Trust: How to Trust the Right People

Especially when we have not had good trust experiences in early life, knowing who to trust and who not to can be tough. The take-home: You must talk about it.Spotting people you should not trust:

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that those who have had bad experiences with trust early in life are often the ones who have trouble finding and choosing trustworthy people in their adult lives. Let’s look at how this works.

Let’s say that in early life, our primary caregivers were not trustworthy. Human connection is a life and death need, so most of us find a way to establish a bond and keep it going at whatever cost. Some children learn to deny the need for any connection, but most learn to ignore the untrustworthiness of their caregivers. We act as if it were normal to be misunderstood, not seen, seen as what we are not, used for someone else’s purposes or treated inconsistently. I’m sure there are more, but this is a start. The result is that we develop blind spots. We learn to discount our own naturally accurate instincts about human interaction. What I see as a therapist is that people who have had bad experiences with trust usually have the right instincts. They see the red flags, but override them.

If you have blind spots, what can you do?

What are red flags? Anything that makes you uncomfortable or off balance could be one. They can be things that show the other person disregarding your needs, insensitive to you, preoccupied with their own needs or comfortable doing more taking than giving.

More often than not untrustworthy people betray themselves right from the beginning of a new relationship. The red flags usually appear way before it is too late. This isn’t always true, but how many bad marital partners first showed their stripes long before there was a commitment.

If you know and admit to yourself that you have personal blind spots, you will gain a big advantage. Asking yourself if the other person, in some way, made you uncomfortable is a good start. But you may find yourself wondering if you are being “fair” to the other person. Was it my fault? Am I being too sensitive? Untrustworthy people will be the first to agree.

Perhaps the big question in your mind is what does the other person think of you. That can block you from asking the more important question, what do I think of them? You owe it to yourself to take time to think carefully about what you have heard and seen and what you felt about it.

The best advice I have is to run it by someone else. Even if you are embarrassed, it will help to tell someone about your misgivings. Discuss the possible red flags you might have seen, and how you evaluated them. Another person won’t have your blind spots, so even if your tastes are different, they may be able to help you spot trouble before you are in too deep. It is almost always better to change your mind sooner rather than later, even if it means considerable pain and upheaval.

Here are the steps:

1.  Ask yourself if you have seen red flags, even ones you considered unimportant or ignored. Have you had uncomfortable feelings that you discounted?

2.  Put your observations and reactions into words and ask yourself on what basis you decided to heed them or ignore them.

3.  Discuss this with someone else. Just the discussion is good, even if the other person has a bias. This is not a place where being able to manage on your own is of any value.

If you don’t see red flags, then you might just have found someone you will want to trust. red flags may tell you quickly who to eliminate, but health and positive qualities are full of surprises. It takes time to really get to know another human, so you may want to settle in and watch and listen.

Growing a relationship happens by small steps. You each take risks one at a time, and watch to see if the other person will match you. If they do, then you go to the next step. If not, raise questions. that way, you minimize the real risk. By this stepwise process you can minimize the danger and get to know each other gradually.

As the relationship grows, there is one thing that I think is subtle but especially important. Is the relationship balanced. People who have been hurt may feel they have to accept a relationship that is unbalanced in the sense of you giving more than the other person. Healthy people are not comfortable taking more than they give. If the person your are connected with doesn’t naturally even up the level of giving, then watch out. That is a kind of red flag and your investing more will not change it. It is better to back off and watch.

There is another kind of balance: Even risk. You should both be taking equal risks and accepting equal vulnerability. This might mean the vulnerability of showing that you like the other person, or giving access to private information or to your body. If the overall level of vulnerability is one-sided, then something is wrong and there will be trouble. In my view, the main driver of male chauvinism is men’s desire to avoid risk. Male chauvinist attitudes are almost always a cover up for fear of emotional vulnerability.

Hopefully, as the relationship deepens, you will find, perhaps to your surprise, that your needs are heard and taken into consideration and that what you give is noted and appreciated. When there are problems, as there inevitably will be, you are able to work them out as partners. That is what a healthy relationship feels like.

Mistrusting people who are trustworthy

If you have had trouble with trust in early life, you may not even notice trustworthy people. They may hardly register on your radar, or they may seem dull and uninteresting. The strategy is to try giving the person a chance. Perhaps they don’t seem so exciting, but there may be more subtle rewards. Again, discussing with others is a good idea. In the end, your instincts and your intellect need to be in sync and positive, but it does take time to get to know another human.

Part of coming to trust people who are trustworthy is coming to have compassion and love for ourselves. When we do, it feels much more natural and right to receive from another. If you have work to do in this area, it may be good to work on that before committing to a long term relationship. Sometimes relationships can be healing, but going into one with unfinished issues from early life can strain an otherwise good relationship. That’s where therapy comes in. Now let’s look at the issue of trust in the context of therapy.

Trust and Mistrust in Psychotherapy

If your therapist is to help you, he or she needs to be trustworthy. That means tuned in to your needs and feelings, and without a personal agenda that is different from yours. It doesn’t mean never making a mistake, but it does mean acknowledging mistakes when they happen. For better or worse, you will have to assess the trustworthiness of your therapist. This is easiest early in the relationship. Just as in other relationships, the red flags often show up early. That’s why your first impression is very important. The same interplay of blind spots and expectations applies, as does the value of talking to someone neutral if you have questions.

What is perhaps different about therapy is that the relationship is supposed to bring out your unfinished business and unfulfilled needs and wishes. It will also bring out your fears and mistrust. When you let yourself be vulnerable, then your mind will naturally be on the lookout to prevent surprises. The big point here is not to be shocked or surprised if you find yourself afraid of or mistrusting your therapist. Especially for those who have experienced betrayal or disappointment, it is natural to look for and expect something similar from your therapist, even without any evidence.

If you have been betrayed in the past, in spite of your positive initial impression, a part of your mind will almost certainly be ready to think the therapist has the same bad motivations as those who long ago betrayed you. You may not dare think this consciously or articulate it, but as time goes on, and you feel more confident, it is expectable that questions will arise. “Why did he or she say such a painful thing now? It could only be to  see me hurt.”

Just as in other relationships, the weak link is your perception of the other person’s secret motivations. You may look at outward behavior and convince yourself that the only way the person could have done this is out of a desire to hurt or manipulate you. Gauging other people’s motivations is one of the biggest sources of seemingly certain but totally wrong conclusions. It is no less so in therapy. Hopefully, you will have developed a robust level of trust before that happens, so the two of you can talk it through, all the way to the bottom of the problem.

Your instinct may be to stay quiet because of dysfunctional caregivers from your past. If your early parental figures were never willing to admit they were wrong, or did it only in a way that blocked you from expressing your disappointment, you may blame yourself and feel reluctant to speak up. The worst are the ones who are apologetic about their failures but don’t change. They make it much harder for you to respect your own hurt and anger. If they gave you the job of shoring up their insecurity, then in therapy you may want to “protect” your therapist. When grown-ups fail to take responsibility for addressing their shortcomings, then the children take up the slack. Children feel responsible and naturally ashamed when they can’t fix the problem.

Dr. Smith says, “You must speak up.” I can’t emphasize this enough. It is really hard to get yourself to take the risk of bringing up questions about your therapist. You have to do it, because if you don’t, then your mind will settle on the silent conclusion that your therapist is not trustworthy, and the old defenses will shield you from healing and growing.
Every therapist has made mistakes. Therapists are professionals and are accustomed to being held accountable and even criticized. A good one will not be defensive but will be open to the possibility of having made an error or shown a dysfunctional side. He or she will be ready to work with you to evaluate the situation so as to understand just what happened and why. A therapist who has been taught to remain “neutral” may not be as actively helpful, but should not be actively defensive or blaming.

If your therapist does not respond in a professional way, then he or she may not be the therapist for you. Once again, it will help to confer with others.

So, Nina, I hope these posts answer some of your questions. I welcome your comments and everyone else’s as this is a very big and important subject.

Jeffery Smith


  • As I read your last two posts on trust I could identify with much of what you shared. Your last post just really resounded with me, especially about the need to take small steps to trip use someone and I’ll add including therapists. Trusting my therapist was the most difficult part of therapy and took a very long time. In fact, there are times when I still struggle with this. We talk about it often. I’m not afraid to talk about trust any more, at least not with my therapist. What amazes me is how much power there is in our pasts that can still affect us even when we are older. The feelings in therapy seem so real and feel very intense. I am still amazed by this. If you have been through child trauma, I would dare to say that for everyone in that position trusting your therapist will be the most difficult part of therapy, not only in the beginning, but for a long time. But it does get better with time, especially if your therapist is real, trustworthy, warm, and caring with flexible but ethical boundaries. Thank you Dr. Smith for detailing the nuances, struggles, feelings, and process of trusting in life and in therapy. Currently I am struggling with conflicting feelings of love and hate in therapy. I know they are the feelings of a child, and I know why I feel this way, but knowing doesn’t take the feelings away. I wish it did! But it’s not that easy of a process for me.

    • Kimberley, Thanks for your comment, especially how real those old feelings are so vivid when they pop up in contemporary relationships.


  • You could definitely see your expertise in the article you write.
    The world hopes for more passionate writers such as you who are not
    afraid to say how they believe. Always follow your heart.

  • I’d add-talk to numerous people about behavior that makes you uncomfortable. There are so many unhealthy people in the world, and we tend to flock together. I received unhelpful feedback when I discussed red flags with others-even my therapist. She advised me to be understanding and accepting of behavior I should have run from.

    Anyway…a few years ago I was experiencing intense, painful transference with my a different therapist. It ended badly. My criticisms of him made him feel very hurt and angry and he abruptly terminated my therapy. I was traumatized-it was horrible.

    It’s now 3 years later. I am not seeing another therapist and have no plans to. Some good things came out of my experience in ‘therapy’ (not quite sure I can accurately call it that). Somehow those intensely needy feelings from childhood have…I don’t know, gone. I just feel more adult and less needy. I’m not sure how that happened since my therapist rejected me very coldly and unprofessionally, but it did.
    Maybe I just really got it.
    Not ‘getting it’ is an excruciating position to be in.
    Even though my therapist rejected me and I not only didn’t get the love I craved, I got rejected, I still got out of transference.
    That didn’t even seem possible at the time. I thought the only way out of transference was either obtaining his love or existential despair (loneliness, emptiness).
    It turns out there’s a third possibilty, you don’t get the love and you’re okay. Your world blows up and you’re alive and whole.
    I really don’t know how that happened.
    I certainly am not more trusting since my rejection-by-therapist; I am probably less.
    But somehow I feel pretty good-even though I am still afraid and avoidant of intimacy.

  • By “got it” I mean I got on every level of my being that I would not get the love I craved from him or anybody. I knew that intellectually from the beginning, but a a part of me did not accept it and hoped he would love me (and that’s putting it mildly, it was a crazy-intense hope and longing).

    I grieved that and I don’t even feel sad about it anymore. It seems like a horrific dream-nightmare I was once in.

  • The issue of trust is a difficult one, and I’m struggling with it right now. I alternate between idealizing my therapist and mistrusting him. Unfortunately, I can’t tell if the mistrust is due to genuine red flags that I’ve detected or if it’s due to my own issues around trust and intimacy that are brought to the surface by our therapeutic relationship.

    I did manage to discuss my feelings of transference with him. It was very difficult due to the overwhelming shame I experienced around the transference. (That was before I discovered this blog and realized that feelings of shame are commonly associated with transference.) Anyway, I talked to him about it, and now the feelings of shame are gone.

    I know I have to talk to him about my feelings of mistrust, but I’m afraid he’s going to feel attacked. I’m afraid that no matter how I frame the issue, he’s going to think I’m attacking his character. Also, I’m not entirely sure what the discussion will accomplish. I mean, I know it can lead to progress in therapy, but it won’t necessarily resolve my doubts about his trustworthiness. After all, what’s he going to say? “You’re right, I’m not trustworthy. You shouldn’t trust me.” The more untrustworthy someone is, the less likely they’ll admit it.

    • One idea about approaching an issue of trust with a therapist would be that trust is based on one’s perception of the other’s inner motivations. That is something that is not visible or accessible to outsiders. Furthermore, it is regularly a source of mistaken assumptions. This is one of the main causes of strong feelings and major conflicts in marriages as well as therapy. So it is impossible to know for sure whether someone is trustworthy. In the end, trust is taking a risk. The point is that it is completely understandable to have questions about trust. Once the question is asked, it is often possible in the discussion to become more comfortable about what the other person’s inner thoughts really are. Truly untrustworthy people often lack the capacity for empathy, and therefore, in conversation they reveal their untrustworthiness because they can’t read the person they are talking to. They reveal that they are not really tuned in.

      Hope that helps. JS

      • Hello Dr. Smith–thank you so much for responding! I ultimately decided to change therapists because, well, I was long-distance with my former therapist so we were doing phone sessions and I felt our connection diminish over time and simultaneously there were pervasive transference and counter-transference issues that I don’t think he’s trained to deal with. One of the many problems with the behavioral schools–at least 25 years ago when my therapist went to school (I think there’s more awareness now)–is inadequate training on transference/counter-transference.

        Also, I took your advice in Getting the Most from Your Therapy (or maybe it was your Attachment book–I read them back-to-back so can’t remember what content is from which book) and sought a second opinion from a friend who used to be a therapist. My friend flipped out when I gave him the details of my therapy, said my therapist had no boundaries, and told me to find a new therapist. I think he overreacted, but maybe he wasn’t completely wrong.

        Sometimes I think I’m just running from a difficult emotional situation, and everything else is an excuse. But, really, I feel that confronting my therapist with the questions I’d have to ask him in order to figure out if he’s trustworthy is just too scary and painful and potentially disastrous.

        Anyway, I wanted to tell you that I’m reading How We Heal and Grow, and I loved your reference to the IRS! 🙂

  • Dr. Smith,
    Many thanks to you for putting in the effort to write so thoughtfully on the therapy relationship, and for responding with kindness and understanding to your readers.
    I recently fired a therapist because of a severe breach of trust. The loss of this relationship was perhaps the most painful experience of my adult life. Now, I find myself at a loss to determine the trustworthiness of my new therapist.

    Let me explain.

    My former therapy had been going quite well. I was deeply attached to my therapist, and had made great progress in listening to my inner child. I had little need to dramatically test the relationship, preferring to test the waters slowly. There had been some ruptures, but we had been able to heal them in exactly the manner you suggested – deep authenticity on the part of my therapist. I was at a point in my therapy where I was wide open, deeply vulnerable, and beginning to experience some aspects of a childhood trauma that had previously been unavailable to me. My therapist and I agreed that I was working really hard. When I expressed concern about potentially losing her, perhaps even for a single session because of a reversed cancellation, she assured me that “I am not going anywhere. Your time is yours.” Phew.

    My inner child, naturally scared and not inclined to trust, had become comfortable enough to ask my therapist for help. The way she asked was, as you have explained, communicated in a single word, “mommy.” It was a huge moment.

    The next session, my therapist announced that she would be taking a 10-month leave, moving temporarily to another continent. Her departure would come in approximately three months, with 3 weeks of vacations (hers and mine) interrupting the remaining time. Effectively, two months.

    She offered little explanation for her sudden change in availability, aside from a few cryptic hints: It wasn’t her initiative, she had no choice in the matter, nobody in her family was sick or in danger, it was not an altruistic venture. When I asked for further details, she demurred, with the explanation “it’s complicated.” She did offer video sessions, but on her schedule. My day is highly choreographed, as I have to balance three children, a full-time job that includes collaborating with partners nine time zones away, a husband, and daily exercise. She unilaterally changed the terms of our therapy, all to my detriment.

    When pressed, she explained that her reluctance to disclose her reasons for the change had to do with the sense of danger she reported feeling when considering disclosure. It had nothing to do with protecting me.

    This sense of danger defied logic, as I have never talked about or shown signs of violence, boundary-breaking, revenge-taking, or any type of threatening behavior. Worse, she had the gall to equate her sense of danger with the feelings my inner child had reported of pervasive danger lurking everywhere. My therapist and I jointly carried the hypothesis that I had been sexually abused as a child. In the end, she equated her discomfort with explaining why her family was spending a year in Europe to my terror in being hunted, exploited, and abandoned as a child. Ouch.

    I fired her. I have read your explanation of the necessary disappointments that a therapist must impose on a client, and understand how, as a client, I would have the opportunity to grow and learn from the re-enactment of childhood disappointments. Yet this disappointment hardly seemed necessary. Other therapists I’ve consulted with (my couples’ counselor, replacement therapist candidates) agree that my therapist messed up, badly.

    To the contrary, it made it clear to me how little I actually meant to my therapist. She was not willing to stand up for my needs during her family negotiations around the move. She was willing to inflict enormous pain on me, despite knowing how badly this exercise of her power would hurt me. And she chose to protect herself from an unreal threat rather than offer me the explanation that I insisted was the only thing that might possibly lead to repair of the relationship. Yes, my inner child was in freefall with panic, rage, fear, and despair. But my rational self was still able to function, and was looking for some way – any way – to gain sympathy for my therapist’s decision in order to re-establish trust and save the therapy relationship. She risked nothing.

    She was, in the end, untrustworthy, and cowardly. Yet my gut feeling led me to trust her deeply. Until the betrayal, she was an excellent therapist for me. Yes, perhaps I saw a red flag or two in a few ruptures, but, as you indicated, therapists are human, and authenticity heals. She was authentic, understanding, open, comfortable.

    Now what?

    I now have no idea what of the former therapy relationship to trust. And, while I have started working with another therapist (interviewed very carefully, but that only takes me so far), I am deeply unsure of what to believe from my work with my previous therapist. Were we on the right track about my childhood trauma? Did I do right to distance myself from my (narcissistic?) mother? Who is my inner child without her partner in healing? Did I make the whole thing up?

    I am also deeply unsure of my ability to trust my new therapist – or of how I will know that this new one is trustworthy. She’s new, and she does things differently. My inner child has largely retreated underground, though she has expressed some interest in meeting the new therapist, and has mostly stayed engaged in the work of communicating the original trauma to me. My inner child is pretty awesome, actually. But she needs help, and we both know it.

    What a mess! I followed my gut and wound up re-wounded and betrayed. At least I protected my inner child and got her far away from the old therapist. But I have no idea how to help her beyond that. She deserves better.

    Any ideas?

    • Dear Pistis, Yes, what a mess. I guess the core problem, was that your original therapist couldn’t go all the way to be authentic with you. So maybe the question for the new one is how much she might be open to sharing with you to help you tell the difference between a therapist action for adult understandable reasons and one that really does re-enact your childhood experiences. By the way, the scenario that pops into my mind about the original situation is that the therapist was under pressure from family to leave her practice behind, and didn’t want to “betray” family members who were putting her between a rock and hard place. Maybe the “danger” was being pressured by her own wish to be there for you and someone else’s wish for her to turn away. I can’t know, but that would be one explanation of her unwillingness to let you in on the real story. I hope that helps a little.

      • Dear Dr. Smith,

        Thank you for posting my comment, and for thinking about questions I might ask my new therapist to assess her trustworthiness. I will consider asking her about how much she believes she would be comfortable sharing with me about her personal circumstances in the event that her actions suggest a repetition of my childhood experiences.

        Based on my last experience, though, I will remain wary of extrapolating therapist behavior under normal circumstances to forecast what might occur in a pressured, stressful situation. Some people buckle under stress; others rise to the occasion. I can’t tell how I might assess this ahead of time.

        I see the core problem as my former therapist’s abuse of power in unilaterally changing the terms of our therapy to my detriment, coupled with her unwillingness to fight family members (most likely her husband, but who knows?) to protect her clients’ therapies. I will never know if deep authenticity on her part would have allowed for repair of this enormous breach. I can say that, without authenticity, repair was impossible.

        Speculating on her motives and internal process is not particularly helpful. There are too many possible explanations. Furthermore, I gave her six opportunities – six sessions, paid in full – to disclose her story before I fired her. Neither you nor I will ever know what caused her to sense danger in this situation.

        I will say, though, that in our final session, she offered just enough color on what she meant by “I had no choice” but to relocate to Europe with her family to utterly upend her credibility. She described her decision to withhold information about the cause of the move as also “not a choice”, as she felt compelled to honor the danger she sensed. In other words, she felt her feelings, and followed them, to the exclusion of other inputs.

        In my world, not having a choice means that real-world circumstances preclude any actions except the one taken. In hers, it meant that her internal experience was dominant over logic or consideration of the potential impact of her actions. Her feelings ran the show, and that was that.

        In reality, she had a choice. She chose to acquiesce to the move without defending her clients’ interests (yes, she told me that there was no stay-or-go discussion between her and her husband). She chose against authenticity. She chose to defend herself against a non-threatening client.

        I would never have seen any of this had her life circumstances not pushed her into a stressful situation. She turned out to be a coward at the exact moment when my therapy required bravery.

        Do you know of any way to test for bravery? I mean real bravery, the kind where one is genuinely scared, but forges ahead despite fear, in order to accomplish something good.

        Thanks again for your help.

        • Pistis, Thank you for another penetrating exposition. Traditionally, therapy can be contained and bounded by conventional barriers, but when it comes to a situation like this and many of the treatments chronicled on this site, it’s one human engaged with another and the only real rules are the rules of life where bravery or lack thereof are the same as anywhere else. No, I don’t know a test for bravery. The only positive thing I can say, is that you do know clearly that it was her failure, not yours.

          • Dr. Smith, e nature of the failure. I found another therapist, with a different style. This one has committed to being honest and authentic with me in the event of a rupture, especially one introduced by her actions. It was an enormous relief to hear that promise.

            My former therapists’ ten month stint in Europe should be drawing to a close now. As part of my healing, I told my story (in brief) in an online review. Future clients of Dr. C. Tyia Grange Isaacson can read this thread and decide if they want to risk working with her.



  • I’m wondering whether the former therapist may have had a credible, perhaps overt threat from another client which necessitated a sudden move to another place for personal or family safety. Perhaps it had absolutely nothing to do with the comment- writer who nevertheless suffered from the fallout of the decision.
    Or did I miss the boat entirely?

  • Can I simply say what a relief to find somebody who genuinely
    understands what they are discussing on the web.

    You actually know how to bring a problem to light and make it important.

    More people really need to read this and understand this side of your story.
    I was surprised that you aren’t more popular given that you certainly possess the gift.

  • Jeffery, i have just read your article, and would like to say thank you. It is a very good advice for people who are thinking of starting a relationship or wanting to find a therapist… I would like to ask you a question, if you do not mind – is there any good literature available on how to solve a problem of a long term relationship with a “red flagged” person? – i mean a scenario when children are involved, no one wants to leave but staying together sucks one another’s energy – such kind of “love-hate relationship”? I would really need an advice on this, have been battling a long struggle (which was the last thing, i wished for in a relationship), and i have become tired. It has reached a point when the arguments make me literally crippled – after an argument, i become like “frozen”, not able to do anything except of seeking some help, and i am in pain (when we argue, the muscles on my neck get cramps, then it usually develops into migraine, and that is a hell). I am not really fond of going to a therapist, i have tried several times in the past, and the advice was mostly to leave an unhappy relationship. Some people advised me certain concrete things but none of it actually really made much of a difference. So i would prefer some literature – if there is something (sorry for my English, i am not an English native). Thank you in advance for some tips.

    • Thanks for your question. I’m thinking of doing a post to answer this, Some “red flag” people are not open to change, but a good way to think of the situation is that a relationship is a system, or like a machine. If one part starts acting differently (you) then the other part may start to be different as well. For example, finding a way to say what you feel, but not arguing, might change the dynamic. I don’t know a particular book, but there are many about healthy communication in a marriage. Sue Johnson is one very good author. The key is usually to talk about you (you are the expert on that) and to avoid speaking about the other person other than the impact of what they do on you. If you haven’t worked on your own communication, the that is worth trying. A spouse will usually resist at first, and try (not always consciously) to provoke the same familiar response as before. By holding firm, the new dynamic may take hold.

      Hope that is of some help. JS

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