When Distrust Hurts

Distrust has many sources, but prejudice makes it especially painful.

Posted Oct 29, 2020

Kadres/Pixabay
Source: Kadres/Pixabay

Life goes well when our relationships are suffused with trust. That’s true of our most intimate relationships with friends and family, but also of our day-to-day interactions with colleagues, store workers, or neighbors. It’s a pleasure to be able to assume the trust of others. And it can be a painful shock to suddenly find that you are distrusted, whether that’s your partner scrolling through your phone, or a colleague double-checking your work.

Why does it feel so painful to be distrusted? There are lots of practical downsides to being distrusted. It’s inconvenient and time-consuming to have demonstrate your reliability over and over, and significant distrust can cut you off from valuable opportunities. But there’s more to this than the practical downsides. Being distrusted has the sting of an insult, not just the inconvenience of having to go the extra mile.  After all, trustworthiness is a virtue, something we admire in other people, and want them to recognise in us.

But if we pause for a moment, we can see why distrust may have grown, even if we feel it’s unfair. Trust is harder to establish when the stakes are high. A colleague who will be fired if I make a mistake may feel she has to double-check my work to safeguard her own livelihood, despite feeling bad about not being able to trust me. Likewise, a store assistant who has to make up any losses from theft out of her own wages will naturally be more suspicious of dawdling customers.  In the closest of relationships, someone who has been painfully betrayed by a previous partner may find it difficult to trust, even when there are no real grounds for doubt.  Recognising what’s at stake for the other person can help take the sting away from being distrusted.

Beyond such special circumstances, we can also recognise that the people around us have different personalities, different mindsets, and different attitudes to trust. Some people are simply more trusting than others. And, up to a point, that’s OK – between the extremes of naïve gullibility and mean-minded cynicism, there’s a wide range of sensible approaches to trust and distrust.  This kind of variety helps make social life interesting and rewarding, and there’s no reason to think we’d all be better off behaving in the exact same way.

We may be able to understand and forgive distrust when it comes from someone who is struggling with a high-stakes situation in her own life, or when it comes from someone who is on the whole a cautious, double-checking kind of character. But there is a third kind of variation in trust and distrust, one which is more sinister, and harder to forgive.

Sometimes we are targeted for distrust not because of what we have done, or because of the other person’s generally skeptical nature, but because we belong to a group stereotypically regarded as untrustworthy. If you are distrusted because of the colour of your skin, your accent, or the way you dress, then this is distrust born out of prejudice. It is distrust that would not be extended to someone from a different social group, no matter how irrelevant those differences are to genuine trustworthiness.

This kind of distrust can’t be explained by reference to what’s at stake, nor to a generally cautious personality.  Even if it doesn’t feel personal, it feels deeply unfair.  And that’s because it is!  Being distrusted can embody a moral insult, and in such cases this insult is wholly undeserved: no wonder it stings.

It is never pleasant to be on the sharp end of prejudice, and prejudicial distrust is no exception to this rule.  But it is especially difficult to recover from prejudicial distrust, since distrust is a self-reinforcing attitude: someone who is distrusted will not be trusted when she tries to demonstrate that this distrust is unfair.  She is trapped in a circle of suspicion.

Life goes well when our relationships are characterised by trust, and life is hard for those who are the victims of prejudicial distrust. And that’s why we all need to take care over our own attitudes of distrust: when you find that you’re suspicious of someone, take a moment to examine your conscience and think about why that is.  You might just find a new friendship can blossom.