Learning How and When to Trust Others

Photo by Giorgio Trovato from Unsplash

Hold fast to dreams,
For if dreams die,
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
—Langston Hughes, 1902-1967, poet

Let’s talk about trusting others. We live in an age of massive distrust. Political leaders are frequently seen today as self-serving and lacking integrity even when many are honorable. Yet the betrayals of public trust and insensitivity towards the people they serve really do happen and are so commonplace that many of us become numb to the abuses of power in our political leaders. Indeed, many of them do lie to us regularly. Clearly many of our leaders are more interested in getting re-elected than doing the “right thing” when it comes to ethics and public service. Saving face is more important than personal responsibility. Even when many of our political leaders are acting with integrity it can be hard for our jaded citizens to trust them.

Such abuses of power are traumatic for many of us. We live each day with heightened anxiety, often glued to our TVs, awaiting the next episode of having the rug pulled out from under us. The worst realization in all this is the fact that it is we ourselves who have elected such representatives. We all have a major part in our own undoing. We may unwisely decide that if people in power are unethical then we can turn a blind eye to our own behaviors and decide it is OK to lie and cheat to get ahead. Or we may take the moral high ground and wonder who among us is putting such representatives in leadership roles. This shift of looking away from ourselves and blaming others causes many of us to distrust each other and make enemies of people we disagree with. On top of this we have political leaders telling us what we see and hear isn’t really happening. This type of behavior, commonly known as gas lighting, interferes with our confidence in knowing what to trust. Overall, we lose the ability to know how to trust, we lose faith in our ability to make judgments and we let life just happen to us.

In this traumatic state we make two mistakes in deciding who to trust: We either take the extreme position that we can’t rely on anybody or we live in a world of naiveté, unrealistically seeing no danger when there is real danger. We either don’t trust enough or we trust too much. We become like the broken-winged bird above who cannot hold fast to dreams. Let us not be a broken-winged bird. Let us learn how to trust in a realistic, empowering way. We actually really do need each other, including those whom we disagree with. We need to have faith in our own judgments, even when they are imperfect.

What is trust and why it is so important?

Trust is the process in relationships where we have faith in others to authentically care about our well-being and safety as we do for their safety and well-being. It requires the passage of time and persistent efforts to handle adversity to know if we truly have faith in others. Such goals require both an open heart on our part and reliable behaviors by others. Those we trust do not have to be in our family, but they are vital for our sense of personal security. In fact, because we are wired by evolution to be social creatures, we need to trust others. Such relationships give our life meaning and help us feel less alone. We have physical responses to people we trust. Our eyes get larger and we have smile reflexes when we recognize someone we trust. Trust becomes part of our memory bank. We carry others we trust inside us even when they are not in our presence. We can feel the calm of their memory. Those of us who can’t trust often feel alone, depressed and empty.

Why do we have persistent trust problems with others?

Some people have repetitive trust problems with others, no matter how kind or responsible other people are. They seem to be suspicious and resistant to any form of caring. They may find imperfections in any form of kindness expressed to them and are very hard to love. Often, they are rebels and loners and may engage in needless, impulsive violence. It is beyond hard to go through life while being incapable of receiving love. Some of these folks use their reactions to control others, thinking it is better to beat them than join them. Some of us have had a disappointing experience in an adult love relationship that hampers us for life. Others with more severe trust issues have had adverse, abusive childhood experiences that are essentially burned into their brain memory even when they can’t give specific examples of such behaviors. Their memories are stored in their body and behavioral responses to others. Even people who have not been abused may still distrust others when they have been emotionally neglected or exploited, such as children of alcoholics.

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Unfortunately knowing this information does not in itself fix the problem of trust. Typically, people with persistent trust issues unconsciously repeat and recreate past betrayals of trust in their current relationships, almost as if they have no other choice. This problem is called repetition compulsion. This means that people who can’t trust inadvertently pick relationships in their adult lives where they are harmed or harm others as they were in their childhood. Some people can recover from this trust dilemma through intense work in psychotherapy. Other people choose to avoid such work and continue the repetitive patterns of hurtful relationships, reinforcing their beliefs that “You can’t trust anybody.” Like the poem above, by Langston Hughes, says, they become the broken-winged birds that cannot fly and have lost their dreams. They are inconsolable and make it impossible for others to love them.

“I remember when I decided to get a new dog from the Animal Humane Society. I picked a little mutt out named Flip. I just wanted to make a difference in his life and in mine. The notice on his cage said that he had been treated harshly by his owner and would need a lot of love. Just right for me, I thought. So, when I brought Flip home and let him out of his cage the first thing that he did was hide under my bed He stayed there for a full day. Finally, I lured him out with some dog treats. I tried to pet him, but he just growled when I got close to him. He’d grab the treat and run under my bed. I told myself that he was just scared and the kinder I was to him, the friendlier he would become over time. Wrong! Here it is two years later, and he still runs away when I’m nice to him. I figured out why he was named Flip. If you ever tried to pet him, he would go from wagging his tail and taking your treat to biting your hand. He was actually more relaxed when I left him alone. He went from one type of dog to another for no apparent reason. Flip made me think of all the people I knew who respond badly to my friendliness. He was hard to live with, but I never blamed him for being the way he was. And he never changed no matter how nice I was to him. Some people are just easier to trust if you just leave them alone and have compassion for them.”

How do you know when you have trust issues with others?

Usually, we know from our history when we have trust issues with others. Some of the signals are:

  • a tendency to be immediately judgmental of others with no rational basis for such beliefs
  • excessive idealization of people who conform to our own image of a likable person
  • persistent distancing from and boredom with people we were initially close to
  • inability to form long-term emotionally committed relationships
  • tendency to feel suffocated by emotional demands from others
  • relationship hopping and looking for the perfect partner
  • continuing self-criticisms and distrust of love, especially around caring people
  • plaguing feelings of emptiness and depression despite personal success
  • tendency to nit-pick others who want to love us
  • feelings of unworthiness around people who are nice to us.

Myths about trusting others

The following beliefs about trust are partially true but mostly inaccurate. They can easily mislead us in our life choices. They are:

“I can tell within five minutes of meeting someone if I can trust that person.”

Reality: What you see in the early parts of a relationship is at best superficial. We are all a lot deeper than we seem. Others may be invested in looking good around us, perhaps because they want to impress us or want to show less of their hidden selves. The novelty of meeting a new person can be exhilarating and raise our hopes. But the true joy of knowing someone can only be real after an extensive period of time, perhaps a year or longer after weathering many rough spots together, to fully grasp what we are signing up for in a relationship. Many of us don’t voluntarily try to look good, we just take longer to fully reveal all of who we are. Some people can go on for years not knowing their own hidden sides, which eventually comes out in a relationship. Others of us are faithful and stay that way forever. Relationships are best when partners can handle the adventures and hardships of the rough seas of their togetherness with a sense of humor.

“The only people I can really trust are those in my family.”

Reality: It’s always a pleasure to have a caring family that genuinely looks out for one another. Most of us would be better served by realizing that our family relationships are very imperfect, and that the familiarity of kin can cause us to have inaccurate views of those we grew up with and of our own true potential even when we cherish our loved ones. It’s wisest to love our family members as best we can but to also expand our comfort level to include people who we are not familiar with in our chosen emotional family. Loyalty to kin will not protect us from their demons and the pride and security we have in enjoying loving relationships outside of our family. Such a chosen family can be our bedrock for life. Most of us need to honor and attend to our family and we need a chosen family to expand our comfort level and fully grow as people. Oftentimes our chosen family is more trustworthy and challenging than our family of origin. Sometimes just the opposite is true.

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“If you trust someone you never have conflict with them.”

Reality: Actually, constructive conflict is a hallmark of a healthy and trustworthy relationship. It’s almost necessary for people to have differences with each other before real trust is established. How we settle our mutual conflicts is what builds the respect and authenticity of a trustworthy relationship. We learn to compromise, be empathic and meet each other halfway—all the skills of a trusting relationship. In fact, before you commit to a long-term relationship it’s best to have had at least one battle with a partner before you say “I do.” Research shows that constructive conflict is normal and healthy in relationships.

How do you have authentic trust in others?

It is always best to judge others not by the feelings we have about them, or personal prejudices towards them or wishful thinking we have in their regard. Romantic feelings, sexual attraction, prejudice and desperation are notoriously inaccurate in how we trust others. Studies show that our realistic thinking actually gets impaired when people are “in love.” Love is blind, but not safe. The best way to know if you can trust people is to carefully observe their behaviors over time and ask about their motivation as to why they act the way they do. Science, not your gut feeling, can help you the best in knowing when to trust. It may be more fun initially to throw caution to the wind in meeting others, but it is a lot less safe to do so. The best fun we have with others is what happens in the long run with dependable people, believe me.

Realize that others adapt to how you are treating them and what they hope to get from you, so observe another person as a scientist in a variety of settings, perhaps with the assistance of your trusted friends. It’s always best to have people tell you what you don’t want to hear or what you don’t want to see before you invest your heart in another. Then you can evaluate more accurately. So be a scientist in getting to know others, ask for explanations from the person you are trying to be close to and pay attention to your gut feeling only as a way to begin the scientific exploration. If you neglect science, you are putting yourself at risk. Once trust is firmly established you will be good to go with another person. You will see that person behaving towards you in a predictable and less dangerous way. Then you can let all your enthusiasm and sexuality go through the roof!

Let me say a word about distrust. It can be equally misleading as trusting another too easily. Realize that your personal history can prompt you to have many false negatives when it comes to knowing others. You may cut yourself off from knowing decent people. Such distrust has more to do with being traumatized by your personal history and living in your past than in your current scientific observation. This is a survival skill for us that unfortunately limits our ability to thrive and grow. It’s best to get professional help if you feel stuck in your past or even if you don’t know why you make bad choices in relationships. Most of us stumble before we can walk. If you work on yourself in therapy, you may be very surprised just how many people are out there to enjoy getting close to. Many of us face the ghosts from our past by having imperfect relationships and learning from them. There are in fact oodles of decent people to trust in this world!


“And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”
— Aeschylus, Greek playwright, 525-456 BC


John H. Driggs, LICSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.

Last Updated on March 7, 2021

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