Mistrust, Hope, and Meaningful Connection, Part 1

“I have trust issues.”

Have you ever said that? What does that mean to you? Where do those “issues” come from?

When I explore trust issues with people, we often discuss all the ways they’ve been failed and betrayed by people they trusted, or wanted to trust. They might also talk about the ways they leap into trust with every new relationship, hoping this one won’t disappoint, only to be bitterly crushed again. Others feel terrified of trusting their relationships at all, afraid of that seemingly inevitable disappointment.

More deeply, they may feel unable to trust themselves. They’ve disappointed themselves, feel they’ve set themselves up to be hurt, believe they deserve the pain, engaged in self-defeating behaviors.

In every relationship, we must reckon with the issue of trust. How much do I trust? Does mistrust keep me safe? Are the benefits of trust or mistrust worth the costs?

Trust vs. Mistrust

Erik Erikson described one of the first Western psychological models of development that encompass an entire life. The first stage he called Trust vs. Mistrust. This begins from birth through infancy, in which the child learns that their environment may or may not respond to its needs appropriately. If the infant expresses need and the need is met, then trust in the world grows. If the infant’s needs are met sporadically, neglected, or punished, then mistrust in the world grows. When both ends of the spectrum are felt and integrated, the virtue of Hope becomes possible.

Problems reconciling the developmental crisis of Trust vs Mistrust leads to imbalances that affect later stages of development. We can very easily name undesirable consequences of too much mistrust—anxiety in relationships, irritability, paranoia, constantly feeling on guard and reluctant to let someone in due to believing eventually they will screw you up. But those who have lived through mistrust-engendering relationships could tell you the dangers of too much trust—opening themselves up to being taken advantage of, the deep pain of betrayal, and excessive credulity leading to the premature forgiveness of abusive and disrespectful behavior.

People with extensive relational trauma or deep-seated mistrust cannot simply set these aside to trust in a loving, benevolent universe. They know the universe is vast and includes pain, abuse, and evil. People who have experienced relational trauma often need to learn how to find trustworthy people and repair damaged trust while also maintaining healthy protective boundaries against people who would hurt and abuse them (clinically known as “assholes”).

An image of a person with long brown hair and a white shirt. Around this person's head is a blue scarf. The arrangement of scarf and hair obscure the person's face, and it is unclear which direction they are facing. Behind is an open sky and expanse of water.
photo by Oscar Keys, via Unsplash

The Experience of Mistrust

It took me a long time to recognize “Mistrust” as more than simply “the absence of trust.” Mistrust is its own attitude with collections of feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Mistrust will look differently based on your personality and the experiences that sparked it, but here are some qualities that often appear in some form:

  • Guardedness – Stand-offishness, unwillingness to share your experience and thoughts openly without getting a temperature of the room or other person. Giving brief, curt answers to open questions.
  • Suspicion – Constantly feeling “on edge.” Irritability. Regular concerns that the other person is acting deceptively, setting you up for some harm, or talking about you behind your back. Needing to constantly check out the other person’s claims for truth value. May include some deceptive behavior like snooping or testing the person.
  • Anxiety – Tension in the body. Constantly going through the same cycles of thoughts over and over, regardless of any evidence for the thoughts. Difficulty relaxing, especially around people. Going “blank”, fearful, or hostile when asked direct questions.
  • Holding Grudges/Building a Case – Keeping a mental list of all the failures, abuses, and oversights committed by others. Sometimes you might dwell on these and bring them up to the other person when angry or afraid, even if the other person has apologized and tried to make amends. Other times you may keep this list to yourself, “building a case” not to trust the person, until you finally explode and throw all these accusations against the person who didn’t see them coming.
  • Cynicism – More broadly, mistrust generates a worldview that no one is trustworthy, there is nothing worth aspiring toward, and there is no reason to exert any effort to improve one’s life or community.

One thing I find interesting is that inwardly the person is experiencing a desire to know if they can trust the other person, but outwardly they behave in ways that undermine their own trustworthiness. Guardedness often elicits guardedness; if I wonder why you’re being self-protective, I may become self-protective. Being suspicious and holding grudges may well inspire the other person to respond in turn.

This becomes a internally coherent cycle of creating relationships that validate the mistrustful attitude. These behaviors are not conducive to the process of making amends and restoring trust.

That said, these behaviors and feelings aren’t “bad” and you’re not “crazy” to experience them. If we were to look through your history, we might fully understand why you’d be protective of yourself and why it’s hard to trust. Feelings of mistrust might be completely valid intuitive warnings from the part of your brain that isn’t wholly logical but nevertheless is picking up on subtle signals of danger.

I do not think eradicating or suppressing feelings of mistrust is useful to grow as a person and forming meaningful attachments. We might need to take some time to befriend and get to know mistrust while also exploring when and how to build trust. Next week, I will write more on the qualities of trustworthiness.