Trust Problems are About Avoiding Pain

A talented young woman worked very hard to get recognition for her intelligence, look great, and associate with famous and powerful people. In spite of her considerable accomplishments, she rarely felt good enough. Stranger than that, she pushed away the people who appreciated her candor and genuineness but sought comfort in empty substitutes for love. The problem was that, without realizing it, her energy was going into avoiding her most dreaded experience: trusting that someone important would love her and, instead, being told she was inadequate.

Being caught unprepared is more painful than injury

I have seen over and over that trust problems are not as much about being hurt as they are about being taken by surprise. It is much more painful to be in a vulnerable position, expecting good things and being surprised by pain. This is even more likely to happen to children because they naturally expect to be taken care of, not hurt. They have to learn not to trust and they learn quickly when they their vulnerability is betrayed.

How true is this? Just look at the lengths we go to to avoid the unexpected. How much human pathology or dysfunction is a result of bracing ourselves for the worst even when it is extremely unlikely to happen. People who have been hurt when they least expected it go to the most extreme lengths never to be caught unprepared.

A common example is shyness or social anxiety. We may miss many potentially positive social encounters as a result of avoiding the rare rejection. Furthermore, timidity, a self-protective guarding, may actually tarnish our social experience and prevent the positive outcome that otherwise would naturally happen.

Even those who are overtly untrusting are protecting themselves from being caught off guard.

Sadly, many people who have been abused or betrayed are ready to take more abuse, as long they are braced for it. The suspense and uncertainty of a healthy relationship is so hard to tolerate that being hurt, if it is predictable, feels like a relief. So, to borrow a metaphor from the cover of my book, we may stay in our familiar, but unpleasant Cave to avoid venturing out onto the scary Bridge of change.

The huge importance of never being taken by surprise leads to an important consequence. To avoid the unexpected, we must put all our emotional energy into readiness for what is very unlikely to happen, especially when our adult lives are better than our childhood ones. We don’t prepare for the likely joy, but for the rare disaster. This is why a patient may have a very strong belief in the trustworthiness of a therapist, yet still be unable to let go of vigilance and withholding, “just in case.”

What our trust problems tell us about our past

We can learn a great deal by observing our own mistrust and the measures we take to avoid surprise. Think about the situations that trigger your mistrust. What exactly is the disaster you might be trying to anticipate? In what way are you bracing yourself? Is it against a physical blow? Is it a loss of connection? Is it against someone wanting to make you feel small or powerless? Is it about whether the other person might be drunk or drugged? These clues are extremely accurate in pinpointing just what kinds of physical or emotional injury you might have endured or perceived as imminent. They are very accurate about the nature of what worried us, but not necessarily about the objective reality at the time.

Even if a calamity was only imagined, there can be major consequences. A patient became very successful in business but had trouble with unmet needs to be cared for. At age 4 or 5, his mother had repeatedly told him, “When you are eighteen, you will have go out into the world and fend for yourself.” At his young age, he had no idea if he would turn eighteen tomorrow or next week, so his childhood ended immediately. Not willing to risk being taken by surprise, he ceased depending on his mother and grew up on the spot. In doing so, he closed himself off emotionally to the motherly love he desperately needed and began to prepare himself mentally to face the world alone. As you can imagine, this was not good for his ability to participate in an intimate relationship.

In the next post on the topic of Trust, I’ll discuss more the things we do to make sure we are never again taken by surprise.

JS

Next in the Series:  Trust 3: How avoidance damages us

Previous Article: Trust 1: About Trust

1 Comment

  • Dr Smith, you wrote: “I have seen over and over that trust problems are not as much about being hurt as they are about being taken by surprise. It is much more painful to be in a vulnerable position, expecting good things and being surprised by pain. This is even more likely to happen to children because they naturally expect to be taken care of, not hurt. ”

    This describes quite accurately what happened to me in therapy. And like a child who is hurt by their primary caretaker, the experience seemed to damage me in some deep and lasting way. One year later I am still in acute distress. The surprise element, or maybe more like disbelief, is indeed hard to cope with. Feels like it blew a fuse in my brain. Attempts at therapy since have not been productive. Termination against the client’s will, when in a state of acute distress, how is this allowed to happen? Where is the oversight?

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