Gerry* came into my office, looking despondent. He sat down heavily on the couch and let out a big sigh. After kicking off his shoes, he tucked his feet under him, grabbed a pillow, held it in his lap for comfort, and looking up at me he asked sadly, “how do you know when you can trust someone?”
This very kind, intelligent, and energetic man had experienced a string of serious relationship let-downs, one after another. He would enter a new relationship with excitement, give everything to it, and then inevitably become disillusioned by broken promises and ideals not being realized. He would then end the relationship, and start looking for another one. To him, trusting someone was a black and white issue. Either someone was trustworthy, or someone was not. Although we ended up going another direction in session that evening, I want to share some thoughts about trust that I believe Gerry, along with many of us, could benefit from reviewing.
Trust can be a tricky thing to deal with in relationships. Many of us who have had childhood trauma or serious relationship disruptions in our lives have a hard time trusting others. Or, on the flip side, we can trust too easily, resulting in getting hurt again, and again, and again. Sometimes it can be easy to say, “I trust too easily,” or, “I just don’t trust anyone!” But really, the issue of trust isn’t black or white. Trust can be broken down into several elements which can help us see which parts of trust we are having problems with, whether in a relationship with someone else, or even with the relationship with ourselves!
I happen to be a pretty big fan of Brene Brown’s work on shame and vulnerability. In her most recent book, “Rising Strong,” she adds to her previous work on shame and vulnerability, and goes on to explore how to overcome failures. It is an impactful book, and I strongly recommend reading it. I particularly like the part in her book where she explores trust. She breaks trust down into several elements. Using the acronym BRAVING, each element is explained below. Wordage for the BRAVING acronym/checklist is taken directly from her book:
B – Boundaries. You respect my boundaries and when you are not clear about what’s OK and what’s not OK, you ask. You are willing to say no.
R – Reliability. You do what you say you’ll do. At work this means staying aware of your competencies and limitations so that you don’t over-promise and are able to deliver on commitments and balance competing priorities.
A – Accountability. You own your mistakes, apologize, and make amends.
V – Vault. You don’t share information or experiences that are not yours to share. I need to know that my confidences are kept and that you are not sharing with me information about other people that should be confidential.
I – Integrity. You choose courage over comfort. You choose what is right over what is fun, fast, or easy. And you choose to practice your values rather than simply professing them.
N – Non-judgment. I can ask for what I need, and you can ask for what you need. We can talk about how we feel without judgment.
G – Generosity. You extend the most generous interpretation possible to the intentions, words and actions of others.
What I would suggest to Gerry, is to use the above BRAVING acronym as a checklist in evaluating how someone is showing up in a relationship with him. This gives a pretty good idea where the holes are in the trust system. Then, if the writing is on the wall that he is in a very dangerous, unreliable new relationship, this checklist will help him to see it. If perhaps the relationship has a lot of merit, or is an older or more established relationship, it will show him where the specific concerns are so that he can have direct and open conversations regarding what his concerns are.
Having discussions about specific concerns, as Brene Brown also explains, is much more helpful than simply to say “I don’t trust you.” For instance, if someone consistently over-promises, and then fails to deliver, you can make a specific note of that behavior for your discussion. You can ask for that person to recognize this dynamic and see if they are willing to work on that. Using specific examples of what concerns you, and asking for a specific change will maximize clarity in the communication. Again, this specific clarity is much more useful than simply saying “I don’t trust you.” Making a broad declaration such as that will make for no improvement in the relationship, and also will not give the person you are speaking with any specific ideas of what to work on to gain your trust.
Alternatively, looking at the checklist might help you realize that in reality, you do trust that person! You might go through the checklist and realize that most of the time, the person you are thinking of is very trustworthy. This can help you realize that maybe it is your own fears or hesitations that are causing you to feel non-trusting.
As Brene further suggests, you can also use the checklist on yourself! Trust one’s own self is sometimes as hard or harder than trusting others. Especially if we have had some big failures, and we are feeling really self conscious about our abilities to make decisions or keep relationships together. The BRAVING checklist can be a way of checking in with yourself, and will reveal places for you to work on to reestablish trust with yourself. Such as, “How am I doing on keeping confidences? How am I doing on practicing my values? Making amends and apologizing? Being clear about my boundaries?” etc. In fact, as David Richo suggests in his wonderful book “Daring to Trust,” when we say to someone, “I don’t trust you,” what we are really saying is, “I don’t trust myself around you.” He suggests that what is far more difficult than dealing with others betrayals or boundary problems, is our own lack of clarity on our values and our own problems in handling our own shame and other negative emotions when someone shows up poorly in a relationship with us. I have thought a lot about this and I can really see his point! When our own values and boundaries are solidly in place, it is far less risky to be let down by someone else, because we have this solid place within ourselves. We don’t need the other person to be perfect to keep us from falling to pieces. We are also more able to see the trust breech quickly for what it is and can decide whether to keep moving forward in the relationship from a place of clarity.
And so, there are two opposing sides to balance in the trust issue. Trusting others, and self-trust. Any extreme is dangerous. Over trusting someone who is deeply hurting us again and again without willingness to change is dangerous and we need to get some changes or get out. Smaller trust problems can be handled by finding clearly where the trust breach is, and talking openly about what change is needed in order for you to feel safe in the relationship. Then, with ourselves, we are on super shaky ground if we can’t trust ourselves to be appropriate! We need to make sure we are living our values and holding ourselves accountable so that we are not the problem in the relationship.
I guess that’s why so often the fixing of relationships comes down to fixing ourselves first. How can we see clearly what the trust problems are in the relationship are if we are constantly contributing to the breech of trust? Looking closely at our own integrity is extremely important. As the Bible says in Matthew 7:5, “first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.”
Gerry isn’t the only one who feels a great deal of pain and frustration in relationships. For those experiencing same gender attraction or gender identity differences, these problems and frustrations can be compounded by past experiences as well as the anticipation of future difficulties. Nonetheless, these same principals of trust apply. As you use them to evaluate your relationships as well as your own behaviors, the BRAVING checklist can help you move forward in the area of trust.
*name has been changed