Trust—the act of placing confidence in someone or something else—is a fundamental human experience, necessary for society to function and for any person to be relatively happy. Without it, fear rules. Trust is not an either/or proposition, but a matter of degree, and certain life experiences can impact a person's ability to trust others.
Everyone has uncertainty about whom to trust, how much to trust, when not to trust, and so forth at one time or another. In fact, every day we make choices about whom and how much to trust, and sometimes we are more willing to trust than at other times. That’s a good thing; a total lack of mistrust would indicate a serious psychological problem. Judgments about when and whom to trust help keep us safe and alive!
Signs that a person may be excessively mistrustful include:
- A total lack of intimacy or friendships due to mistrust
- Mistrust that interferes with one's primary relationship
- Several intensely dramatic and stormy relationships in a row or at once
- Racing thoughts of suspicion or anxiety about friends and family
- Terror during physical intimacy
- Belief that others are deceptive and malevolent, without real evidence
When mistrust seems to play a dominant role in a person's life, past disappointments or betrayals may be at the root of the issue. Mistrust is a valid and reasoned response to feeling betrayed or abandoned, but a person's life can be adversely affected when feelings of mistrust are pervasive, resulting in anxiety, anger, or self-doubt. Fortunately, a person can learn to trust again, and working with a therapist can aid this process.
Often, issues with trust arise based on experiences and interactions in the early phases of life, primarily childhood. A person who did not receive adequate nurturing, affection, and acceptance or who was abused, violated, or mistreated as a child will often find difficulty in establishing trust as an adult.
Likewise, adolescent experiences of either social rejection or acceptance may shape a person’s ability to trust those around him or her. For instance, if someone is mocked, teased, or treated as an outcast by his or her peers during the teenage years, this will influence later relationships. Being betrayed or belittled by others impacts self-esteem, which also plays a significant role in a person’s capacity to trust. Basically, those who experience low self-esteem will be less likely to put their trust in those around them than those who are more self-assured.
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As an adult, traumatic life events such as an accident, illness, theft of or damage to personal property, or loss of a loved one may lead to issues with trusting others and feeling safe and secure. Being physically violated or attacked, as in the case of rape or assault, is likely to dramatically impact a person’s trust in the goodness of others. Veterans of military combat may also experience difficulty trusting others following the stresses of wartime violence. And within a committed relationship, being cheated on or left for another will often lead to the development of trust issues.
Posttraumatic stress, which results from a person's exposure to severe danger or perceived danger, can lead a previously healthy person to experience tremendous difficulty with trust. People may experience and re-experience the trauma in their minds, along with the associated anxiety, and often go to great lengths to create a feeling of safety, sometimes isolating themselves from others or becoming overly dependent.
Therapy can help individuals address and identify the source of problematic trust issues. Being unable to trust can destroy friendships, careers, and marriages, but fortunately, learning to trust again is not impossible. For example, a person who experienced infidelity in one relationship may transfer that fear onto every future relationship, causing unnecessary pain and turmoil for both partners. By working with a therapist, the same person can separate past trust issues from future fears, and teach them how to rebuild trust in existing relationships. Trust is a quality that develops over time in every context, and with proper guidance, a person can gain the insight to identify where trust was compromised in the past. In fact, the therapy process itself helps many people learn to trust again, as trust and mutual respect are integral to the relationship between therapist and client.
Any type of therapy can be effective for addressing issues related to trust, and many people find group therapy provides more opportunity to exercise trust than individual therapy alone, simply due to the fact that there are multiple people present.
Under the medical model, trust issues can be linked with depression, adjustment disorders, anxiety, and more severe mental health conditions like schizophrenia and posttraumatic stress. People diagnosed with schizophrenia and related conditions may experience paranoia—the unfounded but rigid belief that others are trying to harm them; delusions—false beliefs, often with themes of mistrust; or hallucinations—usually, imagined voices that may be critical or malevolent. This serious condition is today thought best treated with a combination of medications and intensive therapy.
- Fear of infidelity: Elizabeth, 38, continually accuses her husband of cheating on him, even though she admits she has no good reason to believe this. She attributes this to past experiences with boyfriends who did cheat. Therapy reveals she also mistrusted her father, who cheated on her mom. Learning to distinguish between trustworthy and untrustworthy people, and learning to trust her own judgment and reasoning, help Liz establish greater intimacy with her husband.
- Fears related to war trauma: Dave, 27, has just returned from Iraq where he saw several friends die in a battle. He is racked with guilt about their deaths, and finds himself terrified most of the time, even at home. He sometimes thinks his wife is going to send him into harm’s way on purpose. Dave has rigid beliefs about what a man should or should not feel, say, and do. For this reason, he has never once cried or become outwardly angry about his experiences. In therapy, he finds catharsis and begins to establish trust with his wife, which helps regain a sense of normalcy. Support groups with other veterans also help tremendously, as Dave feels he can trust them entirely and is able to reconnect socially.
Do you have personal experience with overcoming or coping with trust issues? If you would like to share your story about trust in writing with others, we invite you to submit your nonfiction story for consideration to GoodTherapy.org's Share Your Story. Stories that are selected for publication will be featured on The Good Therapy Blog.
- McDonagh, P. (1997, 06). Shared benefits: Group therapy delivers open honest talk with people you trust. Chatelaine, 70, 136. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/214083151?accountid=1229
- Zak, A. M., Gold, J. A., Ryckman, R. M., & Lenney, E. (1998). Assessments of trust in intimate relationships and the self-perception process. The Journal of Social Psychology, 138(2), 217-228. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/199792384?accountid=1229