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Enough trust to dance on

13 Feb

I am primarily a visual and kinaesthetic learner. This means that my favourite ways to really learn & understand something are seeing & doing.

(If you’re interested in how you learn, the VARK test is an easy online questionnaire that can give you a lot of insight. Go to vark-learn.com – you can take the questionnaire, read about different learning styles, all kinds of stuff!)

It also means that a lot of what I write uses metaphors that refer to seeing & feeling.

Lately the subject of trust has come up in several places in my life. It’s come up with different clients, it’s come up when talking with my spouse, it’s something I’m thinking about; so I wanted to give a good look at one of my favourite analogies.

To me, trust is like a floor. Ideally, it’s a good, sturdy, solid floor. It has enough space to move around on, at the very least – maybe more. When someone has grown up in a good family, been cared for and loved and guided and given discipline when needed and plenty of praise and knows where they stand, so to speak, that person has a floor. They do know ‘where they stand’, or to put it another way, they have an under-standing. They have something their life is based on; usually some combination of family, friends, social understanding, spiritual beliefs, and ideas about who they are as a person. That understanding is where trust comes from.

When something happens to damage trust: divorce, or a horrible fight; having a partner cheat, going through the death of a loved one; being raped or attacked or assaulted or a home robbery or natural disaster or so many other things smash a hole in the floor. It may be a case where a few boards need replaced (if we’re thinking of a hardwood floor), or where concrete or stone need to be fixed (if it’s a harder material). It could be so bad it damages a support that holds the whole floor up, or it could be a minor nick that can be buffed out. It might even be a dent or scar that’s left in place as a memory or a point of pride in survival. But when things happen that affect our basic trust, our base, they damage that base. They damage our floors.

This first example assumes that someone starts with a pretty strong floor. When someone has been abused in childhood, though; or neglected or abandoned; or has any major traumas as a child that aren’t dealt with then; their floor doesn’t get built very far or very well. A survivor of childhood abuse or neglect is more likely to be balancing precariously on a few boards, or trying to reach everything in their lives while standing on a plastic step-stool. Not only is it hard to move forward with no floor to walk on, but it’s so much harder to fix the problem when there isn’t a floor there, or the floor is rigged together from mismatched bits and pieces.

In an ideal world, a child starts out not needing their own ‘floor’. An infant is literally carried. They share their parents’ floor. Healthy parents with good parenting skills provide the materials to build a solid base, a good support, and the child starts seeing what goes where as they grow. A toddler is figuring out how to stand in a metaphorical sense as well as a literal one. They discover just what kind of flooring, what shape and size and strength they will need as they explore climbing onto a couch, over a dog, onto a shelf (with parents frantically chasing after). Toddlers discover that falling down hurts, and that they really love spinning in circles, and rolling down hills is fun. And that healthy child has parents and others who realize that their child’s view is of a strong foundation. The child sees what they build as amazingly large and amazingly strong; because it is so much bigger than it was the day before, and the day before that. But these caretakers also realize that a child often has a weaker foundation than they think they do, and they still hold their child next to them, sharing their own trust, their own ‘floor’, to keep their child steady as they explore.

If we – both those who grew up naturally and easily building a secure foundation and those who have put one together later in life and those who are still working at it – look at the resources that someone with long-term abuse or neglect or trauma is dealing with, it’s pretty easy to see how difficult it is to trust.   Someone whose floor is badly damaged, or never built well at all, is likely to keep on having difficulties. We have another common idiom for this. We say that they ‘fall through the cracks’. Their own floor is full of not just cracks, but gaping holes, places mended with sub-standard material, and dangerously weak places, because this is all that person had to work with.

Then they try to get help from various agencies and centers and assistance programs – and these programs are often not well esteemed in society. They are not well-funded; they can’t afford enough staff, enough space, enough resources for everyone who needs help. Not because they don’t want to be, but because resources have to come from somewhere, and it may be hard for someone with a firm foundation to compare their own under-standing to another’s. These agencies do their best to collectively create a strong, sturdy floor for their clients, but it doesn’t stretch out far enough to hold everyone who needs it. There isn’t enough in the budget to always keep it in repair. Most of all, it’s hard to line up the bridges and corridors linking one agency to another. And clients slip through their own cracks and through the cracks in the organizations that try to catch them.

When I work with a client on trust, I like to bring up the analogy of a floor. I like to start with the idea that each of us needs to begin by finding a few bricks or boards of security in ourselves. We need to create a space of trust that’s big enough to stand on, to sit on; maybe even big enough to lie down on. Those materials come from being trustworthy to ourselves.

Yesterday evening, I knew I was low on milk. I knew that I’d want milk the next day (I really love my tea in the English style, with honey & milk). After my last clients of the day left for their homes, I put on my walking shoes and my coat, and went out to get a gallon of milk. That action created a brick or two of trust in me for me. I can trust myself to go get milk. I can use those ‘bricks’ to expand my floor, or to support an edge that might be a bit weak.

I’m gonna need it. I have an interview this afternoon that will hopefully result on getting to work with more clients. To get there, I had to trust myself to contact the group I’m interviewing with. I had to believe that my resume & question answering was good enough. I had to ask people if I could use them for recommendations – and that meant I had to have extended enough of my floor earlier to reach people & met people so I had people to ask. Today I have to trust that whatever I wear, it’s the right thing (or close enough). I have to get myself to the appointment, I have to talk to the interviewers, I have to present the skills I have that would be an asset to their work.

That’s a lot to ask from one small brick. It’s not all on that brick; I have others from previous times that I trusted myself to follow through, to care for me, and then did. I have more from learning to trust a few others, and to receive bricks or boards or building suggestions to make my floor stronger – strong enough to let me take a bit of a reach without falling through.

Let’s rewind, though, all the way back to when I was a teenager. I’d been in several foster homes, because my parents weren’t trustworthy. Not in a teenage ‘my parents are idiots’ way, but in a way that adult counselors and social workers agreed were not trustworthy. I needed to get an after-school job to start saving money for when I was out on my own. I didn’t have many ways to get to places that hired teenagers (if you’re thinking ‘every fast-food place out there’ – you’re right). I didn’t trust myself enough to present myself well. When I did get a job, every single day scared me. It wasn’t a job I liked (no surprise there). It barely paid enough that I could afford my share of the rent in a shared apartment. My meals featured a lot of leftover fried fish from said job.

In that time, I was building some of my floor. I was learning who I could rely on, and who I couldn’t. I was finding ways to make my money and time stretch farther. But I was also putting enough pressure on my floor to break perhaps 2 or every 3 boards I added. Bicycling to work (I didn’t have a car), physically hurt. Leftovers from a fast-food restraint aren’t very nutritious or very appetizing. My trust in myself and in other people had gaps and weak places and splinters and places that tripped me every time. That meant that in trying to add, to extend, to strengthen, I was handicapped before I even started by a very messed up sense of trust to stand on and reach out.

I was discovering just how many places there were to fall through the floor that was supposed to catch me; such as not being able to go to college. My social worker arranged that I could stay with my foster family until I graduated high school, but I turned 18 several months prior to graduation. That meant my legal guardian from my 18th birthday on was me, but financial aid paperwork insisted on either the information of the parents/guardians who would be supporting me in college (none), or the signature of the same parent or guardian stating that they would not be supporting me through college – still none. I was also failing to discover places to get help. Before you can ask for help, you have to know that help is there and you have to be able to reach out far enough for someone to reach back. It took a while to build those first shaky bridges out to others.

{Just a note: A few years later the FAFSA – the national financial aid form – was adjusted to allow the option of checking the box ‘I was in foster care or a ward of the state at the time I turned 18’ just for occasions like mine. But it meant that despite being accepted to college, I couldn’t go straight from high school, I had to go later on. I fell through that crack in that floor, and I believe it was significantly harder to climb back up, repair the crack, and go forward again.}

Adding up each person who wasn’t given the emotional supplies, tools, & guidance to build trust – that’s a lot of people. Then we need to add the ones who have had their trust damaged later. We’re social creatures. We reach out. When we find someone that we think we can care for (as a friend or romantically or as part of the family, it doesn’t matter), we tend to try to extend our own floors to meet with theirs. Sometimes it’s a narrow bridge – maybe even with a gate in the middle.

Other times we meld our floor to theirs, creating one unbroken expanse… but what if that person breaks our trust. The edge of our floor is now jagged, ripped up, damaged. It takes a lot of work to re-build that edge so it’s strong and smooth, and longer to make it truly strong enough to join to someone else.

If we’re attacked, raped, mugged, robbed; suffer injury or illness or a fire or a flood, our trust in the world and in ourselves is damaged. It could be a few dents, or it could be a crater right in the middle. People say to ‘pick yourself up’; to ‘keep on going’. They say ‘hasn’t enough time passed’ or ‘you can’t let what happened rule your life’. It takes more energy to keep on going when you have to detour around a hole in your foundation, or to avoid the jagged edges. It takes even more energy to go on going on AND to find the materials to replace that hole in your floor – in your trust.

In going on, in avoiding the cracks and holes where possible and pulling myself out when I do fall in, the goal is to have a floor big enough and strong enough to dance on. One that’s strong enough to hold others. One where I can invite others to come close enough for a dance – and one that’s mine so I can invite them to leave if necessary, too. I want a floor that will support walls if I want some spaces just for me, and other spaces to share. I want to be able to join my floor to others’ if I choose; but I want to have the insight not to join to someone who will rip up my floor because they decide to detach theirs. I don’t want to trick myself into standing on someone else’s floor, I want my own.

I am a person a counselor, a journeyer, a gardener, an artist. I love and I am loved. I am a dancer, and I want a floor that I can dance on.

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