Pillars of Mental Health: Trust

One of the infuriating things about cracking open most authorised textbooks on psychology is that they are preoccupied with defining abnormal psychology: narcissism, sociopathy, depression, anxiety, borderline, bi-polar, dissociative personality disorder, and so on. An endless litany of things that could be wrong with someone. Curiously they don’t often, if ever, make positive claims as to what mental health is. What is a mentally healthy person? How does a mentally healthy person behave? The reasons for this are fun to speculate: maybe they don’t know, or maybe the mental health profession is full of narcissistic, autistic, and other abnormal people and so they can’t describe mental health themselves, or maybe human nature is so varied there isn’t truly a healthy condition, just lots of shades of mental grey?

So, I’m going to make sure to write about the few things which I’m confident fall in the category of mentally healthy processes and behaviours. Today, I want to write about trust, and hopefully illustrate why being able to trust is an essential component of overall mental health.

Trust is a complex subject because it isn’t only a philosophical concept, it is actually also a feeling mediated by the neurotransmitter oxytocin. Because of this trust is not a simple concept to nail down, but for this article let’s keep it simple: trustworthiness is the quality of a person/animal/thing to display consistently beneficial behaviours, and therefore “to trust” refers the capacity to bond with a trustworthy person/animal/thing. Johnathon is trustworthy when it comes to turning up to work on time, being non-violent, and moderating his alcohol consumption, but don’t leave money lying about in view because Johnathon is notorious for pinching every unattended penny he lays eyes on. Mary is trustworthy when it comes to money, but is almost never at work on time, and should not be trusted when drinking with young men. Johnathon trusts Mary with his wallet and is not disappointed, but when Mary trusts Johnathon with her purse, she’s a few dollars less wealthy than before.

Observe that trustworthy behaviour is linked to moral behaviour, at having a virtuous characteristic of some kind and so it wouldn’t make sense to say, “I trust Isabelle to hit me every time I spill a drink in the kitchen,” but it would make sense to say, “I trust Isabelle to be patient and understanding with me when I spill a drink in the kitchen.”

Trust can also apply to things, if I am climbing a tree and there is a branch that I am unfamiliar with, I might question whether it could carry my weight. At first I will put one foot on the branch tentatively because I don’t trust the branch to carry my weight yet, so I test it with a little bit of my weight and see how it responds. If the branch bends and creaks under some of my weight, I decide that the branch is too weak to support me and so I withdraw my leg and look for a stronger branch to step on. However, if the branch stays firm under my partial weight I will start to trust this branch, eventually I might place my entire body weight on that branch and conclude that it is a strong branch, able to support me, and so it is trustworthy. However, if that same branch does carry my weight, but it is also so smooth that after awhile I slip and almost fall out of the tree, then I’m left feeling fearful/anxious about that branch.

Therefore we can conclude that trust is about reliability and acting in a beneficial way to our needs.

Although it might take an entire book to fully explore the meaning of trust, from this limited definition one can logically deduce that it is healthy for a person to orientate themselves towards trustworthy people/things, and to avoid untrustworthy people/things. We can also deduce that it is healthy for people to act towards other people in a trustworthy manner to maximise their chances of maintaining these trusting relationships with other trustworthy people.

So if you find someone who trusts people who are untrustworthy, and acts towards trustworthy people in an untrustworthy manner, then you have found someone who is mentally diseased because this behaviour is self-destructive. Such people will form bonds with people who are abusive and draining of their time and resources, and they will push away people who would be helpful and protective of them. They won’t be able to make stable long term relationships, and their relationships will be filled with drama and stress.

I can illustrate this point with an example of a person I used to know who was just like this. Let’s call her Eloise. Eloise’s background was one of rather serious physical and mental abuse at the hands of her father, and enabled by her mother’s passivity to her torment. She had a long history of dating, indeed marrying, men who were untrustworthy: they were pathological liars, cheaters, violent, lazy, and unreliable. When we started dating, I asked her all about her past, and we talked about it at length, I was naïve in thinking at the time that if I was just understanding about it, then it wouldn’t turn into a big problem for us.

However, Eloise’s problem wasn’t limited to simply being attracted to untrustworthy people, a problem caused by her parents. Her problem was also in that she herself duplicated this untrustworthy behaviour towards other people. It wasn’t clear to her that she was even doing this. She would talk about her core values being: loyalty, commitment, devotion to others, kindness, and being supporting. However, if one looked carefully over her past relationships she had in fact cheated on, abandoned, undermined, lied to, and sabotaged each and every person she had married, dated, or worked closely with. How could this be? How could a rational intelligent person aware of their own past of abuse, with the above stated core values in favour of being trustworthy be so hypocritical? What was going on here?

I had actually noticed the root problem early on, but it wasn’t until much later after the relationship was over that I understood how deep that root ran. I first noticed it when early on in our relationship she called me up crying accusing me of being out to get her, to undermine her, to manipulate, and control her. This took me completely by surprise at the time, although I recognised at the time it was the mark of a disturbed mind I didn’t appreciate just how serious this red flag was. I hadn’t done anything at all to her that had warranted such accusations, especially her accusation that I hated her. My dealings with Eloise had been completely honourable and considerate. Yet, she made such serious accusations against me, as though I was as untrustworthy as her abusive father.

Months later, our relationship had developed and deepened in intimacy, however, we were destined for break up and the fatal flaw in our relationship was visible in one simple little question that I would often ask her, “So, what are you up to today?” which for a healthy minded person is a completely innocent question. It is a question many people ask their romantic partners and it is simply about good communication. If for instance I knew that my girlfriend was going to the shops that day, I could offer to swing by the shopping centre on my way to hers and pick up the items she wanted, in fact I often did this. However, on the days she refused to answer this question we often ended up both going to the shops when it was unnecessary and wasting our time. In this way, good communication, openness, and the sharing of feelings and thoughts is healthy because it increases the efficiency and pleasure of the relationship. Being well informed about each other’s activities during the day allowed us to both make better use of our days and find ways to communicate our love for each other and thus deepening our bond to each other.

However, she didn’t like answering that question. Rather, she hated it when I asked that question, and other questions about what she was thinking, feeling, and doing. I asked her about this, and she explained that all her previous boyfriends had used information she shared with them about her day to keep track of her, to stalk her, and to guilt trip her if she didn’t do exactly as she had said she would. I foolishly accepted this answer, and gradually stopped trying to encourage her to communicate better. My mistake was in failing to realise that our relationship was effectively doomed without good communication, and that I was actually unwittingly confirming a basic assumption she had made about me that was poisoning our relationship.

My girlfriend had made the assumption at the beginning of the relationship, indeed it was probably her default position for all adult relationships with men; she had assumed that I was a bad person, let’s say she thought that I was a narcissist. Now, it didn’t matter that I wasn’t really a narcissist, because thanks to confirmation bias she wasn’t looking for proof that I wasn’t a narcissist, but in stead Eloise was looking for proof that I was a narcissist. Every single imperfection in my behaviour and treatment of her was not interpreted as coming from a basically good person who occasionally slipped up, but as a thoroughly wicked person who pretends to be good much of the time. Hence why she didn’t feel comfortable answering the question “What are you up to today?” It didn’t matter than I hadn’t guilt tripped her, that I hadn’t stalked her, that I hadn’t tried to control her, in her mind I would definitely do those things if she shared information with me about her activities. In legal terms, I started the relationship under the assumption of guilt, and she put all the responsibility on me to prove myself innocent beyond any doubt.

It was wrong of her to put that burden on me, and she was punishing me for the crimes of other men. Likewise, she treated untrustworthy men better than me, treating them with reverence and respect they certainly didn’t deserve. Perhaps because she feared them more or perhaps because she saw them as being more “honest” because they were being overtly untrustworthy, but I was less honest in her eyes because she perceived me to be clever enough to fake trustworthiness. In her world there could be no such thing as a truly trustworthy person. This is the default position with radical feminists, putting unrealistic/unfair expectations on all men because one or some men hurt them in the past.

Over time, I grew more frustrated with Eloise’s secrecy, especially when it started impacting on our plans together and I couldn’t make intelligent decisions about when or if to move our relationship forward. I would tell her I was angry, I even raised my voice a few times, and I would push her to be more forthcoming with information. These predicable responses to being stonewalled by a partner were interpreted by her as proof that I was indeed an abuser trying to control her. At that point the relationship was done for and she spent the rest of our time together trying to gaslight me, blame me, undermine me, and convince me that I was a wicked cruel person, and that she was an innocent victim. It was a power struggle, and she needed me to back down and admit that I was at fault and she was innocent. She did all this even though she had repeated the pattern she had had with all her previous relations on me: she cheated on me, lied to me, and was completely ungrateful for all the help I had given her in her career, and personal development. In her paranoid untrustworthy mind, all my acts of kindness were never coming from a warm, loving, generous place in my heart, but from a cold calculating place of subtle and cruel manipulation. It wouldn’t surprise me if she spends the rest of her life telling herself that all the good times we spent together were all an elaborate hoax. It would be futile trying to point out to her that she’s a victim of her own confirmation bias, because of her past trauma this is “her truth” even though it wasn’t the objective truth.

Sadly, it wouldn’t surprise me if she keeps making terrible life decisions, sabotaging friendships, dating genuinely untrustworthy people, and ends up a lonely, bitter, miserable nervous wreck. Having an inability to identify trustworthy people and to act towards others in a untrustworthy manner is pathological because partnership and co-operation is the basis of human survival, and self-trust is closely related to being able to trust others. Eloise couldn’t trust own her judgment anymore than she could trust me in the end.

Trust is essential for developing non-power based relationships, that is to say, co-operative relationships where each partner seeks win-win outcomes for as many of their interactions with others as possible. Since co-operation is the most efficient relationship model, with the least amount of conflict and instability, it is superior to the unhealthy power based relationship where one or both partners are constantly engaged in trying to subvert, dominate, or manipulate the other partner. Relationships built on trust produce healthier, happier children, and healthier and happier adults. Trusting your partner and being able to trust yourself will result in a calmer mental state where one can not only feel happier but accomplish much more than would otherwise be possible. Learning how to trust, and whom to trust, is a key pillar for good mental health.

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