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10 Steps to Restoring Trust in Relationships

The true meaning behind the phrase, "I don't trust anyone."

Source: Mikhail_Kayl/Shutterstck

How would you like to go through life without any meaningful relationships?

If you’re constantly stressed because no one “gets” you, you may be on the fast- track. It’s hard when you want to foster deep connections, but trust is holding you back. The good news is life doesn’t have to be this way. The bad news is your issue with others is not so much about them. You may be getting in your own way.

Allow me to explain.

Fresh from graduate school I got a job counseling angry and rebellious teens. Many grew up in the inner city and faced psychosocial stressors such as gang violence, drugs and single-parent households. In an effort to serve as many kids as possible, the chosen therapeutic modality was group counseling focusing on anger management and social skills. Because I was a rookie, I knew my best bet to understand and help these kids was to listen for themes, AKA, The Big Picture. This was it:

“Man, I don’t trust no one.”

Whether I worked with males or females, this was by far the most common thread, and the most challenging aspect of counseling these kids. As the years and clinical experiences went by, I discovered that not trusting another person would prove to be many a client’s battle.

Trust is the foundation of relationships

Relationships are predicated on trust. When you don’t trust others you are depriving yourself of human connection and authentic living. Perhaps you relate to the inherent difficulty of letting someone in. Maybe you used to feel safe sharing your hopes, dreams, and demons, but not anymore.

Most of us have been burned after letting our guard down. Some recover by shaking off the dust and moving on. Others push so far in the opposite direction, they practically run over those who could be their strongest allies.

Have you ever said this to yourself or to someone else?:

“How do I trust someone?”
“How will I know if s/he’s safe?”
“Once bitten, twice shy.”
“Only trust family.”

Why trust is hard for you

As counterintuitive as this may seem, “I don’t trust anyone,” really means “I don’t trust myself.”

Back to those unruly teens of my rookie therapy years. During clinical supervision, my mentor Reevah Simon, LCSW, explained that when someone continuously talks about someone else, in reality, they are talking about themselves and their own pain and suffering. And one way to avoid feeling undesirable feelings is to pass them on to another person via projective identification:

Projection is the unconscious act of attributing something inside ourselves to someone else. Most often, the thing we are projecting is an unwanted emotion or characteristic. So by labeling others as unwanted, out to get you, or insincere, you’re able to avoid feeling those emotions for yourself.

For example, if Sara feels unlovable, she may walk up to John and say, “You’re a loser.” Assuming John didn’t do anything to warrant the name-calling, Sara is projecting her own perceived feelings of unworthiness onto John. In doing so, Sara leaves John “holding the bag” of her anger, frustration, and sadness. She is also not able to see her reality clearly.

Identifying with the projections of others means losing your ability to trust your own perceptions, views, thoughts, and feelings. You lack the ability to understand your inner world. A hallmark of being able to trust one's self is to form effective boundaries in the presence of projections that are hurled at you.

At a deeper level this lack of trust in others represents an immature ego that hasn’t developed resilience and frustration tolerance. Of course, if you were raised with unsupportive and dismissive caretakers, it’s easy to see why trust is an issue. Why would you trust anyone if your own feelings weren’t validated as a child?

When you lack this foundation you expect others will let you down and not keep their word. After all, if parents and caretakers — the very people who are supposed to love us unconditionally — betrayed us, why wouldn’t other people?

The danger of expecting to be continuously rejected is that your ingrained and automatic thoughts result in behaviors guaranteed to get a negative reaction from others. Then, when you’re all alone, you can continue to blame society for being so wretched.

And this is what tripped up my young counseling charges back in the day. Because they didn’t trust in their own abilities to overcome painful emotions, they remained stuck. While they half-believed their blustery claims of not needing anyone, they unwittingly experienced more mistreatment from others due to their rigid ways of thinking and behaving. Worse, some of these kids were exceptionally smart and talented. Their incessant hyper-vigilance and withholding personalities hurt others too, as their unique gifts and contributions went unshared.

We are wired to connect. And when you’re cut off from others, you’re cut off from the most important relationship of all — the relationship with yourself.

How to build trust in yourself

1. Recognize that all humans are comprised of “good” and “bad” parts. In other words, we’re flawed beings.

2. Accept your dark, unsavory, and primitive parts. Change what you can, and accept that you will never be fully evolved.

3. Work on tolerating strong, intense emotions like distress, hostility, rejection, intimacy, and love.

4. Be conscious of projecting those feelings externally because you don’t want to deal with them.

5. Leave your past betrayals behind. Resist the urge to dwell on those who have wronged you, and refuse to let these experiences get in the way of fostering healthy relationships now.

6. Manage time. Trust means suspending instant gratification. While waiting for a call, a job offer, a favor, or an answer, lean into the downtime. Instead of defaulting to controlled substances, incessantly texting another person, or going into panic mode, find healthy ways to keep your mind occupied.

7. Know that the world is basically a safe place, and believe in the inherent goodwill of others.

8. Learn to accept that when someone betrays or compromises your trust, you can withstand uncomfortable feelings of rage, rejection, hurt, and uncertainty. You will not fall apart and self-destruct because you haven’t thus far.

9. Forgive yourself for projecting onto others and for lashing out. We’ve all been there, done that.

10. Realize others cannot “get” you if you don’t get yourself.

Is this hard work?

You bet. Who wants to face their ugly side? In an ideal world, everyone. The first step in experiencing healthy, thriving relationships is learning to contain our unwanted feelings, and not project them onto someone else.

As soon as you trust yourself, you will know how to live. ~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


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Copyright 2015 Linda Esposito, LCSW