Trust is a word we can throw around so easily. “I don’t trust anyone”. “Why should I trust you?”. “You have to trust yourself before you can trust others”.
But what IS trust, really? And why does it matter so much when it comes to emotional wellbeing?
What is trust?
It’s a massive concept, with definitions that change depending on the discipline it is being defined within. And in psychology?
Morton Deutsch, one of the founders of conflict resolution, was one of the first psychologists to attempt defining trust. He at one point called it “confidence that an individual will find what is desired from another, rather than what is feared.“
Perhaps trust is a bit of both – a belief and a learned behaviour. What is certain is that trust is a human impulse for survival, as well as the driving force that keeps us moving forward in life.
Erik Erikson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning developmental psychologist known for his theory of ‘psychosocial stages’, named the first stage of life as ‘trust vs. mistrust’, offering the virtue of ‘hope’. From birth to 18 months we develop trust for our main caregiver.
Studies consistently show that if this trust for another does not evolve when we are infants, and we miss this development, we grow up with feelings of fear instead, and a sense the world is a dangerous place void of real hope.
As well as confidence, hope, and expectation, what are other ingredients of trust? Jeffrey A. Simpson, in his paper “Psychological Foundations of Trust“, alludes to the following:
Feelings of vulnerability.
Trust involves risk. You put a desired outcome into another person’s hands, and this means you are making yourself vulnerable and might feel worry and fear.
Co-operation and Compromise.
Trust involves believing and expecting others will do things for your wellbeing, sometimes missing out on what they wanted for themselves in order to maintain the trust within the relationship. Of course they trust that you want them to be happy, too, and will also compromise occasionally for the wellbeing of the relationship itself.
It’s not just about having confidence in the other person, but also in having confidence in yourself. If you do not feel you deserve to be supported, it’s impossible to then trust others.
Trust can be seen as an interdependency contract. This means that you both can take care of yourselves if required, but choose to need each other and work together for a better result.
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Why is trust important?
Trust is a major ingredient (and arguably even the most important one) of determining if our relationships work will or not.
We can relate to others without much trust, of course. Many people don’t trust their boss much, for example, but still have a solid ‘working relationship’.
But authentic relationships we can grow within, such as friendships and partnerships, require real trust, When we decide to trust someone, we let them see the real us, and this is the only way intimacy can grow.
And while trust is mostly interpersonal, there is also another form of trust that is very important – the trust we have for ourselves. Without trust for ourselves, we tend to feel ‘stuck’ in life, unable to make the decisions that would move us forward. Or, we might be impulsive, making rash and sabotaging choices in order to prove a core belief we are not to be trusted.
And this all adds up to trust really being connected to good physical health. Not trusting ourselves often leads to self-abuse, such as addictive behaviours or not practising self-care. And if we don’t trust others, we suffer from things like anxiety and loneliness. Anxiety is connected to high cortisol levels and sleep problems, and loneliness has now been connected to poor immune health and even earlier death.
And if I don’t trust anyone? What then?
It can be helpful to see how important trust is by looking at the other side – what can happen if you don’t trust anyone? You can suffer from:
Personality disorders are also related to trust issues, but in this case it is more complicated as the personality disorder might be what causes the trust problem, and not vice versa.
I think I have trust issues. What do I do?
Self-help is always a great start. Reading about trust and intimacy issues, as well as attachment issues, can be a useful way to understand where your issue might arise from.
Counselling and psychotherapy is of course extremely helpful for trust issues. At heart, therapy is a relationship between you and your therapist. For many people therapy represents the first time to try trusting another person, creating a safe and supportive environment for you to finally be yourself.