Learning to Trust Other People After a Trauma

Feb 23, 2021 at 07:50 am by aGentleDrLaura


Most people live their lives with feelings of safety and trust. They trust that the sun will come up in the morning. That the water they drink is safe. People assume the authorities in their world will effectively run the institutions and organizations, keeping the world safe. It’s how we live our lives and operate in the world.

You assume your car will start. Believe the service station will have enough gas. And that no one will harm you when you get out of your automobile. When something traumatic happens, it changes the assumptions you make about your life.

All traumatic life events disrupt our feelings of trust. Trust in other people, trust in life itself, trust in rules, in the law, and so on, depending on what the life event was.

Trust means being vulnerable. According to Erik Erikson, a developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst, learning to trust is the first stage in human social development. We develop trust or mistrust from our interactions with others. At the beginning of our lives, we must depend exclusively on the people who take care of us.

If your basic needs are met, you’ll develop trust. It’s not just trusting in other people, but a basic trusting that the world is a safe place. It’s also hope and a belief the events and challenges in your life will turn out good. You learn to trust yourself and your desires for the kind of life you want to live.

If your caretakers are neglectful or abusive, you might not develop trust. Instead, you will mistrust the people you encounter. You’ll experience a great deal of self-doubt. You might feel a lot of fear. Experiences such as intimacy, relationships, and success appear fraught with danger. You might become overly controlling, feeling as if you must protect yourself more than is necessary. Chances are that you feel a great deal of negativity about your life’s goals. People who don’t learn to trust believe that the world is unpredictable, unreliable, and unsafe.

How do we get from here, mistrusting life itself to there, being able to become vulnerable and risk yourself with others? The chart that goes with this article outlines one process people can use to develop trust in their judgment and in other people. Email me at aGentleDrLaura@gmail.com for a copy of this chart.

If you have great difficulty trusting people, you might think that you never, ever met anyone trustworthy. But really, that’s not true. If it were true, you would not be alive today. Someone somewhere gave you enough care to survive into adulthood. Also, children are incredibly survival-oriented. Most of us will take in the smallest amount of nurturing if it is anywhere in our environment. For example, I remember one specific camp counselor in my life. We never spoke, but she made eye contact with me and didn’t look away. I took that in and made it matter to my being. Someone was willing to see me. Over 60 years later, I still see her face.

You think about all the people in your personal history. Then list those people you’d qualify as trustworthy whether they are in your life or not.

Seriously consider what you believe about them. Next, write your feelings about them.

Here is where we look outside ourselves at the people we consider trustworthy. Away from our thoughts. Away from our feelings. I always think of myself as a sort of detective looking for facts—clear, concise points.

There is a complicated explanation for this. So, most of us project our ideas and feelings onto other people. We don’t see them clearly; instead viewing people as if they were wearing the clothing of our hurts, prejudices, and pre-judgments. Your version will be colored by an overlay of that hurt or anger if you are hurt or angry. It’s kind of like using a light-colored crayon over a painting. An overlay. To make progress, we have to work to see them as they are.

List their words. Write down what you remember of what they said. Do this as carefully and clearly as you can.

List their actions. Write down what they did.

And finally, summarize this for yourself. List the trustworthy traits that you now see in them as clearly as possible. I try for one or two words in this column. You need to be able to remember these ideas when you are around other people.

Then you build your version of what trustworthy looks like.

The next stage is to have surface conversations with people you see as trustworthy. Take your time, get to know them. See if your version is as accurate as you’d like.


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