever to establish and can be shattered in the blink of an eye. We can’t have a healthy relationship without trust, yet many of us have had our hearts handed to us in pieces by someone we trusted; the proverbial once bitten, twice shy.
Taking it slow when first getting to know someone seems pretty commonsense. The goal should be making sure hypocrisy isn’t in play where they’re promising us a fairy-tale to our face while delivering a nightmare behind our back.
While this is sound advice, it’s limited by how well we can trust ourselves.
Can we trust their intentions?
Are they going to cheat on us?
How can we decide if they’re worthy of our trust?
Here’s where our instincts and intuitions should be guiding us. After all, if we aren’t in sync with our own instincts or aligned with our own intuition, we run the risk of getting tangled up with someone who can spend years pretending they care for us, only to find out in hindsight they were driven by opportunism, not love.
…as they moved on to the next opportunity.
Trust is also based on our lived experiences. On one hand, we’re hardwired to be open to building authentic and trusting relationships with others; on the other hand, many of us kick into self-preservation mode to protect ourselves from being hurt again.
Which prevents the trusting relationships we claim we want.
Because this plays out on repeat for anyone who’s previously experienced betrayal or had their trust abused, the same situation is what keeps a person locked into the idea that no one is worthy of trusting…which keeps them in self-preservation mode.
…enter vicious cycle.
Where Trust Should Start
How we learn to trust — as with most learned behaviors — begins in childhood. Theorists such as Erik Erikson and John Bowlby focused their research on developmental needs throughout childhood and across the lifespan such as Erikson’s “Trust vs. Mistrust” in infancy and how it affects further development, including our later attachment to others.
In short, if we can rely on mom and dad to take care of us with consistency, then boom…we learn to trust ourselves, to trust others, and to form secure attachments in our lives. If not, mistrust is learned, along with anxious or avoidant attachment styles.
While other theorists such as Maslow don’t directly discuss trust, Maslow’s Hierarchy discusses safety, security and consistency — all which are tied into trust. By being able to rely on our caregivers as consistent and safe, we’re building trust in them as reliable and worthy of trusting.
These are the building blocks for love: attachment, security, safety, and trust. When our ability to trust goes sideways, so do our abilities to feel safe, or to love another person without looking for agendas or shutting down out of self-preservation.
However, what we usually don’t give enough attention to is our ability to trust ourselves.
Why We Have It Backwards
With so much emphasis placed on picking apart whether we can trust the people in our lives, this mindset is backwards, at best. We can spend an eternity looking outward at everyone in our lives and keeping them at arms-distance, and still be no closer in figuring out how — or whether — they are worthy of our trust.
Or, we can continue a cycle of letting others in, only to have the same betrayal play out time and again, as our inner critic kicks into overdrive calling us an idiot for trusting them, and that we should have known better.
The goal should be looking inward at ourselves and at what has helped to shape our lives. Because our most intimate relationships are supposed to be based on our ability to be open and authentic with our partner, when we’ve had a partner cheat on us, or who sent mixed messages by trying to hide their emotional unavailability, these not only damage the relationship, they can damage our ability to trust ourselves.
Building Self Trust
As with any skill, building self-trust takes practice, and it takes time. We can’t take a non-defensive stance in trusting someone or commit to complete understanding and transparency with anyone in our lives until we’ve mastered these skills with ourselves.
Toss Out The Self-Blame. The thing is, there are going to be people in our lives that we made a mistake in letting in and who wound up hurting us. It’s really easy to sit back and point fingers at ourselves, but what does this accomplish?
Flip the script — if you trusted someone with your heart and they abused your trust, then that means they are struggling with their own trust issues and they fell back into their own self-preservation mode. Maybe they’ll figure it out, maybe not. But that’s on them, not you. There’s no need to hold on to their trust issues as your own.
Recognize The Cycles. The only way we can recognize if a cycle is in play, is based on how many times it’s played out before. There’s a saying in Behavior Analysis: …”Once is a behavior; two or more times, it’s a habit.” If you’ve taken a chance at trusting someone who broke your trust once, then your best bet is to take the necessary time off to figure out why you trusted them, and where your trust skills need tightening, so you can minimize collateral damage moving forward.
If you’re like most, you may have experienced having your trust betrayed a few times before you saw a cycle. If so, toss out the self-blame and focus on noticing the patterns so you can fine-tune your expectations for when (or whether) you’ll give your trust.
Maintain Boundaries. Or, if your boundaries are lacking, then now’s a good time to establish some. This may mean becoming more selective on who you give your time or energy to, or in being OK with saying no. This may mean developing a strict self-care routine that includes time for journaling, creating healthy space for yourself, or in becoming more aware of your thoughts, your needs, and your feelings as you’re having them.
Calm The Inner Critic. Our inner critic can be our worst enemy because not only does it know us, it knows our weak spots. Training our inner critic to change its tune is tough and it usually requires a lot of practice. However, it can be done through consistency. Each time your inner critic lashes out at you, silence it. Try having a script of positive affirmations where each time your inner critic fires up, you redirect it. This helps in creating a sense of control and empowerment for yourself— which helps in continuing to build self-trust.
Once Bitten, Twice Shy. One of the biggest problems with trusting ourselves and others is when our heart gets in the way because we lose objectivity and start thinking with our emotions. We may love the person who betrayed us; but the situation may be toxic to us. If someone betrayed our trust or broke our heart, it’s natural to be cautious and in self-preservation mode around them.
While no one can tell you whether or not to trust someone again after a major betrayal of trust has occurred, honoring ourselves and giving ourselves necessary space is important in helping us recognize whether or not we should welcome that back into our lives.
Bowlby, J., 1982. Attachment. New York: Basic Books.
Erikson E. H . (1982). The life cycle completed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Erikson, E. H. (1950). Childhood and society. New York: Norton.
Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370–396.
Previously published on medium
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