- Being distrustful of others is often an outcome of past trauma or a learned culture.
- Learning to lean into relationships means getting closure about the past and deciding your own values.
- By acting differently you can begin to have corrective emotional experiences that can change your view of others.
Maybe you got burned when your last partner had an affair, and now you find yourself questioning your current partner’s “reasonable” explanations about where’s he’s been. Perhaps you’ve always had a cynical view of the world where others are unreliable or only interested in themselves and ready to take advantage of you. Rather than leaning into others and counting on them for support, you are always a bit suspicious, wary.
Where does this distrust come from? Here are some of the common sources:
You’ve been wounded in a relationship
Your ex had an affair, or you discovered that she was a chronic liar. It shattered not only your view of them but of relationships overall. Like a physical wound, you now feel both vulnerable and protective; you're hyper-vigilant about even the smallest signs that this may be happening again.
Distrust was part of your culture
If you grew up in a family where distrust of others was baked into the family culture or if you lived in a violent neighborhood, you understandably inherited an, “everyone is out to get you, trust no one” mindset for everyday survival. Unfortunately, even when you are outside that world, those same attitudes and coping skills linger.
Childhood trauma severed your healthy attachment to others
I’ve worked with young children who had reactive attachment disorder due to severe neglect or abuse in the first years of their lives. What comes from that experience is a belief that there is no one they can trust. Rather than learning that others can be a source of affection and support, they instead learned to view others as objects they had to manipulate to get what they needed. While this is often the most extreme case, many begin their childhoods with some sense that others are unreliable.
While the source for the distrust may vary, the wounds that are left are not just a broad wariness of others, but, on a micro-level, distrust of others' words and emotions: You're never sure you can believe what others are saying, and so words essentially lose meaning; you never really know if someone is sincere, and so you’re always second-guessing their motives. Your suspicion, in turn, easily creates a self-fulfilling prophecy: sensing your anxiety, others walk on eggshells, withdraw, or avoid being honest, which only verifies what you suspected would happen all along, further fueling your anxiety and continued distrust, as well as their own wariness.
How to break the cycle
If you know that you struggle with trust, you are already halfway towards fixing your problem, you're able to step back and be aware of your actions. In contrast, those who have a cynical, distrustful view of the world simply accept it as a given reality. If you are ready to change your perspective and behavior, here’s how to get started:
Get closure to heal your past wounds: If that affair or chronic lying wounded you and changed your view of relationships, it's time to get closure to help you separate the past from the present. Here, you may contact the person who hurt you and say what you never said or have an adult conversation with them to help you understand why they did what they did. If that is not an option, write a letter or email (you don’t need to send it) that gets off your chest what you never said, and then write another saying what you wish the other would have told you. This is about beginning to heal the wounded child within you, putting the past to rest.
Define your own values: If you grew up in a family or environment that was skewed and cynical for many good reasons, you now have an opportunity to start afresh. Rather than continuing to run your life by those old views and rules, you can now, as an adult, stop going on autopilot but choose how you want to live your life, how you want to see the world. Doing this will not automatically erase that old brain wiring. Still, by adopting an attitude of experimentation, where you rationally choose to see the world differently, you will begin to rewire your brain. By thinking differently, you can act differently.
Hopefully, what will come from these new experiences is finding out that what you think will happen does not come to pass. What others say, they actually do. They aren't screwing with you for their own gain but being generous and sincere. Get enough of these experiences under your belt, and you begin to break the self-fulfilling prophecy; your view of relationships and the world begins to change. The challenge is to keep it up.
Go proactive, be assertive: The distrustful stance is an anxious, reactive one: You're always anticipating what you think will happen and prepare to counter it. As with other forms of anxiety, the antidote to this reactiveness is to go offense—take the risk of being assertive and proactive. Go bold and say what you need; do now what you couldn’t do as a child. Such action with practice will empower you; you will become less afraid.
Get reassurance when you're triggered: Your distrust and feelings of vulnerability likely come and go, triggered by something from your past. When these arise, when you are having this flare of anxiety and want to default to your old ways and pull into yourself, take the risk of seeking support from others. Let them know you are triggered and let them know what you need most. Not only will your action help you feel less alone and less a victim, but getting what you need will, over time, restore your faith in others.
Experiment with taking words at face value: If you can’t believe what others are saying, where words have no meaning and quickly lead to self-doubt or paranoia, you need to again experiment with taking words at face value. Take baby steps towards believing what others are saying to create a more solid foundation for your relationships.
Get professional help: If all this seems too overwhelming, if a past haunts that you can’t shake, it may be time to get professional support to help you separate past from present, to guide you towards taking those baby steps, to learn to lean into a relationship gradually and safely. Therapy here can be a form of reparenting and brain rewiring.
The inability to trust, to lean into a relationship, is a byproduct of your past culture or trauma. Maybe it's time to challenge those ways, try out new ways of viewing yourself, the world, others.
To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.