Mistrust, Hope, and Meaningful Connection, Part 3

In the past few weeks, I’ve written about the experience of mistrust and the work of identifying trustworthiness. Today I will talk about repairing broken trust and accessing the virtue of Hope. This is a topic much bigger than a simple blog post, however.

Repairing Trust 

As human beings, we will inevitably disappoint, fail, and hurt each other. We will have lapses in attention or ethics. We may cause harm without knowing we’ve done it until someone brings it to our attention. Rather than committing to the impossible goal of being or finding a perfect partner, we can explore the more workable and profound practice of repairing damaged trust in relationship.

Put simply, the process of restoring trust involves: addressing the upset or harm; re-validating trustworthiness; and then making amends or releasing the upset.

Address the upset or harm. Oops. Someone messed up, and now you feel hurt, angry, overwhelmed, abandoned, betrayed. Simply ignoring this doesn’t go very well. It may simmer in the background and erupt at the worst times. We may end up looking like the asshole because we’re expressing appropriate anger in an inappropriate context. Then we’re dealing with the other person’s justified anger with our own buried resentments.

You don’t have to address every single problem at the moment you have it. Indeed, it is okay and sometimes really helpful to take some time away to reflect and then bring up the issue to discuss later, when you’re all in a state to have a constructive conversation. What helps with all this is learning to be with your feelings, validate them, and then discuss them in non-blaming ways. For first offenses, I work on bringing up the issue while giving the other person the benefit of the doubt. “You did this, and this was my experience.” Not blaming the person for “causing” the feeling or accusing them of doing it on purpose, simply giving information so they know how they affected me.

A brown bear and her two cubs walk a rocky ridgeline. In the background is an expanse of forest and snow.
photo by Adam Willoughby-Knox

Re-validate trustworthiness. Now we observe how the person handles the confrontation. If they can take some measure of responsibility and apologize or make amends, that validates their trustworthiness. If they can explain where they’re coming from in a nondefensive way, that validates their trustworthiness.

If they ignore your confrontation; attack you for bringing it up; apologize but repeat the behavior; or offer a confusing rationalization that doesn’t take any responsibility, that erodes their trustworthiness. These aren’t necessarily deal-breakers but they’re not good indicators for a strong partnership long term unless you can address and improve them.

If they minimize your hurt, insult you, call you crazy, flagrantly repeat the behavior and taunt you while doing so, or reject your experience outright, those are RED FLAGS.

Release the upset. Based on how trustworthy the person has proven themselves, we need to check in with ourselves. Is there lingering resentment or hurt. You might ask this part of you: is this all related to the current situation? Is any of this from the past? If it’s related to the current situation, what needs to happen for this part of me to feel okay with re-committing to the relationship?

Is there mistrust? Ask this part of you what your next step needs to be. Perhaps the resolution is that you’re not okay with re-committing to the relationship, instead you need to distance yourself, change the terms of the relationship, or end it safely.

Either way, resentment is not a desirable long-term feeling. It is an indicator of unresolved issues.

Finding Hope

I have been using “relationship” in the most generous interpretation, because issues of trust and mistrust come up in all of our relationships.

Once we no longer depend on external caregivers to meet our needs, the most important relationship becomes the one with ourselves. We behave inconsistently, we doubt ourselves, we make promises we don’t keep, we engage in behaviors we know are harmful to other parts of ourselves.

Becoming trustworthy stewards of ourselves is a journey, and it supports everything. The work is to cultivate more qualities of trustworthiness in how we relate to our parts. How can I be more consistent in response to my needs? How can I be respectful of my feelings? What promises can I honor?

I believe this is the virtue of Hope: I trust myself to work through the upsets of living while creating the life I deeply desire. If it is your desire to cultivate this, I wish you strength.

Mistrust, Hope, and Meaningful Connection, Part 2

Last week, I wrote about how we experience mistrust, its value, and the barriers it creates to meaningful connection. This week, I want to write about trust.

An image of a woman crossing a wooden bridge. The bridge appears narrow, and ahead is a thick forest.
photo by Michael Hull, via Unsplash

Qualities of Trustworthiness

As a Boy Scout, we frequently stated the Scout Law, a series of twelve qualities to which we aspired. The first point is to be Trustworthy.

What makes someone trustworthy? Think about people you trust and why. Connect to the feeling of trust you have around them, but more importantly think about what it is about them that makes them trustworthy. What did they do or not do that helped you to feel trust?

In brief, I think a trustworthy person behaves with consistency, genuineness, respect, and integrity.

  • Consistency – This person responds in a way that feels reliable. There might be some fluctuation in mood, and certainly the person will grow and change, but in general you feel confident that you know how they will respond to you. You don’t have to guess and worry about how they’ll act.
  • Genuineness – This person’s words, personality, and behavior all align. They may have multiple facets of Self that vary depending on the situation, but you sense a coherent core that is there in every situation. You know where you stand with them. When they smile, it reaches their eyes. When they are angry, they tell you what they’re angry about.
  • Respect – This person treats you with dignity and consideration. They do not put you down, coerce you to do things you don’t want to do, or take advantage of your vulnerabilities. When you set a boundary, they show willingness to abide by it. They listen to you. Even if they disagree, they do not minimize your thoughts and feelings.
  • Integrity – This person follows through on promises. They do not promise what they are unwilling to do. If they cannot keep promises, they acknowledge this and do what they can to rectify the situation. They don’t engage in confusing negotiating tactics or put the blame on you when they make mistakes. They take responsibility and apologize for problems. You feel that they behave the same whether in or out of your presence.

These qualities are about character rather than personality. For example, a person who is cheerful and bubbly might be as trustworthy as a sardonic, dour person, or as untrustworthy.

In the past I avoided sharp-tongued, confrontational people until I met some that were as direct with me about problems as they were about compliments. I found I could trust their praise since I knew they wouldn’t hide their concerns.

In contrast, I used to love hanging out with gossipy, back-biting people until it occurred to me that we were talking about whomever wasn’t in the room at the time. This meant that I was behaving in an untrustworthy way, and I couldn’t trust my “friends” not to talk badly about me when I was out of the room. This has become a guiding principle for me: pay attention to how my acquaintances treat others, and think about how it would feel if I were treated in that way.

Trustworthiness is not a fixed, innate quality. We develop these qualities through intentional choice and personal effort. If you picked one of the above qualities to develop and made a commitment to it, you could improve your trustworthiness. Others may not recognize your growth at first, but with continued effort they will begin to notice and treat you differently.

Next week, I will write about repairing damaged trust in relationships.

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.