Philosophy Stirred, Not Shaken

Insights on Addiction and Philosophy

Why is it so hard to trust yourself?

Not trusting yourself is a hallmark of addiction

Constantly second guessing. Waffling. Changing course. Deferring to others. Flip flopping. Scrolling through emotions. Believing and not believing at the same time.  Wanting something but acting in ways that make it impossible to have. Self- sabotaging.  All of these are classic symptoms of a terrible malady.   

People who do not trust their own knowledge, beliefs, commitments, and emotions suffer from a lack of self-trust. When that lack of self-trust extends to most areas of a person’s life, she may come to see herself as and actually be untrustworthy to herself. There are many reasons for and circumstances under which a person loses trust in herself.

Not trusting yourself is a hallmark of addiction; addiction saps self-trust.

Addicts have all sorts of reasons and plenty of evidence for why we should not trust ourselves. Our histories are replete with broken promises to ourselves and others. We say we will do one thing and then we veer in the exact opposite direction. We say we want something and yet we act in ways that will keep us from achieving it. Can we trust ourselves to act in our own best interests? All the evidence sounds a resounding “No” because we are so unreliable and untrustworthy.

Trust is an Aristotelian virtue. It is a mean between two extremes of excess and deficiency. Having too much trust makes one gullible. The gullible person is one who will believe anything just because someone says it. The gullible person trusts far beyond what is justified and prudent. The person who has a deficiency of trust is paranoid in the sense of not accepting anything that anyone else claims. There are never any good enough reasons to trust; all the evidence in the world would still be insufficient to warrant trust.

Trustworthiness is an abiding character state. A trustworthy person is someone who is reliable, consistent, and truthful in her actions across the board.  It isn’t that this person is perfect. Rather, her actions tend to spring from and reinforce her moral values and commitments.  

There are criteria to which we can appeal when deciding whether to trust someone or trust a state of affairs. I wouldn’t trust a restaurant owner who has a raft of health code violations. I would not trust a financial planner with my money who has track record of bad investments. I may trust that person for advice on other matters though.

Part of what it means to be a mature and trusting person is to know when, where, to whom, and how far to extend our trust. We learn how to trust and sometimes, unfortunately, we learn the most when we misplace our trust. We become able to suss out who is trustworthy and who is not.

All of this makes sense when talking about cases of trusting others and gauging trustworthiness. When it comes to how much I should trust myself and gauge my own trustworthiness, it becomes more difficult. It becomes even more difficult with people who are addicted. How can we measure and judge our own (un)reliability?

Complicating the matter is the belief that each person knows herself better than others can know her. In philosophy we call this “privileged access.” On this view, each person has an access to her beliefs, desires, thoughts, emotions that no one else can have. Each of us can turn a light to even the darkest, most remote corners of our mind; no one else can see those corners and what lurks there.  On that basis of privileged access, each person can say, “I have the best perspective on Who I Am.”

However, the relationship between privileged access and perspective is muddy, and confounds the question of how much trust to have in myself.  Does each of us actually have enough distance to have perspective? Even with the best light, I may not be able to see myself clearly enough because I am too close. I cannot read a printed page held too close to my face; I need to extend my arm. What is the equivalent of that arm stretch for seeing my actions and my character?

Many addicts often make the claim of privileged access. We know the things we’ve done and only people who are seriously warped/damaged/deranged/sick/messed up could do ______. We do know the ways that we have been unreliable for others and for ourselves. Our claims to self-knowledge often are wrapped in self-loathing. That self-loathing contributes to the lack of trust that we have in ourselves because it perversely heightens the belief in privileged access. At some point, we cross the line between not trusting ourselves on certain matters to not trusting ourselves at all.

When a person sees herself as untrustworthy to herself and to others, the less able she is to successfully live her life. Every aspect of living requires trust of some sort; we need it to navigate the world in some really basic ways. Without it, we may not be able to move at all.

So, given all these complications, how can one end this vicious cycle of unreliability-->lack of self-trust -->untrustworthiness -->unreliability…? It involves embracing something of a paradox. Sometimes one has to trust others before she can trust herself. In a sense, one may have to borrow the trust someone else has in her until she can begin to generate it for herself.

The person who sees herself as untrustworthy may need to grant that someone else may have a useful perspective on her. Another has some distance and hence perspective on us. This is the equivalent of holding the printed page further away from the face.

More concretely, Aristotle has some useful suggestions. If we become who we are by what we do, we should act in different ways if we want to become different people. Aristotle instructs us to act as a virtuous good person does even if we do not yet have the same character. By mimicking, we can begin to act in ways that can become virtuous as we begin to develop a virtuous character. This is the philosophical forerunner of “fake it until you can make it.”

Start small. Pick an area where you tend to second guess yourself. Stick with your original answer. Act on the basis of that answer. See what happens. If you are a person who breaks promises to yourself, keep one small one. Even if it is miniscule, it is still a promise kept. The more promises you keep, the more you develop a habit of keeping promises. At some point, you may reach a place of recognizing that you are reliable and that you (and others) may see you as a person who keeps her promises.  

 Trust and trustworthiness can only be built slowly.

Peg O'Connor, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy and Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota.

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