Why trust other people?
October 31, 2012 10:15 AM   Subscribe

I have just ended a long term relationship due to a breach of trust. This has, however, added to my increasing lack of trust in other people -- which was little to begin with. Why should and how do I learn to trust people again?

The details:

As a child, I was the scapegoat for anything that went wrong in the house. As such, I was pretty well physically and emotionally abused. Since then, anytime I have managed to build a group of friends, I have inevitably become a scapegoat at some point, ending my relationship with the group. I have been fucked over by friends I'd previously bent over backwards to help a number of times. I have moved to other cities, built new groups of friends, and gone through these situations with all of them.

My last two long term relationships, which, combined, have lasted the past ten years, were with women who took advantage of me and were abusive, both emotionally and physically, and I've had to end both of them due to being cheated on repeatedly in each relationship. During this most recent relationship, which lasted five years, I was attempting to become friends with her friends, and I thought things were going well, but these are the people with whom she was cheating on me.

I have had the same roommate for the past five years, too, and, over the past year, he has made a number of decisions that work to his own and our other roommate's benefit but are detrimental to me; when I've informed them of this, I've been dismissed as being difficult. Whenever I voice complaints that others' choices are hurting me, I am discounted as being argumentative, even though I rarely state any kind of disagreement with anyone.

Over the past ten years of therapy I have significantly improved my self esteem, but this has had no bearing on people treating me like a doormat, even should I protest. I am in my mid thirties and, at this point, I really have no reason to trust anyone anymore. I have had a single loyal friend for the past fifteen years, and, presently, that is the only friend I have. And I have never been so naive as to just trust anyone. I try to be kind and patient, and I tend to focus on the good in people. I have never been fighty or argumentative, and I rarely make decisions without seriously considering how they might affect those around me first.

I have been told to assert myself when I feel as though I'm being taken advantage of, but this has always led to people dismissing me as argumentative. I have been told that this happens because I lack self esteem, but I have a fair amount of self esteem at this point and nothing has changed. Even before this breakup, due to treatment by others who I'd thought were my friends, I'd decided to trust people less, to the extent that I didn't want to attempt to make new friends. Now, having had to break up with my closest friend for the past five years, I honestly don't have a reason to trust anyone anymore.

How have you learned to trust people when consistently given reason not to trust anyone?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (15 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
You are associating with the wrong people. Sorry to be harsh, but you are the only common denominator in all of your relationships.
We unconsciously seek the familiar. In your case, the familiar is pretty abusive. You need to think long and hard about similar traits and characteristics that your different friends share, other than screwing you over, etc, and start avoiding those traits like the plague. Remember, the definition of insanity is to repeatedly try the same thing and expect different results. Again, my apologies for being harsh.
Answering your question: how to trust people again? Start building relationships with VERY different people than you have in the past.

Can you give us some more examples of what they've done? Understandably, you feel hurt and betrayed right now. But your question makes you seem like quite the victim. Please clarify so people can be more helpful in their responses.
posted by Neekee at 10:26 AM on October 31, 2012 [9 favorites]

The only two people I trust is my boyfriend and myself. Everyone else has let me down at some point. I don't think you should confide in people anymore about anything. Let people tell you something private first.

For example at a recent job, this girl I worked closely with told me about 2 weeks after we met, that she smoked a bowl before work. I don't smoke and don't really have friends who do smoke. But I kept her secret safe with me. But did I tell her any secrets of mine? Nope. :)

Just because you are friends with someone doesn't mean you have to tell them all your secrets and have them know everything about your life.
posted by Autumn89 at 10:29 AM on October 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

While I have had a number of quite great friends in my life, I have also had a good deal of pretty crappy friends. However, I have never felt that my trust has been especially violated (at least not since middle school when everyone told everyone else who had crushes on whom), or that I've been betrayed, or that I've been made to be the scapegoat for something.

I'm totally willing to accept that I have just been very lucky in this regard, but I agree with Neekee--if you can offer specific details of what has been happening to you, people will be able to answer with concrete "when x happened to me, I did y and it worked/did not work because of z," which I think will be very helpful for you.

Can you ask a mod to update with details?
posted by phunniemee at 10:30 AM on October 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

I agree that you're probably drawn to similar kinds of people which is why you keep re-enacting the same relationships.

I have a ton of friends, but they fill a very specific role in my life, they are people whose company I enjoy and who like me. I don't feel that I have to do anything for them to be my friends, nor do they have to do anything for me.

Some practical advice:

1. No matter what. Live alone. Your home is where you should feel safe, comfortable and stress free. Roommate situations are fraught with grief and no matter what happens, everyone feels like they're being ripped off and walked all over.

2. When making friends be circumspect. Don't tell them your whole history all at once. Let them tell you stuff, keep your stuff private. You don't EVER have to trust people with your deep, dark secrets. Ever.

3. Don't do anything you don't want to do. If someone asks you to wake up at 4:30 AM and take them to the airport, say no. "Sorry, I'm not available." The "because I expect to be asleep" is implied. Let them call a cab or take Super Shuttle. If you're asked to bake an elaborate dessert for a pot luck and you don't want to, say no. "How flattering that you want me to make a Lady Baltimore Cake, so sorry, I just can't. I can bring pop and napkins though." Learning to say no, will make you a much happier person.

4. When going out with people, you will split the check evenly. If you don't drink, didn't eat the blooming onion and only had soup, it doesn't matter. If this bothers you, don't go out to eat in groups.

5. Don't get involved or take sides in other people's drama. Be there to comfort and console. I can't tell you how many friends of mine had a cheating spouse. Yes, it grossed me out, but I never bad-mouthed the cheater or offered advice. In every instance the couple stayed together and I'm on good terms with both parties.

Hope this helps.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:58 AM on October 31, 2012 [18 favorites]

I found talking to my therapist about how I seemed to be finding my unhealthy family dynamic everywhere I went extremely helpful.

It's classic classic stuff. Seeking out, validating, projecting and repeating the abuse.

Unhealthy dynamics are not chosen or learned quickly. They are modeled and you had a fucked up model. You can't simply decide not to be like those people or to stop finding those people. It takes work, it requires building and internalizing a new model.

I found good friends that I didn't need to share too much with. We have fun, they help me move, we eat good food, we talk about random shit but not 'deep' shit. When I stopped trying to subconsciously make myself a new healthy family, (over investing, over intimate, over exposed) I started having good normal friends.
posted by French Fry at 11:06 AM on October 31, 2012 [11 favorites]

I grew up in an environment similar to yours. I've realized over time that there were several ways in which I was replicating unhealthy patterns of my childhood--mostly by ignoring my instincts about people, failing to speak up in my own defense the moment something felt off, teeming with resentment for others' failure to take care of me or treat me kindly, and then lashing out when I finally did confront others.

The hardest part was that, though I've always known I had a temper, I was unaware of precisely how confrontational and angry I seemed to others. I always had a justification for this anger, but by the time I would finally confront other people about sleights (perceived or actual), my emotions were really out of control. And because I was generally a doormat, stamping down my emotions until this point (which made it easy for jerks to take advantage of me), and then blowing up in a big way, I generally seemed a little scary.

But let's face it, when you grow up with abuse, you see a lot of screaming, yelling, and attacks and so your perception of these things are likely far outside the norm. And you might have faced gaslighting, too--I did--and so you're likely used to telling yourself that your normal emotions are crazy or ridiculous. This creates a volatile situation where you suppress your feelings until you can't any more.

For me, in order to get better (and it's always a struggle, isn't it?), I had to admit that if multiple people were telling me that my style of communication was confrontational or alarming, then there was likely something to that. I had to admit that I didn't know how to confront problems in a healthy way, and had to work hard to learn those skills.

I also had to learn to stop craving attention and approval from crazy assholes. That was a lot of it. Because when I was a kid, the people who took care of me were often crazy assholes, and I wanted them to love me and take care of me, so I found myself seeking out these relationships over and over again. These days, I eschew the charismatic and the exciting for happy, nice, stable, friendly people. It was eye opening when my therapist told me that I could be friends with people who were nice to me. In the past, I often disregarded people who were nice to me because I was used to drama, tumult, and excitement. I learned to trust my instincts and distance myself from people who showed any warning signs (and there are usually many) of instability.

And I learned not to let my feelings fester. Speak up early and often. When you find a friend you can trust, it should be okay to say something like "This situation is making me feel X. Can we talk about it?" This was hard because I wasn't used to being honest about my desires. I was used to dismissing them as stupid or petty and not worth discussion. But they are, and it's okay to talk about feelings so long as you remember that your reactions to your emotions are in your control. You choose how you speak and express your feelings and can take a time out and calm down if you need to.

(Watching my emotionally healthy friends with their kids, it's funny to realize how many children are taught emotional expression and control as part of their upbringing. I never was. It was just all feelings, all over the place, all the time.)

Finally, I learned to accept that no one is ever guaranteed to take care of yourself except for you. I can maybe trust my husband to watch out for me, but even that's taken time. The truth is, people often act in self-interest. That doesn't make them bad people. It makes them human beings. The more you expect people to take care of you (like your parents never did), the more you start to boil over with resentment, toxic neediness, and doubt (am I worth taking care of? Is this because of something I did? What's wrong with me?) Take care of yourself first and foremost. Be good to yourself, because it's never guaranteed that other people ever will. Be your own best friend. This might sound sad and cynical, but I don't even mean it to be. It was actually really liberating for me when I realized that I could always trust at least one person in the world: me!

This is really rambling, but I hope it helps. Best of luck to you.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:13 AM on October 31, 2012 [42 favorites]

Trust is a process, not an all-at-once gift -- you build trust with someone by taking little reciprocal bets that escalate over time. I take a small risk on you ("Will you show up at the time and place we arranged?"); I get to see if you do right by me. You take a small risk on me ("Will you get me back for the beer next time?"); you get to see if I do right by you. Next time, maybe we take a slightly larger risk on each other, and see how that goes. It takes a long time to build trust -- maybe forever. With some people, you just keep building more and more trust over time. With others, you find the limits pretty fast -- places where it's just not worth it to take a bet on them. You can trust someone in a partial or limited way and still have that person as a healthy part of your life, just as long as you map out those limits for yourself and don't expect to trust them outside those limits.

Being able to go through the trust-building process requires that …
- you have enough emotional energy to spare that you can afford to lose some of those little bets sometimes.
- you feel secure enough that you can back out of the trust-building process, or stop moving forward with it, if you feel like your bets are not panning out.
- you have a fairly clear emotional perspective on the world -- yourself and other people -- so you can pick good candidates to take a risk on.
- you feel good enough about yourself that you're not terrified by the idea of other people judging your behavior or taking risks on you.
- you're patient enough -- or in other words, you're able to manage anxiety well enough -- to avoid rushing the process and making huge bets on people before they've demonstrated their trustworthiness.
- you aren't so invested in the outcome that you have a distorted view of how your bets are actually turning out. An example of what you don't want: being so lonely that you're willing to talk yourself into accepting cruel behavior from a partner or a friend.

I would guess that you're having trouble in one or more of these areas. A lot of this has to do with how safe/secure/confident you feel about yourself, and so fixing these things is probably something you'll need to work on yourself or with a therapist.

One other little note: there's something very rigid and tense about the way you've written your question -- like you've consolidated all the things that have happened to you into one master storyline that only takes into account the worst parts of your experience. That's not a huge surprise, since it sounds like you just had a really hard break-up. I've found that when I get that tense and tight, it's often because I'm feeling angry or anxious or sad or all three, and it's usually time for me to step back and take care of myself a little better before trying to do a perfect job out there in the world with other people. For me, that means being kind to myself, recognizing what I am doing right, getting enough exercise and sunlight and food and water, and not putting too much pressure on myself about trying to be a certain way for other people. I think that might be a good place to start for you, too. Building trust with other people takes a good deal of emotional stamina, and that's hard to maintain if you are feeling drained or deplenished -- like trying to run a marathon on an empty stomach. Replenish first, get your emotional tank full again, and you'll be in a better place to work on trusting people later.
posted by ourobouros at 11:14 AM on October 31, 2012 [14 favorites]

I am very sorry about your background. As a lucky soul who did not experience abuse as a child, though, I can tell you that trustworthy people are not easy to find. And, your experience of being disappointed in people who you were close to is not at all unusual. People often can be very wonderful but individually, there are plenty of people who put their own interests ahead of anyone else's.

I am very blessed to have a few dear friends whom I can trust, and my Bear, who I would trust with my life. I found these people after a lot of looking. And I made some pretty big boo-boos in terms of who I trusted along the way.

This is not you, is what I am saying, and I frankly don't agree with the people above who say it is. Finding you have placed your trust in people who didn't deserve it is common experience. And it says volumes about those people, not about you. The solution is -- find people you can trust -- and they are out there -- by being very selective in your choices of roommates, close friends, and romantic partners. And value them extremely when you have people who are trustworthy in your life.
posted by bearwife at 11:19 AM on October 31, 2012 [4 favorites]

Reading over your question again, I have one last thought: you make multiple references to how much you give to others--that you bend over backwards to them, that you don't make decisions without thinking about how it impacts others.

One thing that therapy has taught me is that it's okay to be a little selfish. Your abusive upbringing likely taught you to disregard your own needs for the needs of others. But that's a little bit like struggling to put an oxygen mask on someone else when you can't breathe yourself. Work on taking care of yourself first. Quit bending over backwards for others. It's a cliche, but take care of number one. You are worth that care and time and commitment. Your needs matter, and you'll better be able to meet them if you stop expending your energy on other people first.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:27 AM on October 31, 2012 [11 favorites]

I would offer an alternate way of dealing with this: Trust everyone. Every one on this planet will, if given enough time, let you down. But trust them anyway because it's not personal. They can't help it, and they are not betraying your trust because they hate you or because they see you as weak and a mark. Instead, they are making a decision based on the information that they have and sometimes that's going to go against you.

I've started to stop holding people to such an unattainable standard. I try to give them the leeway I'd expect for myself and stopped seeing myself as such a martyr. It really helps and I feel much less betrayed and burdened at every step. Now yes, cheating in relationships is not okay and some people do go over the line, but I still try to not see every single interaction as a plus or minus on a balance sheet.

For example, my best friends got together for a weekend last March and did not invite me. I seriously got my feelings hurt and was very upset. I felt like they had been not including me on a number of things and that I was being ignored and cut out. Then I thought for a minute and realized that there had to be a good reason for their actions that wasn't about hurting me. And so I talked to them. And it turns out, they were actively not inviting me to things, but it was because I was working on finishing my dissertation and they knew it would be damn near impossible for me to say no. So they didn't invite me so I wouldn't be tempted and further pressured.

Was it still hurtful? Yeah. But I understood why they chose to do that and I see the good-heartedness that was behind it. Could it be that they gave me a bullshit excuse and really don't want to hang out with me anymore? Yeah, but I'm choosing to believe otherwise.

I'm not saying let strangers hold your wallet full of hundreds for you, but try to give people the benefit of the doubt. It's exhausting to deal with someone who is always on the lookout for betrayal and it's exhausting to be that person.
posted by teleri025 at 12:03 PM on October 31, 2012 [7 favorites]

I have had the same roommate for the past five years, too, and, over the past year, he has made a number of decisions that work to his own and our other roommate's benefit but are detrimental to me; when I've informed them of this, I've been dismissed as being difficult. Whenever I voice complaints that others' choices are hurting me, I am discounted as being argumentative, even though I rarely state any kind of disagreement with anyone.
I have been told to assert myself when I feel as though I'm being taken advantage of, but this has always led to people dismissing me as argumentative.

Self-centered people pretty much ALWAYS take the approach your roommate and significant others take. That is, they simply accuse the people they take advantage of of overreacting, and they may be drawn to you in part because you don't have the skills yet to stand up for yourself in these situations, allowing them to get what they want from you.

When you're victimized by this, it's irritating as hell, but after you get a handle on it, it actually winds up being kind of amusing and you can enter confrontations with people like this with confidence, because the arguments they give are so similar, predictable and unimaginative, and these people can be gotten the better of pretty easily.

The first thing you have to do is to keep the issue framed as a failure on their end rather than yours. If they accuse you of overreacting, this probably means they're being insensitive or dishonest, and there will usually be a specific action on their end that violates a social norm or an agreement you've made with them that you can point to. (You should have a good idea of what this is before entering the confrontation.) Do not engage from a defensive position. Keep them on the defensive if they're not willing to negotiate in good faith.

The second thing you have to do is be willing to give consequences. If it's your roommates, you have to be willing to leave, and if it's your significant others, you have to be willing to break up with them. Have your consequence in mind BEFORE you enter the confrontation with them, so you know what you will do if they aren't willing to negotiate in good faith.

You have to be willing to call people out in the small cases where they cross the line, and to do so with the goal of improving the relationship between the two of you. The standard response from a person who is likely to be unhealthy for you is to say, "You're making a big deal out of this." It's important to keep in mind that, if it's not a big deal for them to take the action/make the remark, it's not a big deal for you to question it or make your feelings known. That's what the arrangement would look like if the power were symmetric between the two of you. Someone who is healthy for you will appreciate that you've shown them how to treat you in a way that makes you feel respected and loved if you raise the issue in a respectful manner.

Calling people out on small encroachments of your personal boundaries doesn't necessarily cause them to become people who respect you if they aren't already, rather it reveals to you whether they are people who will respect you before you get to a point where you're living with them or dating them so you can cut them loose and find someone who is healthy for you instead.


As for the subject of trust, healthy people will tend to want to be around healthy people, and, while unhealthy people will always be a part of your life, they will be the ONLY people in your life if you are doing things that push healthy people away.

So, when it comes to getting healthy people in your life, projecting the sort of distrust you're talking about in this post is likely to be off-putting, because a healthy person is someone who doesn't deserve that distrust, and getting close to you is likely to result in undeserved accusations and a lot of time spent discussing the trustworthiness or untrustworthiness of people, which isn't a particularly pleasant conversational space to dwell in. Conversely, people who are predisposed to taking advantage of you will recognize on some level that your preoccupation with this is a sign that you haven't learned yet how to detach from people once they prove themselves to be bad for you, which makes you exactly the sort of person they will want to have in their lives.

You are much better off being generally trusting of others, and trusting yourself to recognize and respond appropriately to signs of potential danger, and coming to terms with the fact that it's better in the long run to occasionally be taken advantage of by unscrupulous people because, to completely protect yourself against this means being a real wet blanket to the good people in your life.
posted by alphanerd at 1:50 PM on October 31, 2012 [6 favorites]

I think a big mistake that abused people routinely make is wanting someone to be Perfect. Even as a teen, I realized that the antidote to what bad people had done to me was to spend time in the company of good people and -- this is key -- I did not expect them to be perfect. I expected them to be better but I did not expect them to never, ever let me down. I have read stories all too often of someone who was abused, got involved with some Perfect Person whom they expected would make everything all better and were crushed when it turned out said person wasn't perfect and couldn't fix it all. We are all human. No one is perfect.

I will Nth the part about working on figuring out what you are doing wrong. I'm a former professional victim type and I couldn't escape it until I realized that there were things I was doing which forced other people into the role of abuser. I don't say that to criticize or blame. I say that to empower you. If you have mental models that force people to be the bad guy in order to deal with you, you are the person who can fix this.

I realized that I basically framed things such that one person had to get screwed over and I virtuously chose to get screwed over so I could be morally superior. I had to come up with some win-win mental models and get past the ones I had. If you set up a situation a certain way, yes, someone *will* end up the bad guy even if they don't want to be. I had to find new mental models and stop creating that kind of drama. And I did eventually figure it out and stopped doing that. So it can be done, if one is persistent.

It also helped me to realize there is inherent conflict of interest in life -- too little time, too little money, only one of X when three people want or need it -- and no one is "doing" that "to" me. Reading books on negotiation, like "Getting to Yes", can help you reframe relationships as agreements you negotiate continuously rather than "people are supposed to take care of me out of love/honor/whatever".

We have friends or roommates or lovers because we get something out of it and so do they. It is a form of exchange. That is just how it works. Being clear what you want and need and what you have to offer in exchange can make life less painful. The most disasterous outcomes seem to be rooted in unrealistic expectations and unrealistic valuing of what we bring to the table.
posted by Michele in California at 1:56 PM on October 31, 2012 [9 favorites]

Stop caring what others think about you. There will always be someone who has issues or doesn't approve of you. Who cares! Then try to figure out why you keep falling for women who cheat on you. This is a pattern. As for trust, take it slowly. Don't jump in trusting someone completely at a first glance. Study them, watch their behaviour with others, observe and you will learn a lot about people. Little things will slip that will sooner or later show you who they are. Do this with the women and extend the dating period before you start a relationship.
posted by pakora1 at 6:45 PM on October 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

My method to this is that I trust everyone by default. I'm quite positive and like to think that generally the world and people are good.

But of course you can quite quickly learn that there are types of people who you shouldn't trust. That guy in the office who snarkily gossips about everyone? Well I'm sure he's a nice guy but I'm not going to confide in him. So my trust level for him, once I hear him do that, goes down a few notches. That doesn't make him MY BETRAYER in my mind, just someone who I'm careful about confiding things in.

I also accept that people will make mistakes. And that my perspective of those mistakes might be quite different to theirs. Something that will seem like a huge and obvious breach of trust to me, will to them, seem like a small slip up or not even an issue at all. Everyone comes from different perspectives on this issue. So when people do slip up I try to think from their side, what led them to do that, how might this look from their perspective?

Have I made judgement errors with this? Yes of course, I've trusted people I shouldn't have, and had some awkward experiences. But I've also found unusual allies, people who have really stood by me through difficult situations and helped me with no real reason to, who I would trust through thick and thin and I like to think they feel the same way about me.

Good luck.
posted by Admira at 8:04 PM on October 31, 2012 [3 favorites]

Here's the deal. There are a lot of jerks in the world, but the majority of people in the world are at least trying to do their best at being decent people and at being kind to their friends. No one is perfect at it, but most people give it an honest effort.

Everyone has the experience of encountering jerks or trusting someone who failed that trust. However, if you are experiencing this as a universal pattern across multiple groups of friends in multiple cities, then there are really only a couple of possibilities.

The first possibility is that you are unconsciously selecting social circles filled with self-centered, abusive individuals. As other commenters noted, this isn't uncommon with survivors of childhood abuse - traits and behaviors that should be seen as warning flags can seem normal to someone who has grown up with them.

The other possibility is that your expectations for how others should behave are unreasonable and your perceptions of how they are treating you vs how you are treating them may not be as accurate as you think. Obviously, it's fair and reasonable to expect your girlfriend not to cheat on you, but your other complaints are vague enough that we have no way of judging whether your roommates and friends have actually done anything wrong in the conflicts you mention. (Your roommate "making decisions that work to his benefit but were detrimental to yours" could describe any number of things, some of which would be totally reasonable behavior, some of which would be totally unreasonable, and others which would be cause for normal roommate negotiations.) It's also unfortunately not uncommon people suffering from depression to be primed to perceive malice where none exists. If you want, you could ask one of the mods to post details of some of the disputes you are concerned about so as to get some neutral outside opinions.

All that aside, the process for developing trust is incremental and based on paying attention to how the people you encounter actually behave. As someone noted above, it's not a binary state. You give people a bit of trust up front and you see what they do with it. If they earn it, you give them some more. You pay attention to how they behave in different circumstances. Over time, you discover things like:
Person A can be trusted with your money, but not to show up for appointments on time.
Person B can be trusted to be a good friend, but not to be romantically faithful.
Person C can be trusted to be kind and patient, unless her arthritis is flaring up.
Person D can be trusted to always repay a favor without question, unless it conflicts with his commitments to his work or his spouse.
Person E can be trusted to be totally honest with you, but not to remember your birthday or take your side when you have an argument with your roommate.
... and so on. When you pay attention to people long enough and carefully enough to understand them, you'll know what you can trust them for.
posted by tdismukes at 9:04 AM on November 1, 2012 [8 favorites]

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