Trust, Trauma, and Therapy – 1

Nina asked me to talk about trust. This is often an issue in therapy, especially for people whose early experiences have included misattunement and betrayal. This post is the first in a series in which we will look at the nature of trust, problems trusting, how to develop trust when we should, and how to avoid trusting when we shouldn’t.

What is trust

On the most basic, mammalian level, trust is a feeling that we can rely on the other. Dogs have implicit trust in the alpha dog to lead them. A horse trusts its rider to provide guidance. Mammals are also capable of mistrust. When a horse senses that the rider is not reliable, it becomes agitated and wants to take over the decision making.

Of course, humans are more complicated. On top of our mammalian instincts, we have the ability to assess cognitively the trustworthiness of the other. In doing so, we can override our instincts or follow them, with opportunities for trouble either way. Even more interesting, the way we consciously assess trustworthiness is first through our ability to imagine the mind of the other person. Using our capacity for empathy, we construct a “theory of mind” to explain the actions of the other person. When we are trusting, we imagine that the other person’s deepest motivation is positive towards ourselves. We watch what they do and monitor how well their actions match our expectations. As long as we feel connected and in sync with the other person, our trust stays steady or even grows deeper.

On the other hand, when there is a break in our mutual attunement, we hit a fork in the road. Either we assume that the other person is trustworthy and there must be a good explanation for their actions, or we find ourselves wondering if our theory is wrong and the other person really can’t be trusted. A simple example is humor. When someone we trust tells a questionable joke, we laugh, though perhaps nervously, because we trust their good will. If the same joke comes from someone about whom we have doubts, then it may fall flat and we may see only inappropriateness.

Going back to our mammalian instincts, the starting point for trust is reading the other person’s face, manner, body language, etc. Our deepest unconscious mammalian brain is finely tuned to pick up mismatches that tell us whether the other person is authentic or fake. Our capacity for empathy, that is reading into the other person’s mind, is essential for doing this. However, humans are also uniquely capable of misleading each other. Every day, advertisers count on an actor’s ability to fake a sincere manner to create trust in whatever the actor is instructed to say about their product. “Con” men make use of their exceptional ability to fake trustworthiness to mislead their victims. Besides humans, only a few species such as primates seem to possess even rudimentary abilities to mislead each other.

So when it comes to trust, we rely on a delicate balance between our emotional mammalian brain and our cognitive cortex to assess the safety and reliability of our connections to others. When it comes to buying detergent, the stakes are not so high, but in our close relationships, the emotional risk is much deeper. Even though, as adults, we may be able to survive a loss of trust, as happens in divorce, on an emotional level, we still treat our primary relationships as we did in childhood–as matters of life or death. This is why our feelings about trust can be so extremely intense and passionate.

In the next part of this series, we will look at what happens when our ability to trust has been compromised by past experience.


Next in series:  Trust 2: How trust can be hurt

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  • Hello Dr. Smith – I wrote you long ago (years) when I was beginning my journey into psychotherapy. I am struggling with PTSD (according to my therapist) which has suddenly jumped up at me after 40 years! I have a very difficult time believing that is possible. It has certainly been the most difficult process I have ever gone through. I agonize with how slow it is – I want the instant answer and the instant cure. And it takes me forever to come to accept some of the ideas she presents to me. Your posts have helped me so much as has all the info in your book. Recently my therapist and I have discussed the fine line between love and hate, and how sometimes there is not even a line, the two can co-exist. Can you expound on this idea? I am struggling mightily with this possibility and stunned by the possibility that it might be true and that such feelings can be OK……thank you Diana

  • It has taken me six years, SIX YEARS, to trust the therapist I sit across from weekly, give or take. Today I hated him again. It has taken me six years to understand that when I hate him it is because I am hurting in some deep place that my conscious mind has fleeting access to. “Our deepest unconscious mammalian brain is finely tuned to pick up mismatches that tell us whether the other person is authentic or fake.” I am assuming my early experiences were a bit unfortunate because up until recently I have always thought, at some deep, unconscious level, everyone was fake. Thank you for validating me with your words.

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