How to Trust: Taking Steps to Freedom

“On his right hand Billy’d Tattoed the word love, and on his left hand, the word fear.  In which hand, he held his fate, was never clear.”– Cautious Man, Bruce Springsteen

How do we balance the need for openness and safety? 

Trust can be as simple as…”He would tell me if there was food in my teeth.”   “She doesn’t gossip about me behind my back.”  “He’s not secretly wishing he was somewhere else.” “Her resume is accurate.”  “I believe my boss’s intentions are aligned with mine.” “He meant I when he said I was the only one, and that he too liked Muskrat Love.”

It can be as big asThe election system is fair.”  “The police are officers of the peace.”  “We go to war to protect the innocent not to empire build.”  “The world is a giving place. I will always be provided for.”

People hold a huge range of perspectives on their relationship to others.  Are people basically good, or are they out to get you?  Is the universe trustworthy or chaotic?  Is the world fair, or unfair? We walk in the world making constant judgment calls on whether we will open up or protect ourselves.

When we talk about trust, we can mean so many things. We could mean truthfulness, dependability or fallibility.  Further, some of our trust framework is unique to us and biases us (our own wiring, prior experiences)- and some trust is based on intuitive (and often accurate) readings of external circumstances.

Tonight we’re going to look at trust- where we sit on the continuum of trusting and trustworthy, the cost and risk of that position, and whether we can hack or change our fundamental beliefs about trust.

We’re also going to look at lying a little bit.  Why people lie and when and what that’s about.  How do we develop the tools to be more trustworthy, and to elicit more truth telling from others.

Trust is this magic lever: it makes everything just work.

When you trust others, you can do stuff even if you don’t have all the information. You essentially have few transaction costs.  You can do stuff all the contingency planning and backup plan.  You don’t have to verify.   You don’t have to snoop, to wonder, to scenario plan.  It’s a restful choice to trust.  It’s been identified as the biggest variable in the success of developing nations- trust in the government, in systems, in the rule of law, between people- is a reliable predictor of prosperity.

Still, there’s the other side- the legitimate concern that everyone may not be safe.   You’ve seen the bumper sticker “Just because your paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you”.  As one Buddhist I know says,”How can I have a peaceful life if I’m suspicious of everyone? By trusting people, I could probably improve my quality of life. If I trust, I will get hurt- but even in the hurting I learn more about the world than I did when I hid behind barricades.”

All spiritual traditions acknowledge the restful ease of trusting.  In yoga practice as you go into sivasana, they tell you “it’s okay now to let go- the world will hold you up.  Let your muscles melt into the floor.”  In the new testament, Matthew posits: “Why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They don’t toil, neither do they spin.”

Biological and Developmental Trust Factors

Trust is in part based in our biology.  We are wired to form connections, and not just as individuals, but as social animals, living in a network.  There are actually evolutionary bases of trust between humans.  Here’s an excerpt from J.D. Clippinger:

According to evolutionary psychologists and biologists, the human brain evolved many highly sophisticated social exchange algorithms for interpreting, signaling, and coordinating human interactions. It turns out that human beings evolved as a social species – not as atomic individuals, and hence, evolved joint innate mechanisms for shared behaviors and experiences. We have biologically encoded, preconscious mechanisms for joint social exchange and coordination- social scaffoldings that trigger people’s innate propensity to trust and exchange. Neurosciences and several neuro-economic experiments have shown that the principal mental processes involved in economic activities are not conscious but preconscious, and hence, not reflective, utility maximizing nor principally self-interested.

Experiments have demonstrated that there are specific neural mechanisms for trust – (detecting cheaters, sense of fairness, shame, fairness, etc.) and they have a high degree of social fitness value.


This evolutionary trust is different than developmental skills in trusting the world.  Child development theorist Erik Erikson says that learning trust is the 1st psychosocial developmental task, happening in children between birth and 2 years:

Erik Erikson’s theory centers around the infant’s basic needs being met by the parents.  The major developmental task in infancy is to learn whether or not other people, especially primary caregivers, regularly satisfy basic needs. If caregivers are consistent sources of food, comfort, and affection, an infant learns trust- that others are dependable and reliable. If they are neglectful, or perhaps even abusive, the infant instead learns mistrust- that the world is in an undependable, unpredictable, and possibly a dangerous place. While negative, having some experience with mistrust allows the infant to gain an understanding of what constitutes dangerous situations later in life.

In other words, if you master this psychosocial skill, if you learn early that “I am good, wanted, competent, loveable.  My world feels safe.  People respond to my needs”– then you’re off to a good start.  And, if you don’t learn this?  Well, let’s just say this base insecurity tags along until you consciously start working on undoing it.  Whether our core trust relationship is healthy or not, we will carry it forward into all of our adult relationships.  In order to heal early breaks in attachment, we require a real brain hack- it’s hard work- but also very rewarding.  Treatments like EMDR, corrective attachment therapy, hypnosis or cognitive retraining all seem to work.

If you have an early miseducation in this key area, you have to rewire your own brain, rebuild it to get to the point where you can attach and trust others.

Categorical Distrust:  Learned Blind Spots

If we are to become more accurately trusting, we need to also look at where we have developed emotional keloids- unneeded armor against the supposed “teachings“ of prior experience.

We all have categorical blind spots based on experiences.  Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink laid that out in detail.

According to Built on Trust:   

The sequence goes something like this: on an occasion when we are extending trust, often contributing extra, something happens which leaves us feeling burnt, or betrayed. The emotional response is immediate: shock, fear, loss, anger. The mental reaction is a “never again” decision that affects trust. These decisions are logical, but are often categorical, over-protective, and therefore limiting.”

In other words:  Protecting ourselves disables us.  We develop biased screens and use those to make snap decisions and reactions. THE DEGREE OF SELF PROTECTION IS EQUAL TO SEVERITY OF PERCEIVED WOUNDS.  IF CORE BELIEFS ARE RIGID, AUTOMATIC, SELF-PROTECTING: THERE IS NO FREEDOM.

Once in a while, evaluating our own categorical biases and prejudices is necessary- where have we imposed our own rigidities?  Where are we carrying categorical impersonal distrust based on some prior experience, that may not actually be broadly valid?

Trusting Individuals:  Working, Living, Loving

Trust drives our most effective relationships, and determines how much we count on others, or how much to back away.  It’s not always about truth-it can be on other dimensions- for example:

  • Leadership- do I trust your vision?
  • Reliability- do I trust your promises?
  • Veracity- do I trust your facts?
  • Capacity- do I trust your driving?

The paradox of interdependence in personal relationships.

As the spheres get more intimate, there is increasingly high risk in being wrong about trusting others, which would naturally make these some of the most challenging places to trust (the phenomenon implied in Landslide:  “I built my world around you.”)

Who doesn’t want the rest that comes from a settled intimate relationship? George Eliot’s quote captures it:

That quiet mutual gaze of a trusting husband and wife is like the first moment of rest or refuge from a great weariness or a great danger–not to be interfered with by speech or action which would distract the sensations from the fresh enjoyment of repose.

So, where is the paradox? According to Kelly and Thibaut, as passed on by the site the Truth About Deception:

Close relationships are based on interdependence, which is rewarding and helps people move better in the world.  As interdependence increases, telling the truth is essential- we need to know each other.  The paradox, is that interdependence also creates many constraints. As interdependence increases, people are no longer free to do what they want, when they want, with whom they want. So as we get closer to someone, telling the truth becomes more important but it also starts posing more risk.

Telling the truth is easy do to when interdependence is low – like revealing deeply personal information to a complete stranger sitting on a plane. Telling the truth in such situations does not matter – there is no real consequence for doing so (nor is there any real benefit). When interdependence is high, however, telling the truth is important. Telling the truth allows people to coordinate their actions, create intimacy and closeness.  But, interdependence means that telling the truth carries more risk: it can lead to increased conflict, negativity and it can restrain one’s goals.

The greatest irony:  Lying to retain intimacy or to be seen favorably actually stops you from getting the love you want in the first place

Being truthful about ourselves is the only way to experience and feel real love.  The only way to let it in.  Otherwise at some subconscious level, you just think they love you because you tricked them, or they don’t know the real you.  Real love is based on complete unconditional truth telling. If you want to do work in this area:  REAL LOVE!  Or, go one step further, to Radical Honesty, where the motto is stop the stories, stop the fear.

Sometimes though, we don’t seem to know truth from our own stories.  If you need help figuring out how to get to “what is true”, do the work of Byron Katie.  It’s simple, it’s effective, it’s amazing.  

5 Ways to Strength the Fabric of Trust

The foundation of living freely, and trusting the universe is rooted in real work on self awareness and development.

But, if you’re looking for some quick tips to be more trustworthy and create more trust in your life, here are 5 excellent practices to begin with.

1. Generosity: Look to positively impact others before you consider your own agenda.

2.  Communicate Graciously:  Listen deeply.  Be composed and respectful: don’t interrupt, argue, frown, get restless.  Speak frankly but privately. Be curious more than pushing your own message.

3.  Truth Telling:  Tell what is true for you, without judging, blaming or fearing others.

4.  Accountability:  We are all interdependent.  Do what you say you will do.  Commit, but don’t overcommit.

5.  Humility: Correct mistakes and miscommunications early.

To live openly, we need to be healthy and whole in our own selves.  We need to be comfortable with the truth of ourselves.  And we need to have the skills to relate to others who may or may not be there yet, with all the uncertainty those interactions can bring.

On that note, let’s close with a quote from one who could bend circumstances to his vision:  “Don’t be afraid.  Wrap your head around it.  You can do it.”  Steve Jobs

I trust you’ll figure it out.

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