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How’s your dashboard working? More on trust

Soooo… a few posts back I promised to write more about trust.  It’s a huge topic, and I don’t think I’ll get to the end of it any time soon. But here’s the next installment…

I believe I stated previously that so-called ‘negative’ emotions like fear or anger aren’t actually bad things – they’re like all emotions, and emotions are signals to tell you what’s going on – like emotional dashboard lights.  Are you in the right gear?  Do you need to add oil to your car? Is the door shut?  Emotions are designed to work the same way; they ‘light up’ when there’s a ‘go ahead’ or ‘don’t do that right now’ or ‘proceed with caution’.  That’s a good thing, and even when we wish the situation was different, knowing what’s ahead is usually better than stumbling in with no warnings.  However, emotions don’t always work properly, and even when they do, they don’t always agree with the emotions of the guy next to you.  When that happens, it can be a problem.  It can be a BIG problem.

Continuing with the ‘indicator light’ analogy – have you ever driven a car that has a permanent indicator light on?  Or one that flickers on  off regardless of what’s actually going on in the engine?  (If this has never happened to you, feel free to buy me a new car whenever you want 😉 )  For those who haven’t driven older cars, or who don’t drive (or who never bother with looking at the dashboard); cars have a LOT of potential indicators. Nearly everyone relies on things like the speedometer & gas gauge.  Many years ago when I was just old enough to be out on my own, the car I drove had a broken speedometer. As far as it was concerned, you weren’t going any miles (or kilometers, for that mater) per hour at all.  That meant you had to pretty much guesstimate based on how fast other traffic was going, and slow down just in case if there was a cop around.  Things like the speedometer & the gas gauge tend to be passive – if they’re broken, they simply don’t register anything.  Emotions like that are more like some kinds of depression – everything is flat, and it’s hard to know what’s really happening, because not much is showing up.

Cars also have a bunch of lights &/or sounds telling you things like your oil is low, your engine is too hot, you need to get the engine looked at (nice vague warning there).  They might make noise if a door is open or a seat-belt unfastened – some even have a recorded voice telling you just what’s happening.  My current car has the ‘check engine’ light permanently on.  In this case, it doesn’t mean anything except that the car is coming up on being old enough to vote and over time even cars that are well cared for get some quirks. I can ignore that light. It’s small, it’s unobtrusive, and I know it’s not a problem. But what if…

What if I was driving a car that had Every Single Light on? Or if every light randomly went on & off many times in even a short drive? That would include the turn-signals, that also make a click-click-click noise, and the ‘open door’ dinging sound, even if the door was closed.  Add a random beep or a voice that was supposed to signal a loose seat-belt (my car doesn’t have this, but many cars do) – but did it just on a whim, regardless of seat-belts actually in use?  I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking that a short trip, just a mile or two away, would be driving me nuts.  I kinda think I wouldn’t want to go out in that car unless it was an EXTREME emergency.

This is what it’s like for people whose emotions are too sensitive.  Instead of useful spikes & drops & flows of feelings that help gauge a good (or bad) day, it feels like EVERY day is flickering and dinging and beeping and pretty much, you just want it to stop!  There’s currently two common diagnoses for this kind of feeling. One is Anxiety Disorders – situations where all the worry lights, fear sirens, anxiousness beeping are all going off – and you really don’t know why.  It could be in the middle of the frozen foods or at the park or in church – often the emotions don’t seem very related to actual problems at all.  What they do relate to is messages from way back in the brain that made sense at one time.  There are different kinds of anxiety disorders, but they all refer to having a brain that’s not giving emotional feedback properly & usefully.

The other common diagnosis is ADD, which stands for Attention Deficit Disorder.  It used to be called Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) if lack of attention made someone hyper, and ADD if it made them zone out.  Then the powers that be changed the name, and now it’s all ADD, with different subtypes (hyperactive is one, lack of attention is another, and so forth).  There’s a lot of controversy about whether ADD is real, if it’s overdiagnosed (especially among children who naturally need to run around and whose attention spans aren’t very big yet).  However, for people who do have it, it’s more like different indicator lights going on & off.  Instead of overwhelming emotions on full force, ADD is described more like ‘okay, I’m interested in math… no, wait, I’m tired.. no, I’m too hyper, and anxious… and so forth.  Interestingly enough, some research suggests that kids & teens who have anxiety disorders often act more like someone with attention problems than anxiety problems.  If you’re anxious or can’t trust your own signals, you’re going to be pretty distracted!

Bringing this back to the real world, feeling emotions instead of a dashboard full of lights – what do we do about it???  This is a situation that isn’t about a rational way to trust someone else, it’s about trusting yourself.  How do you trust yourself to know what you need and want when your ‘dashboard’ is that screwed up?  Where did it start?  Why is it doing this?

My own perspective is that most people start with something that actually does provoke a real emotion.  There are theories that all anxiety or ADD are entirely based on brain chemistry and can be fixed with medications, but I think that most often, a real incident came first.  Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), for example, is considered a type of anxiety disorder, and it is by definition cased by going through a traumatic situation. That’s a fairly obvious example, even if the recovery part isn’t nearly as simple. There are other situations, though, that can provoke ongoing anxiety without being as obvious.

When I was a kid, my mom gave me a strong lecture on not trying to catch bees.  I was young, I was interested in bugs & birds & animals & plants and was in general just the kind of kid who would try to catch a bee and end up stung.  So she told me not to catch bees, that bees would sting, that stings were ‘ouch’.  I developed a bit of a phobia of bees for a while. It was like my emotional ‘look out for the bee’ light went off if there was a bee anywhere nearby, not just if it was close enough to cause a problem.  Eventually I worked at getting over that fear (aided partly by being a teenager who didn’t want to look scared in front of my peers).  But a mild phobia of bees was also likely very helpful when I was a child.

What if it hadn’t stayed mild?  What if my brain had decided that beetles look kind of like bees (and start with the same syllable), so I should be scared of them, too?  What if I had then noticed that an awful lot of bees, and beetles, were found outside and decided I shouldn’t go outdoors?  If events in my life had gone in a different direction I could have all-out agoraphobia (fear of being outdoors), and I wouldn’t have any idea where it came from.  My ‘warning system’ would be going off too often for too many reasons; but it would have had a starting place, and things that bumped it up along the way.

Dealing with an overwhelming ‘dashboard’ of emotions is NOT easy!  By the time everything is signalling, it’s pretty hard to trace it back to one bee.  Sometimes people can, and need to, and other times they can’t, and shouldn’t. There are quite a few tools to help, but it treatment can still be like a baffled mechanic trying each thing in turn to see if it makes a change. The important thing is, you aren’t crazy, you have some very sensitive emotions, and even better, your brain can help fix itself!  A car has to rely on a mechanic, but a brain can learn to re-work its emotions. Some people need to know what caused the problem, and others just need to work toward the solution.  Both methods are okay, and when I’m working with someone whose emotions are overwhelming them too much, we can do either or both – whatever seems best.

Part of that process ends up dealing with trust.  There’s knowing why things got screwed up, there’s helping the brain learn or re-learn how to give feedback in ways that are useful and functional. And then there’s learning to trust yourself – both to trust your emotions, and to trust that if you have a bad day it’s not the start of a bad life.  Healing from anything is going to involve some times that feel all wrong. Sometimes you even learn more when things go wrong, because you can see what they are and what happened NOW, instead of trying to untangle possibilities from way back when!

Trusting yourself to trust.  That’s an awfully big job, but it’s one that’s so very worthwhile.

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Trust, distrust, mistrust – what’s it made of, anyhow?

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.

 

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