Learning to be trustworthy III: learning to still hope

Can I trust you?

This strikes at the heart of encounters. ‘Can I trust what you say? That you won’t let me down? That you care? Do I need to protect myself from you in some way?’

It also strikes at the heart of our identity. For the child development theorist, Erik Erikson, it is the first psychosocial stage we must negotiate right from birth: 'Is this world trustworthy? Are others there when I need them?’ These fundamental questions about the world and others, and the answers we discover in our first two years, will shape our personality, life choices, relationships and perception of our world. The answers stick with us. They’re difficult to shift. Yet they also are re-questioned and re-answered again and again - particularly if we found others to be more untrustworthy - at each new transition, development or change in our life.

So, trust is at the heart of our being in the world. According to Erikson’s, whether we trust or not is tied to the development of hope. If we find others and the world to be, on the whole, more trustworthy, we can hold hope; the more we find otherwise, the more we hold despair.

Am I trustworthy?

No wonder we react, often quite strongly, when we are accused of being untrustworthy. It strikes at the heart of the memories and wounds of the basic betrayals we experienced when we were young and at every transition in our life. It strikes at the heart of our power over the lives of others for nourishing hope or despair, a power many of us know the misuse or even abuse of. It strikes at the heart of the fundamental question we keep returning to and hoping for a better answer - whilst often finding that we merely replay the same dramas with the same endings.

If I am untrustworthy, what hope is there? If we betray as much as we are betrayed, is there anything or anyone I can trust? Thus, most of us want to be trustworthy; most of us believe ourselves to be. The alternative is too painful. Yet this fear stops us doing the real work needed for us to become trustworthy.

In part 1, I explored honesty in relation to being a therapist. I concluded that, to learn to be trustworthy, I must acknowledge all the ways I am untrustworthy. Only then can I be honest (or congruent) with myself and others about what’s going on for me.

In part 2, I explored reliability and competency in relation to being a therapist. This led to the conclusion that to learn to be trustworthy, I must learn to trust in a process beyond me that, in the end, I have no final control or responsibility for. This is the process and ‘frame’ of therapy.

Both of these place a heavy demand on my ego. Our ego is the way we see ourselves, protect ourselves and negotiate all the dilemmas and challenges of life (including the dilemma of hope or despair). As a therapist, my ego can include the story that I should be some super-human omnipotent healer helping the needy, or, in a similar vein, an effective therapist using scientifically-evidenced effective techniques, or, even utterly trustworthy and moral. This can be, at least lurking under the surface of our awareness, our perception of ourselves and our practice. My ego needs to let go of striving for such control, justification, validation, and such impossible expectations.

I must, instead, trust the process of being a wounded person authentically being with another wounded person as I try to hold, as best I can, a safe space.

Not that my ego lets that happen so easily. Of course, I remain untrustworthy in many ways and at many times. And my clients inevitably experience me as untrustworthy as a result, as replaying their own experiences and dramas of being let down, betrayed and hurt. Perhaps it’s because of factors beyond my control. Perhaps it’s just because I am a wounded human too. I forget some things. I gloss over and avoid some things. Things come up that I wasn’t expecting and find hard to manage. I struggle in the moment to face up to some things. My ego keeps clinging to the need to prove myself, to be the omnipotent healer, to be perfect.

So how do we seek to be trustworthy even in all of this humanity?

Holding onto hope.

When I break a client’s trust, to whatever degree, it can be really hard for both me and them.

I might have shown enough honesty, care, reliability and competency to mean that they still trust me enough to return and talk with me about what’s gone on. If we can do this, I’ve learned to hold hope that we can both learn from the betrayal.

We might be able to learn to recognise and feel the anger and grief we hold, not just at this broken trust, but all the others we’ve experienced. We can learn to work through the feelings we have in our relationship, as a way too of learning how to process the feelings we hold about other relationships we are in or have experienced. This can be extremely cathartic and therapeutic. We might even discover that broken trust can be rebuilt, perhaps even stronger as a result of working through it together.

We might also learn that betrayals are inevitable in all relationships - and in all people. We can learn to understand why others might break our trust - as much as why we break the trust of others. We can learn that it doesn’t necessarily mean we or they are fundamentally untrustworthy, but that we are humans trying our best.

Seeing our humanity more clearly, we see who we need to protect ourselves more from and how we might do that. And we also get to challenge the shoulds and oughts of inadequacy, unlovability and hopelessness.

But equally, we may not be able to do all that. Sometimes I haven’t shown enough trustworthiness for a client to return. Maybe, I messed up and for whatever reason wasn’t able to hold the space enough for this client. Maybe it was like we were inevitably going to replay this drama for them with the same old ending. Perhaps they leave to wrestle with their despair alone or to find someone else who will be able to provide what they need; perhaps they leave to keep on avoiding this fundamental human dilemma between hope and despair and the feelings of anger and grief it invokes; perhaps they leave to wonderfully reclaim their humanity: ‘No, it’s not OK that someone else should dismiss, use, deceive or manipulate me like that. I will not tolerate it.’

Whatever it is I don’t know where the broken trust will leave or lead them. I will try my best, within what is appropriate, to mitigate the possible harm yet, sometimes, I can do so little and must simply let them go. Then I must face my own untrustworthiness anew: that even though I try my best, I will always betray. I must face my own dilemma between hope and despair, and learn afresh that I need to hold onto both.

So, in learning to be trustworthy, I come to this end: that we are human. We will betray and be betrayed as much as we are and strive to be trustworthy. We will always have to hold onto both despair and hope, the need for self-protection and to trust, the potential for being hurt, even in healing, and healing, even in the hurting. Yes, we keep on striving to be honest, reliable and competent, to be there for each other, and no, we don’t have to lose sight of hope when we can’t.

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