This week I’ve been thinking a lot about trust. How trust is forged in relationships, and how it is broken. Because I offer therapy for trust issues and have gotten to explore this phenomenon with many people, here are some thoughts on how this issue forms, and what we can do about it.
Root causes of trust issues
Some of us struggle with mistrust due to profound betrayals from important people in our early lives. When we were just children, we had no choice but to trust.
If you suffered from abuse or neglect during that time, trust can easily become a lifelong struggle. It can undermine efforts toward any and every kind of relationship from friendship to collegial relationships, particularly with intimacy and romantic partners.
Without intervention, including working to heal the broken trust and the schema, or pattern of beliefs and behaviors that perpetuate the anticipation of more betrayals, the cycle can continue throughout a lifetime.
Here we go again, we might think. Another new person, another opportunity to get screwed.
Is it fixable?
Once trust is ruptured in a relationship, it can often be repaired, but only if both people are not caught in the trap of the mistrust schema. If you’re mistrusting and your chief coping mechanism is avoidance, you’ll likely throw the relationship out altogether.
Having the point proven, yet again, that “people can’t be trusted,” it can sometimes feel easier to simply move along and leave the pain of the most recent deception behind.
Alternatively, staying in the relationship and working toward repairing the damage is often arduous and painful. It can be a winding road of fear and resentment, anger and hurt. It can often feel like two steps forward and one step back.
We want the pain to go away and the trust to rebuild as quickly as it was broken. But that’s really impossible. What was once one solid ground of trust is now shattered into not one, but many pieces, each requiring the healing salves of time, care, patience, understanding, and the processing of painful emotions.
Psychotherapists are some of the most compassionate people I know. Many of us are temperamentally sensitive and predisposed to caregiving. By the time we hit graduate school and our professional training, we have already learned how to attend to the needs of others in many ways. Learning the skill of compassion, or the ability to feel with another often comes quite naturally to those who have chosen this career path.
But are therapists able to harness that same whole-hearted approach when it comes to themselves?
There is an old saying “the cobblers children have no shoes.” The sentiment offers the insight that one does not always benefit from the product of their craft. For therapists, compassion and empathy are the tools of our trade. But when we use them only for our clients and fail to use them personally we are depriving ourselves of the healing salve that we may be needing the most.
But why wouldn’t we be self-compassionate?
Perfectionism, Hard Lessons and Inner Critics
Perfectionism runs rampant. It predates COVID as a pandemic. If you aren’t a perfectionist yourself, you likely know someone who is. And therapists are no exception. We are in a line of work where, once we leave the nest of our graduate institution, few of us ever get direct feedback from peers or supervisors about our work in action. To some degree, we are operating in a vacuum with no real sense of if we are truly good therapists or only mediocre ones. Perfectionism and being hard on ourselves is often an effort to keep us aiming to reach higher standards.
A mistake with a client can result in dire consequences. Depending on the severity of the mistake we may lose the chance to repair the rupture with the client, or we may lose a sense of ourselves as competent. Do we forget about these folks? Rarely. More often, they become the ghosts that haunt us as they continue to teach us in absentia. I’ve learned some of my toughest lessons in private practice from the clients I couldn’t help, or the sessions that I failed to provide what the client most needed. Choosing whether to beat myself up for those missteps or to take them in stride, as the lessons they were meant to be, is sometimes a case-by-case process as they arise in my memory.
Some of the people we work with may experience high-reactivity, narcissism, chronic rage or possess other qualities that can make us feel insignificant, inept, or like complete imposters from the moment they walk into the room. (Thanks mirror neurons!) When the clients we see have an unconscious way of undermining our confidence we can find ourselves disconnected from the skillful professional persona we’ve worked so hard to curate.
I teach my perfectionistic clients self-compassion as an alternative way of relating to themselves. First, we allow ourselves to get really curious about the inner critic that drives the perfectionism and explore it’s main desire: to protect the client from embarrassment, failure, shame, etc. Then we move into the lengthy process of cultivating self-compassion. This happens over time, with my both directly teaching positive self-talk and meditative techniques that promote self-acceptance and non-judgment and my expressing and role modeling my own compassion for them. I know things are working when they report back to me “I could hear your voice inside my head, it said to be gentle/to be kind to myself, etc.”
The Revelation and The Practice of Self-Compassion
Learning to be compassionate with oneself is often a revelation. When we start treating ourselves like someone we love and admire, like we’d treat our own best friend, we start to feel better. It is also a practice. And, like anything else we practice, if we stop practicing, we regress to an earlier, more primitive or unconscious state of being.
Meditation teacher, writer, and psychotherapist Jack Kornfield says that as therapists “we are together in holding the heart of the culture and the possibility of human wellbeing and transformation.”
This is tremendous work we’ve undertaken.
Let’s take care to remember the wisdom and beauty in the practice of self-compassion and to hold our own selves in the light of this love and kindness. If you forget how, or get overwhelmed in the process of living in these crazy and uncertain times, call a fellow therapist for a gentle reminder.
If you are a therapist looking for a therapist’s therapist, drop me a line. I’d love to support you.
Looking these definitions for confrontation, particularly that first one, it is easy to see why so many of us “avoid confrontation at all costs,” a quote I hear regularly from my clients.
What is toxic communication?
Toxic communication includes being sarcastic or snide or using critical or demeaning language. Denying another person’s experience as the truth is also toxic. There is a special term for this called gaslighting. Being loud, using invasive body language to intimidate, or closed off body language to avoid absorbing new information are also unhealthy ways to express yourself or deny someone else the ability to share.
Another form of toxic communication is passive aggression. This is sometimes thought of as “The Silent Treatment.” Not saying what is on your mind in an effort to take control of a situation or outcome is also toxic. Withholding hurts and offenses until a specific moment in time when you feel threatened and then unleashing your pent-up feelings in an effort to absolve yourself of any wrongdoing is not only destructive, but often confusing.
It takes courage to talk about feelings, and not everyone has the skill or awareness to honor that vulnerability. Choose your audiences wisely.
Is being assertive the same thing as being aggressive?
No. Being assertive means knowing what you feel and think and communicating those thoughts and feelings in a calm, clear-headed manner while considering the well-being of the person that is listening. It allows both parties to maintain a sense of wholeness and humanness while communicating. No one person is all “right” or all “wrong.”
Sometimes, when there is a lot of emotion around the idea that we have to convey, and we are out of practice with speaking the truth in our hearts, we may struggle with being calm, per se. The first time you say something that has been weighing heavy on your heart it can be incredibly challenging to just get the words out through the emotion. Often these thoughts have been taking up space in your psyche for years. As the quote goes, “your voice may shake” and tears may fall when you begin to express what’s true.
As you practice saying what is true you will find that over time it gets easier.
Being aggressive is an entirely different animal. Aggressive communication lacks awareness, understanding and compassion for your listener’s experience. Aggressive communication can be an effort to vent anger, control another person, or establish superiority.
Being assertive is not the same thing as being aggressive or confrontative. It is a conscious way of connecting with others through conveying ideas that are important and meaningful for you. Assertiveness is the key to Healthy Adult Communication and Healthy Adult Relationships.
You can speak your truth without hostility. Some would even say that in order to enjoy emotionally satisfying relationships you must.
The work of getting to know oneself is some of the most important work that we can do. A big part of this process is getting to know your own needs. We are in a time in our culture when we have grown accustomed to deferring to family, friends or the media to tell us what we need (think advertising, tv, radio, the internet, magazines, etc.). This tendency has completely alienated us from ourselves and our true needs.
So often when I ask the question of my clients “what are you needing?” their knee-jerk reaction is one of confusion or surprise. “Am I supposed to know that?” is the implied response.
The process of getting to know our needs serves us, largely, because once we can get clear about what we need, we can employ our natural creativity to begin to find ways to get those needs met. When we have what we need, we feel and exude a sense of peace, wellness and wholeness.
If you have no idea what you need, start with this list. Look at each category of needs and see what resonates for you. What are you longing for in your life?
This list was inspired by the work I do with my brave and beautiful clients in my psychotherapy practice. If you are interested in doing the work of self-exploration and think we would be a good fit for therapeutic work together, you can reach out to me here.
I am excited to announce that Whole Self Therapy will soon be offering therapeutic and psycho-educational groups in addition to one-on-one counseling!
Starting in May, when I will be joining colleague Laura Torres, LPC, RYT, to co-facilitate a group focused on cultivating intuition through guided imagery. This will be a small group held in my office over a four week period on Tuesday evenings. The group will include both a didactic/instructional component as well as an experiential imagery piece and will include some expressive art as well.
If you have an interest in connecting to your own internal wisdom, we hope that you will join us! You can email me here for more information or to sign up.
Anger and sadness are an important part of life, and new research shows that experiencing and accepting such emotions are vital to our mental health. Attempting to suppress thoughts can backfire and even diminish our sense of contentment.