Fear of trust is so common it’s an official phobia: pistanthrophobia— a big name for an equally big problem. And while not trusting anyone keeps you safe from hurt and betrayal, it also leaves you isolated and suspicious.
How does this happen? How does one lose faith in humanity? And how can you find it again?
Several decades ago, researchers working in artificial intelligence hypothesized that people have a “script” for certain experiences. For example, at a restaurant, your script goes something like this: look at the menu, order, eat your food, pay, and leave. There’s a particular order; you know how it’s supposed to go.
Many people, as kids, learn a script about life that goes something like this: I get hurt or upset, someone comforts me, I feel better. But many others didn’t learn that script. They learn: I get hurt or upset, someone blames me or gets mad, I feel worse. Or: I get hurt or upset, no one notices, I am alone. These scripts are a recipe for feeling unable to trust or get close to others. It makes sense—if getting what we need from other humans was the unexpected exception rather than the reliable rule, it would be foolish to trust. We’d be setting ourselves up to get hurt over and over again.
Other times, the script we learn in childhood is healthy, but then gets rocked by the earthquake of trauma. For instance, the love of our life cheats, we get swindled by someone we trust, or life otherwise turns on a dime. Again, it makes sense: if you were blindsided by betrayal, you’d get a rewrite on your script pretty quickly.
Either way, you’re left with a belief system that puts a wedge between you and the rest of the world. The beliefs may be about yourself, such as, “If I trust someone, they’ll see the real me and reject me.” Or they may be about everyone else: “If I love someone, they’ll leave.” “If I trust someone, they’ll betray me.” You might truly believe, “You can’t trust anyone; you can only rely on yourself.”
I won’t lie: changing these beliefs and rebuilding trust is hard. When you’re first starting to rebuild trust in humanity, it may feel like an intellectual exercise. You know in your head that most people can be trusted, but you don’t feel it in your heart. To make the move from head to heart, in many cases, takes a leap of faith.
It’s like that cheesy team-building exercise, the trust fall, where you fall backwards, blindly, and trust your teammates will catch you. You aren’t guaranteed you won’t end up on the floor—it takes a leap of faith to lean back and let yourself go.
How do you set yourself up to take a real-life leap of faith? How can you trust again, deep in your bones? Start by trying these 7 things.
#1: Stay in one place.
Moving around the country or the world is a socially acceptable way to sever ties and never get too close to anyone. But if you’re committed to rebuilding your sense of trust, set down an anchor. This will feel wrong at first. You will feel the need for a geographic do-over, but try to settle in. Once you put down some roots, you can branch out by getting to know—and trust—the people around you.
#2: Ground yourself in a routine.
Once you’re in one place, get into a rhythm. The same yoga class, the same people at the dog park, a 12-step home group. Why? It’s not to get you in a rut. It’s a proxy: Inherent in a routine is seeing the same people. Repetition—seeing the same faces again and again—is the next step to building trust.
#3: Give a little, and see what you get.
Once you’re seeing the same faces, next comes testing the waters and seeing what you get. Reveal a little bit about yourself—it doesn’t have to be deep or dark—and see what happens. Usually, you’ll get a tidbit in return.
Or ask for a little and see what you get. Make yourself the teeniest bit vulnerable: ask a neighbor for a favor, a friend for advice, or even a stranger to please help you reach that can of tomatoes on the top shelf at the supermarket.
Having a need and getting it met adds a drop to the bucket of trust. It may not seem like much, but drop by drop, you discover that most people mean well and will help you when you need it. Trauma experts call this “re-engagement with communal life,” but you can call it taking that first leap of faith in trusting again.
#4: Make plans for the future.
Experiencing trauma doesn’t just shake your trust in people, it also shakes your trust in the future. Trauma plays a trick on the brain: it creates hopelessness—a sense that your future will be devoid of meaning or happiness—which in turn feels like there is no future at all. You might assume you’ll die young, or you might be unable to picture ever finding a relationship, building a career, or having children. Trauma experts call this a sense of a foreshortened future . It’s particularly common when terrible events are deliberately inflicted by other humans, like bullying, stalking, or abuse.
Therefore, as you build your trust in people, also try to build your trust in a meaningful future. Make plans for weeks, months, years, and decades from now. Save for retirement. Make a bucket list. Set a goal to go back to school. Go through the motions of planning a future, even if it doesn’t feel quite right just yet. Why? Putting behavior before a feeling is the way to make the feeling catch up.
#5: Trust an animal.
In a study from the Journal of Research in Personality , researchers asked 165 pet owners to generate a list of life goals and rate how confident they felt in achieving those goals. One-third of the pet owners had their pets with them during the task, another third were asked to write a brief description of their relationship with their pet in order to bring it to mind before the task, and the last third did the task while their pet was in another room.
The study found that the pet owners who had their pets with them or brought their pets to mind generated significantly more life goals and had significantly higher confidence in achieving them. The researchers concluded what millions of pet owners know—an animal can provide a safe haven and a secure base from which to engage with the world, which sounds remarkably like… trust.
#6: Stop painting red flags green.
Many people who grapple with trust also lament that their friend-picker or partner-picker is broken—they end up aligning themselves with people who betray their trust, and the cycle continues.
But along the way, we learn to see red flags in potential friends and partners: from small things like self-centeredness or an inability to apologize to big things like violence or emotional abuse. The trick is to stop rationalizing or allowing the red flags and thereby “painting them green.”
It’s a long journey, but one litmus test is to turn the tables. What would you tell a friend who was experiencing the same behavior? It’s easier to be objective when it’s not you. Therefore, spotting double standards—behavior that a friend shouldn’t accept, but that you somehow deserve—is a sign to get out the paint solvent.
#7: Grow the belief that you deserve to be around trustworthy people.
Mistrust often comes as a package deal. In addition to believing bad things about the world: “No one can be trusted,” “The world is a dangerous place,” people who can’t trust often believe bad things about themselves: “I am broken,” “I deserve the bad things that happen to me.”
So in order to grow trust in others, grow the belief that you are worthy of having your trust honored. Challenge the belief that you’re a bad person who deserves to be betrayed or hurt.
How? It’s really hard to change your mind without evidence or experience, so change your behavior first and your mind will follow. It’s the old “fake it till you make it,” and, slowly, it works.
Ask yourself, “What would someone who believed that they were a good person do?” “What would someone who deserved good things in life do?” Then do those things. And like I’ve said before, when you see yourself doing it, you start to believe you can.
When you start to align yourself with trustworthy people and you see yourself acting like someone who trusts that the world is mostly good and people are mostly trustworthy, you start to believe it. And that is a crucial leap of faith in learning to trust again.