Once a month I run a personal growth group that meets at my home. Every meeting centres on a theme that we choose in advance and participants share their life experiences that relate to the theme. One of our meetings had been on the theme of trust and reflecting on it afterwards, I had been struck how everybody spoke about a situation that involved broken trust. Although we all, hopefully, have had experiences in life when our trust was reaffirmed, instances of broken trust are so painful and leave such a deep wound they come to the fore when the topic of trust is raised.
Like everybody else, in my own life I have had situations when I felt badly let down by people I put my trust in. In my therapy work too, broken trust is a recurrent theme and sometimes I hear a cry of a near despair: “Whom can I trust then?” When we have been hurt very deeply it may sometimes seem that to keep safe it might be better not to trust anybody ever again. Yet by adopting this strategy we would stop ourselves from experiencing the joy of intimate connectedness and may suffer from loneliness and isolation. So is there a way out from this conundrum? How can we trust people and keep ourselves safe?
Expectations, awareness and reality check
Broken trust always involves the fissure between our expectations of another person and their ability (or rather inability) to meet these expectations. Thus the first thing to become aware of is that we do have certain expectations. Next, we need to enquire how realistic our expectations are: whether or not the person in question can possibly meet them.
Our expectations always spring from sets of values and beliefs which may or may not correspond to that of the other person. This takes time to find out, but it is also important to keep in mind that our values and beliefs are not fixed once and for all. They change as we change while journeying through life and what we believed to be unshakable truth when we were 16 may not be the same for us when we are 30.
These changes often happen gradually and imperceptibly and may not synchronize with the changes in our friends, partners, parents or siblings. When we are unaware of this ongoing process of change (within ourselves as well as within others) we are more likely to miss the signals that inform us that we are no longer in alignment with another person. Then the risk of suffering a disappointment is higher. It also often happens that when we come under pressure or when our priorities change as a result of changing circumstances we may not be able to be there for our friends in the same way we used to.
One of the most painful losses of friendship in my life happened through my inability to appreciate the change that was taking place in my friend’s life. For several years we have been very close, shared with each other intimate concerns and helped each other through the times of emotional turmoil. Then my friend got married and the joys and challenges of her new married life have naturally become a priority to her. I, however, haven’t been able to recognize that and continued demanding that she remains engaged with me with the same intensity as before. This placed too much burden on our relationship and eventually the connection has snapped. Had I been able to understand and accept my friends’ changing needs and emotional resources we could have kept the friendship going. Yet I couldn’t… At that time I had been struggling, feeling lonely and wanting emotional support, which I used to receive from my friend, and when she distanced herself I felt abandoned.
Taking care of ourselves
It is most important to realize that no single person in this world can possibly take care of all our emotional (and/or practical) needs. Not even the best ever parents are able to meet all the needs of their children because we are such complex beings and our needs are so many and varied. Thus it is essential to become aware of the needs we have and to find ways of meeting them through different sources. Consider questions like these : What is it that makes me happy and what I can do to give it to myself? What is it I am struggling with and where I can find help?
For example, if we want companionship we can think of activities we can do with other people who share similar interests. We can’t demand or expect the satisfaction of this need solely from our partner. Similarly, when we are going through difficult times. One person – be it the most loving partner or friend – can only support us thus far, as we all have limited resources and a lot of personal challenges to deal with. So we need to seek help from a different source, such as therapy, for instance, otherwise the relationship may suffer under too much burden.
It is also important to develop an ability to be on our own. I want to avoid being misunderstood on this point. I am not trying to advocate the idea of total self-reliance. I believe this is neither realistic nor healthy. After all we are communal beings. Rather what I am trying to say is that when we are able to stay quietly with ourselves in a moment of distress we begin to hear better our inner voice that would offer us insights and guidance that we need. We become stronger and more independent, in a sense that we learn to be a source of support to ourselves.
However much awareness we have it is nigh impossible to altogether avoid the situations when we feel badly disappointed and let down by others. From my own experience and through talking and working with people I came to think that, in addition to hurt, we also suffer in such instances from a sense of confusion. We momentarily lose faith in our ability to make a sound judgement about other people and situations. We feel disoriented and helpless. And then we ask the question: Whom can I trust?
Basically, what we are asking is this: Can I trust myself? Can I trust my own intuition, knowledge, perception?
In recovering trust and faith in ourselves it helps to look at the factors that contributed to us misjudging the situation or overlooking the signs of a possible fracture. These can be our beliefs, fears, past hurts or desire to see what we want to see… Alas! We are only human! When we claim responsibility for our part in the situation we reclaim our power back. We don’t any longer feel like a victim of a blind force, but feel more in control and better equipped for handling similar situations in the future.
In conclusion to this rather long and very incomprehensive blog I want to say a few words about forgiveness. If you have felt unexpectedly let down by somebody whom you have known to be very trustworthy, please consider giving this person another chance. This is different from giving our trust blindly to somebody whom we don’t know that well or who consistently proved to be unreliable. Rather it is about acknowledging that we are subject to many different forces – often subconscious and very strong – that can overpower us at times and make us act out of character.
It might be sad to think that complete, 100% trust, just as an eternal love, is not really possible. Yet in this sadness we may also find greater kindness towards ourselves and towards others. And by renewing our trust we help our life and the lives of others unfold.