“I feel like I’ll never be able to trust again.” How many of us can relate to those words? They were shared in a thread on social media. With its elements of distance and anonymity, social media platforms can sometimes feel like the only place a person can let their guard down and be real.
Trust is such a crucial issue for many of us. But for those with traumatic backgrounds or just unstable upbringings, being able to trust literally feels like an impossibility.
So many circumstances go into creating distrust. Repeated disappointments can fracture trust. As can rejection, neglect, and denial of your reality, as in the case of a child who is not allowed to have their feelings but is told to “suck it up” and stop crying.
However discouraging it may feel not to trust, it’s important to remember that if you don’t trust people, it’s a learned response; and anything learned can be unlearned.
Trust can be nurtured in the safe container of supportive relationships with your family-of-origin, family-of-choice, spouse or partner, friends, or between you and your counselor or therapist.
Why Distrust Makes it Hard to be Vulnerable or Ask for Help
I grew up thinking vulnerability was bad. It was bad to rely on others, and it was bad to show need. Not surprisingly, I grew up in a single-mother household, where my indomitable mother handled raising three kids and making a living without ever failing or asking for help.
Add to that my childhood history of extreme self-reliance after the fall-out from my father sexually abusing me; I grew to rely solely on myself.
So for me, like many trauma survivors, showing vulnerability was unthinkable. Like literally unthinkable: I didn’t know how to do it or that it even was an option. And when I saw vulnerability in others, it repulsed me.
There are several circumstances that can break trust and make vulnerability challenging:
1. An unstable home life or upbringing
Children need routine and stability to build trust. In infancy, having a mother or caregiver who responded reliably when the baby cried, built trust in the baby that their needs would be met. Likewise, a child who has a regular school, dinner, and bedtime schedule builds trust in their parents and their environment.
On the other hand, an infant who is not looked after in a consistent way or a child who is moved from place to place, or has a parent or parents who are heavy drug-users or is surrounded by instability for other reasons will not develop trust. Rather, the child will develop anxiety, unease, and will feel they can’t trust anything or anyone around them.
2. Abuse or neglect
The trauma of physical or sexual abuse or neglect irrevocably fractures the bonds of trust for a child. When a child is abused by their parent, parents, or some other adult acquaintance it creates a story in the child’s mind that ‘those who were supposed to protect me hurt me instead’.
Because of that, trust is forever damaged if not lost in the child. If the abuser is in the home, then the child never feels safe and it’s impossible to trust if you don’t feel safe. If the perpetrator is outside the home that fosters distrust in strangers and acquaintances and makes everything outside the home feel unsafe. In either case, the child will grow with the sense that people cannot be trusted.
3. Emotionally unavailable parents/caregivers
Our ability to trust is tied to our ability to attach or bond to another person. Research on attachment styles has shown how trust is either built or damaged between a child and its mother based on its mother’s ability to meet its needs and attune to its feelings in a consistent and positive way.
A child cannot attach to a parent who is emotionally unavailable. And attachment is a driving force behind our healthy development. So, when a child can’t attach to its parent(s)/caregiver it’s left feeling untethered, experiences tremendous anxiety, and is fearful to trust anyone.
4. Being the parentified child
You were a parentified child if you had to “grow up too fast”. If you were the one looking out for yourself and/or younger siblings at an early age because your parents weren’t around or weren’t capable of looking after you, then you became the parentified child.
Or if you felt responsible for taking care of your parents’ emotional needs as is the case for children of narcissists, alcoholics, or addicts, then you were put in the role of parent.
The parentified child learns that they can only rely on themselves, so they will not easily trust others and will rarely ask for help. Not just that but they will come to look at needing help as a sign of weakness.
These are not all the cases in which trust is broken, so if you don’t see yourself reflected in any of these examples it doesn’t mean that your experience was any less valid.
What Happens When Your Trust Is Damaged
The trouble with not trusting is that we live in a world crowded with people. 🙂 And if we don’t trust that means we never fully engage with the world around us. There is always a wall between us and a deeper experience of life. And as deeply social creatures, that kind of disconnect only leads to pain and alienation, in which we feel utterly alone.
But there is another peskier and hidden ramification of not trusting others. If you don’t trust other people, there is a chance that you also don’t trust yourself.
That may sound shocking but hear me out.
If in your childhood you could not trust the people around you because they either abused or neglected you, part of your unconscious became identified with those people. It’s just a function of the psyche as we’re forming our identities: our sense of self is dependent on our parents. They are our templates. So if they were abusive or neglectful a part of us identified with them as abusive, neglectful, and untrustworthy.
Put another way, as the child sees it ‘my parents are good, so I’m good’ or ‘my parents are bad, so I’m bad.’ We internalize that message and it dictates how we see ourselves and other people.
Their destructive behaviors become our internalized self-destructive behaviors. So that now as an adult you may find that you don’t trust your own opinions or decision-making abilities.
Not being able to trust yourself is the worst and, ironically, most vulnerable position you can be in because although you don’t trust others, you are highly susceptible to others because you don’t trust yourself.
It’s crazy-making; I know.
How to Learn to Trust Again
Chances are, if you’ve lived your whole life not trusting people then there are only a few people in your circle that you consider “close”. And even those few you keep at a distance. To start the healing process of unlearning distrust and letting yourself open up to trusting others, you must start with small steps that build confidence.
You can start to build trust within yourself by 1) making a small promise to yourself, and 2) keeping the promise. For example, a small promise to yourself could be, ‘I’m going to drink a glass of water every morning for the next week’ or ‘I’m going to wake up 15 minutes earlier during the workweek’. Pick something small and easily achievable that you know for sure you will stick to. Set short time frames, like a week at a time, so that you don’t feel overwhelmed.
You’ve Got A Friend In Me
If you feel like you won’t be able to hold yourself to the promise, get an “accountability buddy”. Tell a friend or relative what your plans are and ask them to check-in with you during the week to see if you’re on track. Having other people holding us accountable can help us stick to our promises because we don’t want to disappoint them.
Another way to build trust in yourself is to notice that little voice inside or that feeling in your gut that tells you to do something or not to do something and listen to it. Trust what you hear or feel as your own wisdom. You can call it your intuition, or a hunch, but whatever you call it, following it strengthens it. And as it grows so will your confidence and trust in yourself.
As you keep your promises to yourself and start to trust your inner knowing, you’ll learn to trust yourself more.
Then you can turn your attention to trusting others.
Take small steps and begin with someone you know you can count on for certain, like a good friend. Begin with a small request, like, “Hey, why don’t we have a Zoom chat this week?” This kind of request is easily fulfilled barring scheduling issues. And once fulfilled, allow yourself to acknowledge that you had a need met. THIS ACKNOWLEDGMENT IS CRUCIAL BECAUSE IT’S REWIRING YOUR BRAIN AND YOUR EXPECTATION OF BEING DISAPPOINTED. So don’t just jump off the call and go into another activity. Sit with your feelings of having a need met.
If you don’t have a good friend you feel you can count on, see if there is someone at work you’d feel safe making a request of. Again, it could be something small, like asking for help with something even if you really don’t need it. It’s just to flex your muscles in asking for help and receiving it. The same holds true here, that it’s important to acknowledge when help has been received. Let yourself drink that in and make a mental note that someone showed up for you in a trustworthy way.
Practicing this a few times with a friend, relative, or co-worker will help you relax your “distrust muscle” and lean in more to your trusting nature.
A Little Goes A Long Way
After this, why not try making small promises to other people. By making and keeping those promises you are fostering a feedback loop of trust. You are showing them that you can be trusted while showing yourself that you are trustworthy. This will make others feel more comfortable coming to you. And as you see others stepping up and fulfilling promises they made to you, you will open even more to your ability to trust.
Remember, it took time to learn distrust and it will take time to learn how to trust again. Be kind and patient with yourself. You can totally do this!
And if you need the support of a counselor to help you rebuild trust, reach out by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m here to help!
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