Some years ago, the dates are hazy in my mind, my husband of 25 years died after a long illness. Two years later, my fiance died. Both deaths occurred in dramatic and traumatic ways. I loved them both. And both of those men loved me. They were trustworthy, given their humanity and personal failings.
Just a point here, no one is perfectly trustworthy because all people have failings, flaws, and idiosyncrasies.
I spent approximately a year on my couch, just sitting. I watched a lot of television. That year one channel was showing a daily rerun of Babylon 5. I counted on that show and watched it daily. Babylon 5 was the only constant in my life. I listened to music. Stared at the wall. Journalled. Stared at the wall some more. Finally, near the end of that year, I went to a grief group. I started coming back to life. My life. Going out and about in the world. Interacting with people again. But just barely.
I met a man, or so it seemed. Actually, he tracked me. He saw me on one of my outings out in the world. He recognized me as a hurting and vulnerable person. He was a predator and he spotted me as an easy victim. Over time, he harmed me. It took 2 more years to go through all the events with him and finally eliminate him from my life.
What does this have to do with trust?
When my husband died, I stopped trusting that life was positive and safe. When my fiance died, I lost hope in my present and for my future. After that predator, I lacked faith in my own decision-making abilities. I ceased trusting myself. I stopped believing that other people were safe. I no longer believed that other people had my best interests at heart. I certainly wasn’t willing to rely on them for any aspect of my well-being. I knew it wasn’t safe for me to be vulnerable in any way. This left me hurting and empty.
Trust means being vulnerable. Learning to trust is the first stage in human social development (For more information, see Milton Erikson Psychosocial Stages). We develop trust from our interactions with others. In the very beginning of our lives, we must depend completely on the people who take care of us.
If your basic needs are met, you’ll develop trust. Not just trusting in other people, but an underlying trust that the world is a safe place. It’s also hope and a belief the events and challenges in your life will turn out good. You learn to trust yourself.
If your caretakers are neglectful or abusive, you might not develop trust. Instead, you will mistrust the people you encounter. You’ll experience a great deal of self-doubt. You might feel a lot of fear. Experiences such as intimacy, relationships, and success appear fraught with danger. You might become overly controlling, feeling as if you must protect yourself more than is actually necessary. Chances are that you feel a great deal of negativity about your life’s goals. Often people who don’t learn to trust believe that the world is unpredictable, unreliable and unsafe.
How do we get from here, mistrusting life itself to there, being able to become vulnerable and risk yourself with others?
I think it begins with you. Learning for the first time to trust yourself. Or, like me, learning all over again that I can rely on my judgment. Loving yourself and trusting others are totally intertwined. I wrote about that here. You can begin with the activities in the writing.
Secondly, you can make a ‘trust map‘. Here is a worksheet I developed to help with this task:
I made a chart to help with this process. It’s here: Learn Your Version of Safe and Trustworthy People.
If you have great difficulty trusting people, you might think that you never, ever met anyone trustworthy. But really, that’s not true. If it was true, you would not be alive today. Someone somewhere gave you enough care to survive into adulthood. Also, children are incredibly survival oriented. Most of us will take in the smallest amount of nurturing if it is anywhere in our environment. For example, I remember one camp counselor. We never spoke, but she made eye contact with me and didn’t look away. I took that in and made it matter to my being. Someone was willing to see me.
You think about all the people in your personal history. Then list those people you’d qualify as trustworthy whether they are in your life or not.
Consider seriously what you believe about them. Next, write your feelings about them.
Here is where we look outside ourselves at the people we consider trustworthy. Away from out thoughts. Away from our feelings. I always consider myself a sort of detective looking for facts. Clear, concise facts.
There is a complicated explanation for this. So, simply, most of us project out ideas and feelings onto other people. We don’t see them clearly; instead viewing people as if they were wearing the clothing of our hurts, prejudices, and pre-judgments. If you are hurt or angry, your version will be colored by an overlay of that hurt or anger. It’s kind of like using a light colored crayon over a painting. An overlay. In order to make progress, we have to work to see them as they really are.
List their words. Write down what you remember of what they actually said. Do this as carefully and clearly as you can.
List their actions. Write down what they did.
And finally, summarize this for yourself. List the trustworthy traits that you now see in them as clearly as possible. I try for one or two words in this column. It’s important for you to be able to remember these ideas when you are around other people.
Then you build your own version of what trustworthy looks like. The next stage of this involves taking yourself to places where you will encounter others. Watch them. See if you can find the people you trust. Don’t do anything yet. Just practice identifying people you think are trustworthy.
The next stage is to have surface conversations with people you see as trustworthy. Take your time, get to know them. See if your version of trustworthy is as accurate as you’d like. And eventually, make new friends with people you trust.
If you have responses to my writing, have questions, or just want to share your thoughts, please feel free to share your comments. I’d love to hear what you are thinking.
If you’d like more information or want to make an appointment:
Telephone: (615) 464-3791
©2016 by Laura Coleman, Ph.D. All rights reserved.
Painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons