Trust has been coming up a lot for me lately. (You may have noticed this if you read my previous post.) I’m not at all surprised. Trust is something we all deal with; and we don’t get to just learn it once and maybe stop in for a refresher course every 10 to 20 years. No, trust is something that comes up in every relationship, in all kinds of circumstances, in nearly every interaction. Trust is at work when we go ahead and go because the light is green and that means that the people coming on the other street should have a red light and honour it and stop. When I stop to think about how many times and places I have to trust someone I’ve never even met just to drive to the store, to mail a letter, to order a pizza… yes, trust comes up all over the place, all the time.
Since it does, it’s hardly a surprise that trust is going to come up pretty regularly in conversations with clients. Clients are people. They also drive and shop and send letters and order pizza. They talk to friends and family members and significant others. Trust and distrust are ubiquitous.
Achieving the goal of knowing when to trust, how to trust, who to trust is perhaps not so ubiquitous. Even the most well-adjusted, emotionally healthy person on the planet is going to have times where they feel mistrust, or trust when they shouldn’t, or wonder if their trust is being abused. (I’m also pretty convinced that the most well-adjusted, emotionally healthy person on the planet spends most of their time hiding out somewhere trying to avoid those of us who are not nearly as sane and balanced.) So I think I can say that most of my clients are just like me in this. They aren’t always balanced, they have issues, they wonder if they’re doing things right. We all do.
They’re also like me in that they don’t just wonder, they go to therapy, they talk and write and paint and move and think and journal and share their way through those issues. They have the guts to confront their fears and shadows and imperfections. To all my clients, and me, who also sees a therapist, and everyone else out there in therapy: Way to go Us!!! Therapy is not ubiquitous, even when it should be.
One of the things that people in and out of therapy work on is trust. So just what is trust? How do we break it down to knowing when something feels trustworthy and when it doesn’t? Is it a feeling? A reaction? A thought?
There are a lot of answers out there, but I’m taking it down to a simple definition. Trust is a state of congruence.
Trust is not specifically an emotion. Emotions come in many shades and strengths and variations (sort of like paint – there may be a future post embedded in that thought 😉 ). But taken down to basics, emotions come in roughly five or six types. Glad, Sad, Mad (I like starting those out that way because they rhyme); then Fear, Shame, and if you want a sixth, Alone. Each of these can be big or small, can be healthy or unhealthy, can be separate or combined with other emotions. Emotions are immediate responses from the brain whenever we run into circumstances that set them off. They are, among other things, like little areas that light up to warn us of what’s happening.
Trust isn’t an emotion, because it has more thinking and assessing in it. But it’s not just a thought, because many of us, myself included, go with gut feelings or reactions we can’t fully define in determining trust. Trust includes input from all of these.
Trust is congruence. We all have sets input: thoughts, feelings, memories, and information about any particular situation. When current information, past memories, thoughts, and feelings about a particular person or idea or topic all agree and support each other, we tend to trust that person or situation quite a lot. When our thoughts and feelings and different pieces of information and memory are all in conflict about something or someone, we tend to distrust quite a lot.
Most of the time we have small amounts of incongruence on any particular topic. Information, emotion, and thoughts might match up, but old memories aren’t in agreement. A situation makes us feel both thrilled and excited (both of which are variations on glad or happy) and nervous and worried (variations on scared). We have nothing but positive information and facts, but something feels wrong or off. Each of these situations has places where input just isn’t agreeing.
It’s not comfortable to just sit around without deciding what to do about anything, and it certainly isn’t productive, so we find ways to weigh the input so it’s easier to clearly trust and go forward, or distrust and stop. Knowing where memories come from and why is one way to solve the dilemma. If a review in the news, a friend, and an advertisement all say that a restaurant is good, the smells and sights are appetizing, the menu has foods I like; but the past three times I’ve gone out to eat I really disliked the food; I’m weighing current information, thoughts, and emotions against memories. Assuming that the memories aren’t of the same restaurant, I’m likely to decide to try trusting it. But if my memories are of that particular place, those memories weight a lot more, and just might outvote everything else.
There are times when people know they will be scared of something they want – stage fright or anxiety about a job interview are great examples. Many people refuse to allow their feelings of fear to make the decision. Others are too scared anyhow. Of all the kinds of input, emotions and physical feelings have the strongest immediate force.
There are thousands of examples I could put here, but they all boil down to the same result. Conflicting information results in mistrust. Deciding how to act on trust or mistrust requires knowledge of self and knowledge of outside sources. Regardless of the strength of the input, how realistic it is matters a great deal.
When I work with an adult survivor of childhood abuse, I can guarantee that their memories of childhood will be incongruent with any other input. Even if a survivor is assessing a situation involving the people who perpetrated abuse, their own situation is different. I am a survivor. My memories tell me that my abusers are all adults with a lot of power, that they are all larger than me, and that I am always small and have no power of my own. That was true then, but it isn’t true now. I can acknowledge my fears and honour them; but they aren’t an accurate source of information for situations now.
Instead, I have to consider what I know to be true now. I know that I am an adult. I know I’ve taken courses in self defense. I know that I have a lot of people who have heard my story and believe me. I know that I can ask a friend to come with me if I’m worried. I know that I can make sure I have a way to leave at any time, have a cell phone programmed to dial a friend, and talk to other people to make a decision. I have a lot of power and choices now that I didn’t have as a child.
Many times, the decision to trust or not trust gets way more complex than this, of course. But the basis of trust is the same. When all or most of the input matches up, we feel like we can trust the situation. Even when all the input is saying this is a very bad idea, we can trust – we trust ourselves to get out fast! When input is confusing and conflicting, we feel mistrust, and it is hard to know who to trust and what to do.
From there, two of the most difficult situations are ones where trust doesn’t matter and ones where trust is misplaced. I’ll follow up on these in future posts, because they each deserve their own discussion. Trust is not always the answer. The answer to trust, however, is still congruence. The next time you find yourself in a trust dilemma, try to separate and identify each piece of input. Then try to determine how much each piece really matters in the situation, and how much each piece itself is true. (It’s one of the reasons therapists like articles and books that have a lot of research and support from other articles and books. Stuff that has a lot of support from other sources is more trustworthy that something that’s one person’s idea. If we’re going to be applying a new idea to actual people who are trying to work through tough issues, we want to be able to trust the information we’re using.)
If you can decide how much each piece of input matters, how strongly it affects you, and how truthful it is, you’ve worked out a lot of how much to trust this situation. You go forward, and you see the results of your decision. Then you can use them to help figure out how much to trust the next thing, and to look back and see if the input you had was worthwhile. That’s the process of learning to trust. It’s not a very easy process, but it’s a very worthwhile one. I wish you good luck and clear thinking in that process and hope you’ll wish some back to me. We’re all on different paths, but we’re all on this journey together.