Trust, like safety, runs deep. When we don’t experience trust, as when we don’t experience safety, we shut down, protect, and hide our vulnerability. We also, in both cases, tend to place responsibility for our experience on the outside. It is extraordinarily challenging, when we don’t experience trust, to recognize it as our experience instead of assuming that whoever we are not trusting is simply not trustworthy. It is similarly difficult, when our experience tells us that we are not safe, to step outside of the conviction that “it” is unsafe to be where we are.
Before proceeding much further, I want to make it clear here that I am talking about trust and safety as they relate to the emotional and social aspects of life, and I am not addressing situations in which physical safety is at risk. Only a rare few of us are able to maintain choice and presence in the face of physical danger. As inspiring as such stories are, they are not within reach of most of us, and I am therefore choosing to exclude physical safety from what I am focusing on. That said, I nonetheless want to stress that my readings so far in life have led me to believe that the human possibility exists that even when what’s at stake is our physical safety, accepting our vulnerability and our ultimate inability to control ourselves or the environment, we often have more ability to transform our inner experience and to affect our outer environment.
From Trusting People to Trusting in Life
Some people are slow to develop trust. They check out new people for a while before lowering their guards and trusting them. Whether by grace or naïveté, my own responses have been different. I usually have a great deal of ease trusting people when I first meet them. I extend my heart, expect the best, get excited about possibilities, and open up fully.
Some people lose trust with someone instantaneously and have an extremely difficult time restoring it. I’ve had chilling experiences with people, times when I did something that affected another person negatively, and that was the end of any communication between us. Or times when one false move resulted in such profound loss of trust toward me that I couldn’t imagine what I could do to restore trust, ever. A distance descended on the relationship, either in the form of coldness, or in the form of avoidance of meaningful engagement, keeping things on a safe surface. I’ve also had experiences when people responded in dramatically different ways, and approached me to engage in order to restore trust, which we were then able to do.
On my end, I tend to seek communication, trying to understand what happened, what the effect of it was on me or the other person, how we can repair, move forward, restore understanding, come back to trust.
All these experiences, from both ends of trust building or loss of trust, have left me with a growing sense that trust can be an attitude toward life, quite beyond a reaction to how someone treats us. Living in trust is no guarantee that nothing painful or even dangerous would happen to us. Such guarantees simply don’t exist. Rather, it is a way of responding to life. For me, living in trust is a willingness to risk the loss, and preferring the possibility of being burnt every once in a while to the alternative of living in fear and continually attempting to check out everyone and everything, protect ourselves from all eventualities, and imagine that we can be safe.
The culture in which we live often operates on the model of mitigating risk. This model logically compels us to protect, and tends to reduce trust and create adversarial relationships. I vastly prefer the attitude of focusing on building trust. Paradoxically, I believe that putting energy and resources into building trust is, ultimately, the most effective strategy for mitigating risk. The person who is trusted, respected, and cared about, is the person least likely to want to harm us.
When Trust Is Lost
When we don’t experience trust with someone, it seems impossible that we may ever experience it again. Losing trust also has an edge of humiliation attached to it for many of us, as if we are found out to have been foolish to trust in the first place. From the other direction, I imagine many of us know the crushing experience of someone losing trust in us and not knowing how to support them in regaining it, especially when we believe their perception of mistrust is erroneous.
Recently, I was present for an anguished moment between two coworkers, let’s call them Rachel and Miranda. Both of them were in tears as Miranda said that Rachel had spoken to her using foul language, while Rachel adamantly insisted she hadn’t. In short order, I believed both of them. How could this be, how could they both be telling the truth? In truth, no one has any clue what “really” happened. What I did know was the experience of truth in their presence. I can completely imagine that Rachel said something else that sounded like certain specific words to Miranda. It took enormous care and presence to give both of them an experience of being heard. I repeatedly reminded Miranda until she was able to take it in, however briefly or partially, that she, too, couldn’t know, and invited her simply to entertain the possibility that Rachel didn’t say what she heard. At the same time I repeatedly asked Rachel to hold her own pain until Miranda was done, because there was simply no way that Miranda could listen to her. Eventually, they both calmed down. Will their mutual trust be restored? Certainly not overnight. If, however, Rachel can take in my suggestion and make it a priority to offer Miranda only appreciation and positive experiences until things ease between them, perhaps it will. Miranda, unlike me, didn’t sign up to be on the path of vulnerability and openness to life, which makes Rachel’s work much more complex to regain her trust. And yet I see it as completely possible.
Part of the paradox of trust is that, more often than not, if I don’t trust someone, they probably don’t trust me, either. It’s likely that the very behavior they do that leads to my mistrust is itself based on not trusting me. I have often used our ability to trust the truth of what someone is saying as an example. When the issue comes up, I ask those present if they have ever lied. Invariably I receive laughter. Of course we have all done some lying in our lives. Once this is clear, I ask people to remember what led them to lie when they did. They immediately can see that what would lead someone not to tell the truth is all and only the fear of the consequences of telling the truth. That’s when I tell them that if they want people to tell them the truth, it means creating sufficient safety so that people will know there aren’t going to be negative consequences to telling the truth. Any time we penalize someone for telling the truth we increase the changes they won’t do it again. In this way we can increase our trust in another person by making ourselves easier to trust.
Recovering from the Illusion of Perfect Trust
Repairing trust is one of the most complex and challenging endeavors we can engage in. At the same time, unless we embark on this task, we can only become progressively more closed to life. From early on, as early as four months into life, it appears that when we repair trust, the relationship is more robust than if the trust was never broken in the first place. This research finding immediately made sense to me. When we repair lost trust, there is less anxiety about losing it again, because we know when we can recover. This, in effect, creates more trust.
And yet we all know the longing for the perfect relationship, for the perfect understanding with another person where there would never be conflict or issue, never a tear shed, never any pain or discomfort. I recognize this longing, still, after decades of living on the planet, after knowing it’s an illusion, after knowing the joys of repairing trust.
Each time, freshly, takes determination, the willingness to let go, again, of the illusion. It’s especially challenging the first time conflict arises with a new person, when I experience a fall from that temporary heaven that repeats the illusion: maybe this person, this time, will be the exception?
Once again I mobilize to meet life with an open heart, despite the pain, the challenge. Once again I accept the invitation. Sometimes it’s as simple as remembering that when trust is lost I want to aim for “yes” in any way I can, because “yes” builds rapport. Instead of asking the person: “Do you trust me?” – a question that requires them to say “no” – I say: “I sense that perhaps you have lost your trust in me. Is that true?” This question invites a “yes”, which makes at least the acknowledgment of the loss of trust that much easier. Acknowledgment, of any kind, reduces the barrier. We can get one small step closer. The journey without a map begins.
Some other times, the task is much larger. Certain forms of mistrust, especially intense anger and hostility, are still more demanding than my own heart’s capacity can contain, and I contract in response. That is, I know, my own loss. It is not about the other person, who they are, what they do or don’t do, what their qualities are. It’s about my own heart’s capacity to love the person who mistrusts me. Whenever I can rise to the occasion, I am that much closer to the experience of heaven that comes from knowing that living in trust is a choice. May I find my strength to do so.