Okay everyone, find a partner. We’re going to do the trust fall. Now, one of you turn your back towards the other and cross your arms. The person crossing their arms is going to fall straight back and trust that their partner is going to catch them. Ready? 3… 2… 1… fall.
You may remember this exercise from camp, or perhaps you did a similar one as a team-building strategy for work. Were you able to do it? Did you throw yourself into your partner’s arms without hesitation? Or were you so afraid that your partner would drop you that you did not allow yourself to fall? What was the outcome of your decision? Was your trust or mistrust warranted? How trusting are you in relationships?
Trust: An Important Component of Healthy Relationships
I believe that our capacity and need for relationships are some of God’s greatest gifts to us as humans. Yet relationships can be complicated and even painful. Whether they are relationships with family, friends, romantic partners, or coworkers, relationships can be difficult to navigate because people are complex beings. Part of our complexity comes from the unique set of experiences that each of us internalizes throughout the lifespan. These experiences influence how we perceive ourselves and others, and how we interpret the world around us. They therefore impact the level of trust that we give to others.
Trust means having confidence or belief in another’s word, character, or ability; it is about believing that you can depend on someone (or something). Trust builds safety and security in relationships, which provide the foundation for closeness and intimacy. Trust is necessary for all healthy relationships; it provides the safety that enables fun exploration, intimate disclosure, and honest confrontation. Trust allows people to move toward each other with authenticity, while mistrust keeps people at arm’s length.
Mistrust: Keeping People at Arm’s Length
Consider the hypothetical example of a man whom we will call “Mike.” Mike grew up in an abusive home. His father and mother were physically abusive to him throughout his childhood. They were alcoholics and unpredictable, sometimes responding to him with love and caring attention, while at other times they were volatile and angry. At a young age, Mike learned that it was safer to hide, to keep quiet, and to be a “good kid.” He was careful not to do anything that might set his parents off. Unfortunately, his parents were not available to meet his needs consistently. In fact, most of the time they did not notice his needs because they were preoccupied with their own. Mike developed the belief that the world was unsafe and that people were unpredictable and not to be trusted. So he kept to himself, did as he was told, controlled what he could, and put all his energy into getting into an Ivy League school and graduating with honors.
Mike is a successful professional as an adult. But he finds it difficult to trust others, to depend on them, to be vulnerable, to voice his needs and desires, and to confront those he cares about when they wrong him. Mike’s early experiences with his parents inform the way in which he views himself and the world, which impacts the way he interacts with others. He isn’t sure, but he thinks that he desires closeness and intimacy with his loved ones. But he is terrified to be vulnerable with them because he knows from experience that people are sometimes unpredictable, untrustworthy, and hurtful. And, although he believes that God is someone who is safe and trustworthy, Mike is also wary of God. Mike holds people at arm’s length to protect himself, never getting as close to them as he would like. His ex-girlfriends have described him as being “closed off” and having “trust issues,” but he is not convinced that it is safe to be open.
People are complex, as are their reasons for being mistrusting of others. Each person’s set of experiences is unique to his or her history and mistrust can stem from various factors and reinforced patterns of relating. Perhaps, like Mike, you have difficulty trusting others, but you have no experience of abuse or trauma. Maybe, part of the reason why you shy away from close relationships is because your previous vulnerability has been met with rejection or betrayal. Or perhaps you are mistrusting of others because you have been in too many relationships with people who only seemed to take an interest in you for what you could do for them. Perhaps your caregivers paid little attention to you while you were growing up, so you have difficulty trusting that others really want to know you.
You may not resonate with Mike’s story and believe, on the contrary, that you are “too trusting.” You trust easily and frequently, find yourself in relationships that leave you feeling hurt and violated, blindsided by people whom you thought were trustworthy. You end up dating people, or befriending coworkers, who take advantage of you. When discussing healthy relationships, it is important to note that trust must always be accompanied by thoughtful discretion.
Trusting with Discretion
The reality is that there are some people who are not trustworthy. You should not metaphorically “fall” into the arms of just anyone who says that they will “catch” you. Mike should not give his trust to people who are two-faced or who do not have his best interest in mind; it is healthy for him to be mistrusting of people like that and to protect himself from them. In fact, God has designed humans (via the brain’s amygdala) to react to danger in a way that preserves safety. Self-protection is important for survival.
One of the greatest gifts that you can bring to a relationship is yourself, regardless of whether or not people have treated you as a gift in the past. Healthy intimacy occurs in relationships that are built on trust, but trust takes time to develop and should not be given unless it is warranted. Look to be in relationships with safe people who have proven themselves to be dependable, respectful, compassionate, and humble. Just as you have the choice to be in relationship with God, so you have the choice to be in relationship with others. Not everyone deserves to be in relationship with you. You have the ability to use your discretion to determine whom you protect yourself from and who is worthy of your trust.
Christian Counseling for Trust Issues
Whether you find that you are highly mistrusting or that you trust without discretion (or somewhere in between), learning to trust others is key to developing healthy relationships and intimacy. Previous experiences can influence what we believe to be true about ourselves and the world, but over time, and with new experiences, we can change those beliefs. A Christian counselor can help you to identify what may be affecting your ability to trust others, and even God, in a healthy way. He or she can also help you to develop the ability to determine who is trustworthy and who is not. With the support of a Christian counselor, you can move towards seeking and developing relationships that are safe and that facilitate the closeness you desire.
Seeking counseling may be uncomfortable for you and you might even be wary of counselors. Like any other relationship, the relationship with your counselor will take time to develop. Choose a counselor who you could imagine yourself eventually trusting; sometimes one counselor is a better fit for one person than for another. Once you choose a counselor, give yourself time to trust him or her. At first, you might have difficulty disclosing personal information to your counselor, and being vulnerable with him or her might feel too risky. That’s okay – trust should take time to develop. You get to determine the pace at which you share information. Counseling is meant to provide a safe place for you to explore who you are, and to grow while being supported by someone who is rooting for you and believes that change is possible for your life.
“Fresh Fall,” courtesy of kindonnelly, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0); “The Honeymooners,” courtesy of Bhavishya Goel, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0); “Voetsek,” African for scram, courtesy of Jan Tik, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0); “Beautiful natural scenery 02,” courtesy of zcool.com.cn, all-free-download.com