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When Trust Feels Impossible, Try Hope

Hope can be a first step back to trust.

Rainbow Valley, by Caitlin from Hertfordshire, CC BY 2.0
Source: Rainbow Valley, by Caitlin from Hertfordshire, CC BY 2.0

To trust or not to trust? Sometimes this feels like a choice: consult the evidence, consult your gut, and decide which way to jump. But sometimes we just find ourselves trusting – or distrusting – and can’t change this even if we try.

Withholding trust can be an important form of self-defense. When we trust, we make ourselves vulnerable, and although that can bring rich rewards in the right relationship, it can be disastrous when our trust is misplaced.

Yet distrust can be dispiriting, especially when it concerns someone we ought to be able to trust: a friend, a family member, a colleague or even an elected leader. It doesn’t feel good to distrust, and most of us know from experience that it doesn’t feel good to be distrusted either, even when we know we deserve it.

When trust feels impossible, but we don’t want to give up completely, then hope may be a last resort. We can’t always bring ourselves even to hope – a literally hopeless situation – but we can often hope against the odds, in situations where trust feels like too much of a risk.

What is the difference between trust and hope? Unlike trust, hope can coexist with checking, with insurance, with back-up plans. I hope my kids will remember to brush their teeth before bed – after all, they’re not implacably opposed to dental hygiene. But I’ll check up, because they’re not reliable enough for me simply to trust them; I hope we’ll get there when they’re a little older. In contrast, I’m lucky to be able to trust my parents to remember their grandkids’ birthdays – this isn’t just a hope, and I don’t need to remind them as that time of year comes around.

Hope is less risky than trust. Dashed hopes can be bitterly disappointing, but don’t represent the betrayal we feel when trust goes wrong. This reduced riskiness is part of what makes hoping easier than trusting.

Trust and hope can also differ in their effects on those who receive them. Whilst it is often gratifying to be trusted, trust can also be felt as a burden (see ‘When Being Trusted Feels Scary’ ): knowing that others are depending on us can really pile on the pressure. But when the odds are against us, knowing that someone hopes we’ll succeed can encourage us without pressurising.

If withholding trust is a form of self-defense, can it ever be advisable to withhold even our hopes, in the bleakest times? In situations of abuse, hoping that the abuser will change his ways can be dangerous, if it means staying in a bad relationship longer than necessary. Where hope is ill-founded, it can prevent us from taking the kind of action we sometimes to need to protect ourselves, and to protect others who depend upon us.

If you are in such a dark place, or have a friend who is there, then staying put and hoping that change will happen can make things worse. But this doesn’t mean that the situation is hopeless. Instead, hope needs to be directed elsewhere, towards making a change and finding your way back to the light. Eventually, hope can lead us back to more trustworthy surroundings.

Find out more: scientists and philosophers are working together on the ‘Hope and Optimism’ project at the University of Notre Dame and at Cornell University. To learn more about their findings, visit their website .