To Trust or Not to Trust

How do we know when we should trust someone? When our expectations haven’t been met or we have been disappointed by someone we trusted, it can be difficult to trust again.

Trust is Adaptive

Human beings are born with the ability to trust because it increases our likelihood of survival. When we are in need, it is often to our advantage to believe that others can assist us and allow them to do so. Trust is openness to experience. People who are open minded and welcome new experiences learn more than people who close themselves off from the world. Trusting someone means that you are suspending judgment of them until you have enough information rather than prejudging them. It means that you are treating them as “innocent until proven guilty”. Wouldn’t you want to be treated that way?

Like anything good, trust must be used appropriately and in moderation. Too much trust, such as being foolish or naive, can make us vulnerable to danger. It is important for survival that we are able to detect true danger and avoid or eliminate it wherever possible. It would be foolish for a person to treat the ocean like a swimming pool or a lion like a house cat. We all learn through our experiences to detect risk and respond accordingly.

Trust Violations

If you were frequently disappointed or betrayed by important people in your life when you were a child, this might make it harder for you to trust as an adult. However, once you become an adult, you have some control over who you allow in your life and how you are treated. While a child is at the mercy of others, an adult can set boundaries and remove themselves from harmful influences. If you find yourself being disappointed and betrayed repeatedly as an adult, you must take some responsibility by asking yourself what role you are playing and how you can change it. It might be because you are:

  • surrounding yourself with untrustworthy people and ignoring the danger signs
  • maintaining rigid criteria for trustworthiness and over- or under-identifying trust violations
  • failing to communicate your wants and needs and assuming others should just know how to treat you

When You Need to Trust Smarter

1. Be trustworthy yourself.
Edward W. Howe said, “A thief believes everybody steals. ” In terms of trust, this means that if you aren’t trustworthy yourself, it will be very difficult for you to trust others. You can earn the trust of others by being reliable, living up to reasonable expectations, and following through on responsibilities. We tend to attract people to us who are like us, so if you endeavor to be trustworthy, you are more likely to attract honest people into your life.

2. Understand that you cannot make others trustworthy.
Being trustworthy comes from within and takes commitment. Being suspicious and putting lots of external controls on somebody does not make them honest, it only makes them compliant while they are within your sphere of influence. You cannot monitor anyone 24 hours a day, so if a person is untrustworthy, they are likely to revert to their natural behavior when they are out of your reach.

3. Assert yourself and set boundaries.
Communicate your wants and needs so that others know what you expect of them and how you like to be treated. Ask for clarification when you are uncertain and tell them when they have hurt you. Say “no” when you are not comfortable with something. Allow others to experience the natural consequences of being untrustworthy.

4. Weigh the risks and benefits logically.
Ask yourself what you stand to gain by making yourself more open to others and what the true dangers are of making yourself vulnerable. Research has shown that good social relationships are related to increased life satisfaction, better health and longevity. How many rejections and disappointments would be worth ultimately feeling happier, being healthier, and living longer? While rejection and disappointment are unpleasant, in and of themselves they will not maim or kill you. However, if despite the evidence, you repeatedly make yourself vulnerable to people who abuse you and hold you back from reaching your potential, then you are being foolish and exposing yourself to unnecessary risk.

5. Recognize that you cannot avoid all danger
Even the most cautious and wise individual will be disappointed or betrayed by others sometimes. Shakespeare said, “The robbed that smiles, steals something from the thief” and “The most peaceable way for you, if you do take a thief, is, to let him show himself what he is and steal out of your company.” The first statement reminds us when we give someone our trust and assume they are “innocent until proven guilty”, and that person betrays us, this is not a reflection on us, but a reflection on the other person. It is good information that allows us to make better choices about our relationship with that person. The second quotation reminds us that it is better to know early on whether or not someone is trustworthy. When we give people lots of opportunities to demonstrate their trustworthiness rather than putting many external controls on them, we come to know their true character.

To Trust or Not to Trust?

Although the decision to trust should be largely based on observation and an examination of the evidence, it is also based on emotion and ultimately requires a “leap of faith”. Since none of us can read minds or see the future, there are no guarantees whether or not someone will be trustworthy or betray us. Only you can decide whether giving someone your trust is worth the risk.

If you or someone you love is struggling with trust issues, it may be helpful to consult with a professional. You can find mental health professionals in your area through online therapist locators such as those hosted by the American Psychological Association, Psychology Today, Network Therapy and GoodTherapy.

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