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Trusting After Trauma

Updated: May 15, 2023

Scared woman in shadows in business garb; Photo by Stephen Ferrer
How do you trust after trauma?

Courage is the ability to show others your vulnerable, less polished and impervious sides. This is especially hard in situations where it is most tempting and easy to be insincere or manipulative. I see this with couples, families, friends, politics, and even day-to-day interactions with strangers sometimes. While you have to be careful with your heart and guard against others’ unkind behavior, you also can act as though you have more to fear than you actually do. How do you determine where there is an actual threat of being physically or emotionally hurt, and where you can let down your guard?

Being on guard makes it hard to trust after trauma

Are you guarded and afraid of others hurting you? Is it hard to admit this to yourself or others? You might appear uncaring, cynicism or even aggression to keep yourself from others’ cruelty. The world can indeed be very frightening and dangerous. You have a duty and responsibility to yourself to accurately assess when to defend against intrusion or deceit from others. But when you can’t shift from self-protection once the threat is over, you might be very lonely. If you can’t tell a truly dangerous situation from one that merely seems threatening, you’re uptight all the time and anxious.

Sometimes if a situation is neutral but reminds you of past hurts, you become rigid and incapable of opening up when we want to. And that is a sad and lonely state of existence. Even when such people connect, it’s often superficial and they enter the situation from a win-lose stance. By this I mean that the person feels that they must win and someone else must lose in order to be safe. Are they concerned for the loser? At this point, it’s every man or woman for themselves, and all such people care about is that they weren’t the loser. When a human loses empathy for others, any kind of dehumanizing, cruel behavior is possible.

Trusting too much after a traumatic past

You might be on the opposite end of the trust spectrum. You could be so open and willing to experience anything and everything that you others often hurt you in relationships. Maybe you tend to attract friends and lovers who don’t have the space or ability to show empathy. This might be because you are easy prey for cynical, selfish people. Do you unintentionally expose your soft, vulnerable side in hopes that people will care for you unconditionally? This is the way a parent takes care of a child.

Unfortunately, that is not how the world works. When you reach 18, society presumes that you are capable of taking care of your own emotional and physical needs. If you depend on others to look after you and protect you from dangerous situations, you run the risk of others treating you maliciously, deceptively or savagely. It’s much more empowering and safer to develop a more sophisticated and accurate gauge for whom to trust and who not to. Sometimes, you also need a little good common sense to protect you.

Wisdom for trusting after trauma

Somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, you can meet others with a reasonable expectation of civility and care. You can rely on your emotional mind to guide you only so much in these situations. Similarly, you can count on your rational mind only so much.

Using your wise mind, you can learn from the past mistakes and hurts without automatically, globally thinking that everyone is untrustworthy. Conversely, you can distinguish who is probably trustworthy by learning more about human behavior and observing others closely. You don’t have to rush to judgment immediately but you also don’t have to discard what your gut tells you sometimes. It’s not an overnight process, but with time and help from others, you can improve your ability to learn how to trust after a damaging relationship.

Attachment and trust

Attachment influences how you trust after trauma; Photo by Isaac Quesada
Our first experiences of trust were with our caregivers.

Attachment history influences your ability to trust as adults.

Your attachment bond to your early caregivers has a lot to do with how you approach other people. If you were fortunate enough to have a secure attachment to your caregivers (usually your mom), your basic stance towards your environment is that it is safe and benevolent. You don’t ignore danger signals from other people or from the environment. Stress from previous traumas doesn’t overwhelm you so much that you are constantly on guard or checked out and numb.

If you had abusive, neglectful, or unpredictable parents, you might expect people to be harmful or put up with abusive treatment from others. This is because you have found a way to adapt to your early environment in this way. You can repair the way you relate to others by having a good enough relationship as an adult, but it’s hard to trust after developmental trauma in your past.

Some of what you expect of others depends on your cultural background. In some cultures, if you leave yourself open for being taken advantage of, it automatically leads to exploitation. For other cultures, there is a level of trust that favors the tender-hearted. Such cultures assume the best in people. I think the United States is somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, but edges toward cynicism increasingly as time goes on.

Choices about trusting after trauma

You have to make choices about how to trust others intelligently. Do you lead with your sensitive, tender parts of yourself or wait until you have some indication of interpersonal safety? How much should you give of your time, energy and other resources? Unfortunately, the world can be inhospitable to indiscriminate kindness, as violence escalates and people become increasingly jaded and greedy. However, if we close our hearts to EVERYONE, we miss out on friendship, love, sexual enjoyment, and the basic support of fellow human beings.

How do you carve out a space to meet soul-to-soul with others’ vulnerabilities carefully and compassionately? How can you show love, appreciation and kindness to others even when others have hurt you in the past? You may even have doubts about humanity’s worth at this point. These are some of the issues that are especially salient to people who have been in traumatic situations. We can explore these in psychotherapy. If you want to learn how to trust after trauma again, please call me at 661-233-6771.

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