Do you find it difficult to trust people, always feeling certain that people will try to take advantage of you? Do you find yourself on guard and quick to attack others because you are expecting them to attack you? Do you ever find yourself setting up tests for people to see if they are really on your side? Do you find yourself repeatedly entering into relationships with partners who disrespect your needs or put you down? Similarly, have you ever been physically, verbally, or sexually abused by someone you should have been able to trust?
If you find yourself answering yes to any of these questions, you are not alone. Many people go through life deeply afraid of what other people may do to them. You may have learned at a very early age that people cannot be trusted. Relationships you’ve had and relationships you’ve seen around you have all confirmed your belief that anyone being nice is doing so with ulterior motives and that you must guard carefully to ensure you don’t get hurt.
What causes this?
Based on our life experiences we form beliefs and emotions about the world, known as “schemas.” Some of us have had the painful experience of being hurt, lied to, abused or manipulated by people we were close to. This may cause us to develop a belief that others care only for themselves and don’t mind hurting us to get what they want. We may expect others to lie, manipulate, cheat or take advantage of us. Understandably this will cause us to act in self protection, and avoid sharing our innermost thoughts and feelings with others, or, on the flip side, to cheat or abuse others in a sort of pre-emptive strike. Friends and partners may tell us we are being paranoid and get upset by our constant testing if they are worthy of our trust, but for us it is a necessary part of trying to feel safe.
How do we act as a result of this?
This schema usually translates into one of 3 patterns of behavior. We may surrender to this schema creating a self-fulfilling prophecy as we constantly find ourselves loving and attracted to abusive partners. Alternately, we may avoid this believed reality by guarding ourselves, avoiding vulnerability and making sure never to trust others, at the cost of our own potential to build a loving relationship. Finally, we may overcompensate for our fear, cheating on a partner or abusing others before they hurt us.
If I have this schema, what are the goals of therapy?
There are a few goals to therapy. The first is to learn that there is a spectrum to trustworthiness, that while some people are not trustworthy, some other people are. Therapy will help you learn to stand up for yourself when necessary. Therapy will help you identify who can be trusted, how to behave in a less guarded and suspicious manner with these people and how to bring more trustworthy people into your life.
When someone has been hurt by others, it is common to blame themself for the abuse. You may view yourself as worthless or believe that what happened was your fault. In therapy you learn to stop making excuses for the abuser and place responsibility where it belongs.
What can I expect in therapy?
You have had the experience of people hurting and abusing you. You have learned in life that people are not to be trusted, that being guarded and distant is essential for self-protection. Trusting your therapist and feeling safe with him or her will take patience and time. Honor your need for space. Take the time you need to feel safe and trust. Share your concerns with your therapist and remind yourself that you set the pace. You are in charge of the therapy process and you are the one who decides when and how much to share.
Part of therapy will involve identifying the past experiences that have taught you not to trust the world. As you begin to feel ready to do so, your therapist will help you examine the cognitions that maintain your mistrust. You will learn how to recognize a safe partner and who is trustworthy. If you have learned to blame yourself for the abuse, your therapist will slowly help you learn to stop making excuses for the abuser and help you identify your own worthiness. You and your therapist will build practical steps to help you learn to trust honest people and increase your level of intimacy with people who can be trusted. You will learn to set limits with abusive people and stop mistreating others.
Mistrust of the world is a painful consequence of being hurt, and one that maintains the cycle of hurt. If you recognize this pattern in yourself, you are not alone. Many of my clients come to therapy with this belief about the world. Learning to trust people who are trustworthy takes time and effort, and is wonderfully rewarding. I invite you to come in for a consultation session to discuss your relationship experiences and see if learning to regain trust will help you live the life you hope for.