When Trust Is Gone, What Can You Do?

By F. Diane Barth, L.C.S.W

When You Feel Like Trust is Missing

We live in a time when everyone is talking about trust and no one seems to be feeling much of it. Have you, like many others, lost faith in the government, your relationships, and maybe even yourself?

Before we talk about what you can do about this lack of trust, let’s talk about what trust means. The Merriam Webster online dictionary  says it’s “assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something.” It involves placing our confidence in someone or something; and it also involves hope.

Now, let’s talk about trust and emotional and psychological development. Consider this scenario: A four-year-old boy stands hesitantly on the side of a pool. His mother is in the water in front of him. “Come on,” she says. “I’m here. I’ll catch you.” He hesitates and she adds, “I’m getting tired and cold. Either jump or don’t. I’ll catch you.” He says, “You’ll catch me, right?” She says, “Yes, I said I would catch you.” “Okay,” he says, and, closing his eyes, jumps.

What would it mean for that child if his mother didn’t catch her son as she promised, but stepped back and let him go under the water? What would it mean if she did keep her word and, in fact, caught him?

A moment in time is like a single photograph, with many different possible interpretations. But one possibility is that the child jumps in, his mother catches him and keeps his head above the water, and he feels safe and secure. He will feel braver the next time he ventures into new territory, because he trusts his mother (and therefore other adults) to be there to protect him; and he has also learned to trust himself to do something that he was unsure about.

Or, if he jumps and his mother steps back and lets him sink in the water, he might learn that she cannot be trusted, the world is not safe, and he was wrong to take a chance.

Psychiatrist and child developmentspecialist Daniel N. Stern points out that in general one single unpleasant experience is less likely to make a big difference in a child’s developing psyche; but repeated experiences in which a parent proves to be either consistently trustworthy or consistently not, over time, can have a major impact on a child’s ability to trust others and his or herself as well. And ultimately trust leads to feeling safe in the world.  Experiences that are repeated, in different forms and different circumstances, tend to be taken in or internalized. And the child will begin to form an internal pattern of expectations about the safety of the world.

According to the developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, the development of trust in parents is a basic building block of a child’s self-esteem and future identity. With trust comes a sense of security and hope for the future. Without trust a child will develop doubt, suspicion, and hopelessness.

Contemporary attachment theorists call this a matter of  “secure attachment,” by which they mean, among other things, that a child feels protected and cared for by his or her parents. Although some interpretations of attachment parenting suggest that parents not leave their children at all, most attachment theorists agree that leaving a child at appropriate times with a caring, careful, and responsible adult, and coming back within a time that is tolerable and not overwhelming to the child, can actually be more beneficial. These optimal separations help a child develop the “muscles” for separating and connecting (two important components of attachment). Further, in agreement with Erikson, attachment theorists believe that this process of healthy connection and separation helps a child learn to trust his or her parents, adding to their sense of trust and safety.

But even loving, trustworthy parents can’t overcome the impact of external trauma on children or adults, if the trauma is too great for the psyche to handle. And the world today is filled with such trauma. Hunger, deprivation, and homelessness, the results of war, terrorism, territoriality, displacement, and weather related tragedies have left their marks on the population of the world.

According to some trauma specialists, physical trauma can sometimes, to some extent, be easier to manage than emotional trauma. Of course, starvation, illness, and loss of family and home involve both kinds of trauma and the consequences are often horrendous.

Some people who have grown up in terrible life circumstances turn to alcohol, drugs, violence, and revenge; others become paranoid, withdrawn, and/or hostile. All of these reactions seem to make sense.

And yet, there are others, who have had the same experiences, who seem resourceful and resilient, comfortable with themselves and trusting of others.

What makes the difference? It is hard to answer this question, although social worker and author Alex Gitterman says that a willingness to keep struggling, good support from others, and even a sense of humor all help.

Some Ideas that Could Help you Regain Your Trust

Talk to other people: The first instinct for many of us when we stop trusting is to stop talking to anyone else. But Gitterman says group support is crucial to maintaining trust and finding your way through adversity. Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant talk about Sandberg’s journey after the death of her husband. One of the important things she did and learned was to share her grief and to talk to other people. The psychoanalyst and philosopher Robert Stolorow and the psychotherapist Ghislaine Boulanger both say that one of the painful responses to adult trauma is feeling that no one else has gone through this, that no one can understand you, and that somehow you are outside of the sphere of human experience. Talking to and with others, even if it cannot make the problem disappear, can help you find better ways to deal with these feelings.

Find and use support:  Support does not have to be group therapy or even a group focused on your particular problem. But Gitterman suggests that social structures, that is organizations and institutions, can be “critical buffers, helping people cope with life transitions, environments, and interpersonal stressors.”

Join with others working toward the same goals: Working with like-minded others toward a goal, whether it is fighting rape, promoting care of the earth, raising money for cancer research, building homes or applying for financial assistance and a place for your family to live can restructure your view of yourself and the world.

Be proud of your own accomplishments: Taking pride in what you can do, no matter how small or insignificant it might seem at the moment, is important. You might not change the world. In fact, most likely, you won’t change it. But if you are doing anything at all to help make the world you live in a better place, you are doing something important. Own it.

It is well-known that trust must be earned. Over time trust can be built and destroyed. But it can be built again. One of the most important things to remember is that trust is a relational process. The little boy who jumped into his mother’s arms in the water was connecting with his mother, and she was connecting with him.

By connecting to others you also build their trust in you. And by building that mutual trust, you are also building your own — and their — self-esteem, self-confidence, and sense of well-being in the world.