Jo Ann McKarus, M.A., M.F.T., is a licensed psychotherapist with a private practice in Santa Monica, California — and she also happens to be Jillian's mom. She holds a master's degree in marriage and family therapy and is currently pursuing a doctor of psychology degree in psychoanalysis. Certified in clinical hypnosis and psychoanalytic psychotherapy, she's been working to foster self-awareness and personal growth in adults and couples since 1991.
Of course, one of the things that make this blog such a safe place is the inherent anonymity. Unless you choose to identify yourself, you can explore and express your deepest fears and secrets without risk of personal rejection or attack. The only person you’re really being vulnerable with is yourself. Don’t misunderstand — I’m not minimizing the strength it takes to confront one’s inner demons alone. This is at the core of self-reflection and personal growth. However, for a life to be lived fully, it is essential to go beyond this point — to add relationship to self-reflection. Intimate and meaningful connections with others are fundamental to emotional well-being and mental health. According to renowned psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Dr. John Bowlby, the need to form loving and protective alliances is innate and persists throughout life.
In defining relational intimacy, psychotherapists refer to the mutual ability to be vulnerable as a major criterion. And vulnerability requires trust. But for those individuals who have had chronic and serious experiences with unreliable caretakers and/or betrayal by loved ones, trust doesn’t come easily, if at all. For some of these people, asking them to trust equates to asking them to walk off a cliff. Thus, the very thing they so need for healing — nurturing, safe, intimate relationships – requires that which feels impossible to do.
One’s capacity for trust is generally formed very early in life. Of course, that’s not to say that an intact capacity cannot be damaged later in life by traumatic breaches. But, given the same negative circumstances, the person who’s been fortunate enough to have developed a more solid sense of basic trust in the world will almost always fare better psychologically than the person who suffers from significant trust issues. The former generally possess more resilient personalities, because their capacity for trust leaves them with a greater capacity for hope. So when hard times happen, they trust in their ability to get through them and have hope for better times ahead.
Dr. Erik Erikson, another famous psychoanalyst, had much to say on the subject of trust. He posited eight psychosocial stages of development, spanning the entire lifespan from birth to death. Each stage is said to comprise a major developmental conflict that is associated with that stage of life. For instance, the conflict of the last stage of life, that of old age, is about “integrity vs. despair.” Here, the individual is struggling with issues of mortality and reflecting on whether they feel a sense of satisfaction about a life well-lived or despair about a life with many regrets. If this conflict was adequately resolved, Erikson believed the outcome would be the attainment of wisdom. The person resolves the conflict not by having no regrets (which is impossible), but by feeling their life has been sufficiently satisfactory in spite of their regrets. They come to understand that a degree of regret is an inescapable part of life.
Erikson hypothesized that the major conflict of the first stage of life, that of the infant, was “trust vs. mistrust.” Because the baby is in a stage of absolute dependence, it has no choice but to rely on its caretakers (usually the parents) for sustenance and survival. If the caretakers tend to the baby’s needs with consistency and reliability, the baby develops basic trust in its environment. It’s important to note that consistent and reliable don’t mean constant and perfect. Sometimes the baby has to wait to get its needs met, because Mommy or Daddy can’t always be available in an instant. But as long as the wait is reasonable, this isn’t a problem, because over time, the baby develops a sense of trust that Mommy or Daddy will show up before the hunger pangs get too strong, the diaper too wet, etc. But if the caretaking is negligent, the infant is thrown into a traumatic state of helplessness. Over time, the baby gives up hope that it will be responded to and develops a basic mistrust of the world. At this stage, before the mind has formed, the infant’s world is made up entirely of feelings states and bodily sensations. Thus, mistrust is experienced and imprinted in the psyche in a visceral way, and does not easily give way to the later logic and rationale of adult thinking.
The question then is how to manage or overcome severe trust issues? One way is to GO SLOW when exploring new relationships. People who have experienced early neglect often unconsciously attract people who are not trustworthy. The only way to know if a person is basically trustworthy (a concept that, in and of itself, may benefit from further definition) is through experience over time. It isn’t wise to share major vulnerabilities with someone you don’t have a track record with. Share smaller vulnerabilities at first, and see how it goes. Observe how this person behaves with their friends and family, and how their friends and family refer to them.
At this point, I would like to turn the floor over to all of you. What are your thoughts and experiences regarding trust? What do you think shaped your feelings about it? If you choose to share an experience from your teen or adult years, what factors do you think contributed to the outcome? In retrospect, do you think you could have done something differently that might have changed the outcome? A good example of this was shared by Philly Becky in last month’s comments. The following are excerpts written by her a day apart:
“Tomorrow night is my next group meeting. Last week was hard because I told them all that I didn't trust them. That's a really crappy thing to say to people who are trying to be there for you. I feel like I don't even know why I won't give them a chance. I had told my individual therapist this week that I was going to quit group. I think that is the wrong decision. I think the truth is that I am scared to death of their judgment of me. I am also scared of letting them in because it means I am vulnerable and not in control of my own destiny.”
“I am back from an emotional group session. I went in there with great apprehension. I was so scared to be there. …I gave in a little today. Admitted that it scared me that I can't control my emotions. Confessed that I am scared of letting them in. I actually told them that I felt judged because I often get called out for being angry. They told me that they are proud of me when I am angry because it is the one time when I am not beating myself up. Wow, I thought that they looked down on me for that! I didn't know. I still have a far way to go but I realize that the key is to give a little up, to see it all as practice, and to accept when things don't work out exactly as planned. I learned a lot tonight and I actually brought part of this blog discussion with me into group.”
I look forward to hearing from you! When you share, everyone learns.
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