How Do I Trust a Therapist If I Can’t Trust Anyone?

Dear GoodTherapy.org,

I grew up in a dysfunctional family. I know every family is a little dysfunctional, but my parents were a special case. They were always trying to catch each other cheating. Back before cell phones were a thing, Dad would sneak down into the basement and listen on our house’s landline. Mom would hide a camera in Dad’s office. It was like a bad spy movie.

As an only child, getting caught up in their spy war was inevitable. When I started doing normal teen stuff like sneaking a boy into my room, my parents would magically “know,” even if they were fast asleep at the time. They would parrot back private stuff I said to my friends over the phone, then laugh when I freaked out. After years of gaslighting, I seriously thought I was losing my mind.

I know now that my parents were the messed-up ones, not me. But I still have all the habits I learned as a kid. I don’t talk about anything that could be used against me. I have a phone, but I’m leery about using it unless it’s an emergency.

I know this kind of paranoia isn’t healthy. I want to change. Coworkers and friends have told me to see a therapist, but telling somebody my darkest secrets sounds like my worst nightmare. The only reason I’m emailing you is because I know this is anonymous (and because I’m using my throwaway email).

I know deep down that most therapists would not blackmail me. But when I think about contacting one, I freak out and start thinking, “What if this is a bad one? What if they have hidden cameras in their office?”

Trust isn’t a switch I can just turn on. I have barely any faith in my own memory some days, much less in a person I don’t know. Is there a way I can get help without throwing myself into a panic attack? —Cautiously Pessimistic

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Dear Cautious,

I am so deeply appreciative that you took the risk to write in with this question and share so much of yourself. Even with the anonymity and “throwaway email,” I imagine sharing the details of your life is quite unsettling for you.

Human beings are remarkably adaptable. When children grow up in unhealthy environments, they typically adapt to those environments by developing various ways of being. These include behaviors, emotional regulation, communication styles, and relational approaches. While these ways of being help children survive the unhealthy environments they’re in, they become problematic outside of said environment. As children move on to adolescence and eventually adulthood, these ways of being either lead them to find other unhealthy environments or they find that in healthier environments, their ways of being create discord.

It sounds like this is where you find yourself now. You learned not to trust, not to share, and to be cautious about what, where, and how you communicated. The good news is it sounds like you have found some healthier environments; you mention friends and coworkers who care enough about you to suggest getting help. Unfortunately, I imagine you are finding that the ways of being you developed as child are now getting in the way. Therapy is, of course, an excellent forum for dealing with this. But because not trusting and not sharing were central to your adaptation, it is terrifying to think about trusting a therapist enough to share your “darkest secrets.”

Give yourself some time to develop a sense of trust in your therapist before you disclose anything that feels too private. Also, as you move through the process, don’t be afraid to continue talking about any feeling you might have around trust between you and your therapist.

The question then becomes, how can you engage in the therapeutic process when trust is so difficult? First, I would suggest you look around at local therapists’ profiles and websites. Read a little about them and see if there are some you feel drawn to. Ask some of the friends and coworkers who have suggested therapy to you if they know of any therapists they would feel confident recommending. Once you gather a list of potential therapists, call them and spend a few minutes speaking to each. Then you can schedule appointments with a few you feel comfortable with and from those initial sessions decide who you’d like to work with.

Once you select a therapist, rather than diving right into the meat of the work, take some time to allow the therapeutic relationship to be established. You raise the question of how you can “get help without throwing (yourself) into a panic attack.” Perhaps you could begin your work by talking about the anxiety you feel about starting therapy and the fears you have about trusting a therapist. Maybe you could even work on learning some techniques to help you manage your anxiety. Give yourself some time to develop a sense of trust in your therapist before you disclose anything that feels too private. Also, as you move through the process, don’t be afraid to continue talking about any feeling you might have around trust between you and your therapist.

Finally, I just want to say that I applaud you for pushing beyond your comfort zone to consider getting help. Understandably, you have some deep-seated trust issues. And while that makes the process of seeking out and engaging in therapy challenging, it will be well worth it if you walk away from the process with a sense of healing and the ability to enrich your life with strong, trusting relationships. You deserve that.

Best wishes,

Sarah Noel, MS, LMHC

Sarah Noel
Sarah Noel, MS, LMHC is a licensed psychotherapist living and working in Brooklyn, New York. She specializes in working with people who are struggling through depression, anxiety, trauma, and major life transitions. She approaches her work from a person-centered perspective, always acknowledging the people she works with as experts on themselves. She is honored and humbled on a daily basis to be able to partner with people at such critical points in their unique journeys.
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  • Anonymous

    Anonymous

    August 14th, 2018 at 8:28 PM

    Trust is not always a linear experience, especially for those who have had it broken by people who were meant to instill trust and a sense of protection. It’s okay if you don’t trust your therapist right off the bat. There might also be times that your trust is broken by someone in your everyday life and it might feel like your distrust is leaking back into your relationship with your therapist. Being open with your therapist when you’re feeling some of that can help. Therapy is meant to be your own process and pace, so don’t be disheartened if there are steps forward and backward at times. It’s all part of the healing process.

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