The best of our human interactions are based on trust; the worst, when trust is broken.
We trust another person or institution when we believe them to be truthful and reliable. Time is an important feature of trust. Developing trust takes time. It happens over the course of our relationships with others.
In fact, our “basic trust” in others, in society and its institutions, develops out of our early experiences with caregivers, happening when we are unable to care for ourselves. When we are children growing up, we come to understand the world and how to interact with it from the interactions we have with parents and family. Caregivers who reliably satisfy our needs for comfort and nourishment provide the foundation for the trust we continue to feel through life.
Trusting someone doesn’t necessarily mean that we agree with or like them. Trust can be partial and depend on the context. For instance, we may trust an employer with our job, or a politician with their policymaking, even while we don’t trust them in their personal lives. We can separate out the trustworthy parts of the relationship that are important to us.
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Trusting others goes hand in hand with respect. When we feel respected, held in high regard, we trust others and ourselves. Deep-down honesty with ourselves is what we get from actually doing what we say we’ll do, even when no one else is around. Trusting in ourselves is the basis for self-esteem and self-worth.
However, because the world can be unpredictable and risky, it’s good to be a healthy skeptic. This keeps us less susceptible to being hurt and is the kind of healthy distrust we feel when we don’t know someone or a group well. We need time and evidence of their trustworthiness to trust others.
When people are unreliable, distrust leads to mistrust. We mistrust others because eventually, when we feel disregarded enough, we lose trust.
Losing trust altogether can have serious consequences. In the more extreme instances, it can lead to self-destructiveness in people who’ve lost trust because of abuse or neglect. More rare, people who hurt others and cause an ultimate breach of trust often have had their sense of trust all but destroyed.
As we lose trust in once-trusted institutions of church, state and business, our individual trustworthiness becomes even more crucial. Losing trust in others makes us feel cynical and suspicious. At its most extreme, losing trust altogether can lead to despair. When we feel we can’t make institutions be trustworthy, we feel helpless. The antidote to feeling helpless in the face of these disappointments is to hold ourselves to being trustworthy, to our individual trustworthiness, even when others aren’t.
It is our individual trustworthiness that is so important. Why? The best reason I can give you is that despite what others do, we feel best when we hold ourselves accountable for what we know deeply to be the truth. My trustworthiness is a small flame that spreads. Yours can be as well.
Tony Hacker, Ph.D. is a Seattle-area psychologist who sees individuals and couples in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. His email is: firstname.lastname@example.org