I was preparing some dishes for Thanksgiving Day here in the US, and was busy crumbling goat cheese for a layered Portobello mushroom casserole. I should have been paying more attention to what I was doing, but my mind was drifting all over the place. Needless to say my little Scottish Terrier was happy when a fair amount of cheese found its way to the kitchen floor because of my distraction. I was thinking, instead, of the crumbling of trust and not of cheese. It can take real work to build trust in our relationships, and even much more intensive labor when it has broken down in some way.
Being a constant repository of the confidences and problems of someone we love and worry over can take a toll. It wears people down. We get worn down even when we very much want to be there for those we care about. When someone close to us is in crisis, the stress that we feel from being continuously bombarded with facts and emotions that are heavy and filled with pain, can drag us down to the point that our own mental and physical well-being becomes compromised.
In such cases, we must sometimes consider our self-preservation, even when we do not want to break confidences. We must weigh the cost of guarding the secrets that were shared, with the potential for relief and release, at least temporarily, through being able to vent and confide some of the troubles to a person, or to a few people in our lives whom we deem trustworthy and willing to listen. If we don’t let a little of what is happening out, much like venting steam, we run the risk of exploding from the pressure and the toxic build-up. I have, frankly, never been a proponent of keeping everything in. When we share some very private and painful things with our loyal friends, we do indeed experience some relief from our grief and stress. It might be ephemeral in nature, but it is relief that we badly need at the moment we decide to do the sharing. We then do not feel so alone in our troubles and pain. Sometimes seeing a professional can serve the same purpose, but not everyone is able to do this, or, it may be that in a time-limited session, when an individual has multiple stressors in life, there isn’t enough opportunity to explore everything. There are also some circumstances in which a trustworthy friend feels safer and more comfortable when there are personal or family secrets that have been piling up, and especially if there has not yet been a chance to build a level of trust with a therapist or counselor.
I have heard from coaching clients of their guilt when they ended up spilling some personal and private information about a loved one, because they were not able to handle the burden of keeping it all in any longer. This guilt tends to compound the problem, and does not bring anyone closer to finding ways to rebuild the trust that can be damaged or lost if the betrayal of confidences is somehow found out. The reality is, that at times of intense stress, we may not always have the ability to filter what we are sharing, even when we think we do. The information we impart may be accurate, or it may be filled with our own exaggerated emotional responses that color the realities of the tale. Our perceptions of the circumstances and events we are confiding could well be reactions in the moment that do not represent how we really feel about the situation, or the people involved. The venting may be the result of pent-up anger, of grief, frustration and the helplessness that we may feel about our loved one’s circumstances. It may be the result of complicated and ambivalent feelings that are dangerously swirling around within us. That is why it is important to reflect on such things before we do our venting.
Again, I am not a proponent of holding things in. Cumulative stress can not only eat away at us, but can definitely cloud our judgment and can even distort our perceptions. In my experience, holding in too much makes people sick and miserable, but in today’s world, when communications can happen in an instant, due to e-mail and other technology, and then can’t be undone, we must be careful and thoughtful before we choose to reveal certain things.
It happened then, that I shared some serious information concerning a loved one with a couple of people I trusted, who did not know, and who would be unlikely to ever encounter the person or people around whom the information centered. At the time, I felt I was disclosing things only to those who would pose no threat to me, or to anyone I love. I didn’t divulge any of the back story, or all details, but did sometimes vent some explosive and angry things I was feeling at the time of the communications.
What occurred was that I hurt and perhaps even alienated at least one very important person in my life. In turn, when this person learned that I had confided in others, the individual also breeched my trust by doing something I considered a grave invasion of my privacy, and then compounded the hurt and negativity, by sharing information with others, rather than coming to me and engaging in an open and honest conversation.
I have always thought of myself as a trustworthy person. I am absolutely certain that clients who have worked with me in the adoption field, as well as all of my coaching clients, would describe me as someone they can trust and rely on. They have frequently told me this, as well as having written it in testimonials over the years. They often bare their souls to me and entrust their most intimate secrets to me. They say that I am easy to talk to and they generally value my insights and my ability to hold and protect the information they have shared. For much of my life I have worked in fields where confidentiality is taken very seriously and I have prided myself on my ability to respect it. Still, when it comes to people very close to us, we sometimes forget to apply our strong values and professional practices to our personal lives.
Unfortunately, my own view (and experience) that it is unhealthy to live a life of complete secrecy, to pretend that everything is fine when it really isn’t and to push down feelings, differs from the views of some people I know. These people appear to believe that when you speak about certain things, problems grow bigger and worse than ever, and that it is perhaps even dangerous to speak of them. This is clearly a different world-view than my own. I believe I am open to diverse views and belief systems, but must confess that to me, a belief that speaking about things causes other bad things to happen, or causes the Universe to line up its ammunition and to fire away at us in retaliation, feels more to me like magical thinking than like anything else.
My main point is that human beings are just that. They are human and flawed, and they can and do sometimes betray another’s trust when they are stressed beyond belief, and it has been ongoing, or when they are going through a period of weakness. They may, at that point, exhibit poor judgment, may see the facts differently than they are, and may make bad choices. It hurts the perpetrator and the victim when we betray the trust of those who are important to us. It can sometimes take only one poor decision to destroy trust we have worked for years to establish.
So what do we do about it? Trust is a two-way street. How do we begin to rebuild it? I think we first need to define with our loved ones, exactly what each sees as trust and to make our own needs and personal boundaries clear. Trusting is not a finite thing that happens and then we can simply forget about it. It is a process. As relationships grow and change, (and they do) we need to take the time to talk about our expectations and to re-define terms and rules that may have changed along with us. When we love people unconditionally, we must allow for times when they fall short of what we consider ideal. If we don’t talk about this, we won’t grow and learn what to do differently and better the next time around. That is what growth is about. We can learn to view a breakdown of trust as an opportunity to strengthen a relationship that had some weak spots, even when the parties involved loved each other greatly. If we communicate and have some patience, we can once again construct loving and trusting bonds.
Having realistic trust in our lives and relationships means developing a willingness to forgive others for their imperfections. People do let us down at times. That is, sadly, part of life. The thing is, we can’t travel very far on the road to forgiving others if we do not have much ability to forgive ourselves. To me, that is the first step. The next is for us to make amends in whatever way we are able. We don’t just make empty pledges to make ourselves feel better. We also don’t want to establish a habit of not trusting anyone due to a bad experience. It may be necessary to create a conscious agreement with ourselves about how much and under what circumstances we will allow ourselves to feel secure about a person we believe violated our sacred trust. Then, with regular and completely honest communication, we can work on growing our trust, by degrees.
I would never suggest that we permit ourselves to become doormats and to forgive someone who has repeatedly violated our confidentiality and trust. If the trust-breaker is important to you, then think about the relationship not only from the narrow perspective of how this person failed you, but of how many times he or she has been there for you and has demonstrated love and support in the past. That doesn’t imply that the negative thing that happened was good. It tells us not to forget the loving and meaningful ways this person has been a part of your life. It tells us to please not “throw out the baby with the bathwater”.
Quotes I like about the topics of trust and forgiveness:
“Deciding whether or not to trust a person is like deciding whether or not to climb a tree because you might get a wonderful view from the highest branch or you might simply get covered in sap and for this reason many people choose to spend their time alone and indoors where it is harder to get a splinter.”
― Lemony Snicket, The Penultimate Peril
“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”
― Ernest Hemingway
“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”
― Mahatma Gandhi, All Men are Brothers: Autobiographical Reflections