“Trust Issues” In Trauma Survivors

Clients from all walks of life sooner or later in our sessions raise the issue of trust. They commonly say phrases like “I don’t trust anyone” or “I trust people too much or too quickly” or generally make comments like “I have trust issues”.

Issues with trusting others are one of the most common and most profound characteristics of trauma survivors, especially if trauma stems from childhood. The logic of our brain goes: If most important people in my life (namely a parent, or a caregiver) failed/betrayed me, then how can I trust anyone ever again?

It seems obvious to our traumatized brains that not trusting anyone is a key to safety and security for the rest of our lives, however it does not work well for us, and I am sure isn’t a key to emotional wellbeing and a happy life. First of all, we are social beings and thrive on connection with others. Without trust we cannot build connections. In addition, we naturally tend to avoid loneliness and are drawn towards others, thus finding ourselves needing people and longing to build relationships. Hence we desperately seek trust and we desperately need to find someone to trust. This is a normal and healthy mechanism of our organisation as highly social creatures. However, trauma breaks that healthy mechanism, often making it unhealthy. Two common polarities arise when it is broken: “I trust no one” and “I trust people too much (and end up hurt)”. Let’s talk about each of these separately.

I trust no one.

This is a protective mode and as I said above, it makes sense to our traumatised brains. However, it is the mode that is simply unrealistic to fulfil for any functioning adult. Our daily lives require us to constantly make small steps demonstrating our trust in others. For example, if you visit a doctor, you trust that your health issue will be handled ethically and professionally. If you order a delivery, you trust the courier with your money, or if you ask the delivery to be left at your door step you might trust that your neighbours will let it stay there waiting for you safe and sound. It is simply impossible to live everyday life without making these small bids on trust, otherwise constant suspicion and mistrust threatens our mental wellbeing and can develop into paranoid ideation and more suffering.

So generally when people say “I trust no one” it is worth while questioning what does it mean for their everyday life. Is is that they have no close friends? Is it that they are often suspicious of their partner? Is it mistrust at work, where they feel separate from the colleagues and suspect other talk behind their backs? Each situation will be specific to a person, but behind that there will be painful childhood experiences and the walls we build around ourselves for extra protection in adulthood.

I trust people too much (and end up hurt)

Just like I mentioned earlier, we as humans are highly social beings and need others in our lives. We also cannot build meaningful relationships without trust, which makes trust a necessary ingredient in all human interactions. People, whose trust have been violated in the past (or who feel betrayed by their caregivers) nevertheless seek out relationships and try to repair the past by finally finding someone trustworthy or someone who they can trust and thus feel valued and loved. However, the urge to achieve this goal can drive people to trust too fast or too much (or worse, to trust blindly), only to find later that the level of trust they put on others has been inappropriate for the relationship or the person they trusted.

How healthy trust works?

You might ask how healthy (or “not traumatized”) mechanism of trust works. Let’s explain what a healthy ability to trust looks like. I highlight three components of a healthy ability to trust: relativity, flexibility and appropriateness.

First of all, healthy trust is relative.

It is not all or nothing, it is specific to a relationship in question, and also specific to the people in the relationship and how well you know them. For example, you might trust one friend with money but not the other friend (who you know is bad with money and might not return your loan). You might trust one friend to always pick up your call and be available for a chat, but you might not trust same friend to offer practical help you might need. You can simply adjust your trust by examining your relationships and asking what you can or cannot trust each person with. As we meet people and get to know them we simply cannot assume we know how they behave in any given circumstances. But as relationship develops, we learn the specifics and learn who we can trust and what with.

Secondly, trust is flexible.

It grows or diminishes depending on a relationship. Trust is not a constant amount. There can become “less trust” and “more trust” in a relationship as people get to know each other. For example, encountering a new situation with someone you know can indicate whether you can trust a person more or less by making conclusions out of what you witness. Please remember the key words are “more” or “less” and not “never” or “forever”. Also remember trust “relativity” we mentioned in the paragraph above. For example if your friend promises something and keeps their word you can trust more and more that they will do what they say. If it is less and less, you should also adjust accordingly.

In addition, trust must be appropriate to a specific relationship. You simply cannot trust all your friends or social contacts “the same”. For example it is ok to trust your health professional with health information, but you cannot expect the same level of confidentiality with someone you know socially, unless you already know and witnessed that the person can uphold someone’s privacy and can trust them with confidential information. Some people tend to gossip or simply slip out secrets accidentally. These occurrences do not mean a person is an “untrustworthy friend”. It simply means that they cannot be “trusted with secrets”. Adjust your levels of trust accordingly and appropriate to the specific person and the relationship by using new information you observe.

Lastly, it is vital to remember that protecting yourself completely by learning not to trust anyone or cutting people off for “breaking your trust” is not the best way forward towards mental and social wellbeing. Making judgements along the way, learning to trust specific people in specific types of relationship as well as remaining flexible is the key and a skill worth learning to undo the damage of childhood trauma.

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

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