You gain trust by proving that you’re worthy of it.”
— Frank Sonnenberg

Do you want the good news or the bad news?  Trust is something we so frequently talk about, something so vital to the health of our relationships. And yet, something we may not fully understand.  The good news, trust is not some ambiguous force – we are able to understand it and we are able in some sense to control whether or not we give it.  The bad news, trust is not some ambiguous force – we are able to understand it and we are able, in some sense, to control whether or not we earn it.  I believe that trust grows through a cycle of actions that requires participation and responsibility on both members of a relationship; whether it is a friendship, work relationship, or romantic pursuit, the principles remain the same.  There are many components and potential outcomes to this cycle but let’s look at it like a chain of events.

The first link of the chain is my willingness to share what I am experiencing (i.e., my thoughts and feelings) with the other person in the relationship.  The more I share, the more I can be understood and the more control I have in the situation.  Without my willingness to open up, I do not provide an opportunity for the other person to understand my experience, therefore, forfeiting my right to be upset when nothing changes.  

The second link of the chain is my receptiveness to when someone shares what they are experiencing.  When someone takes the risk of being vulnerable and allows me into their inner experience, it is a sacred space. It’s not something to take lightly, and yet, so many times we choose to react out of our own feelings and thoughts. I have a responsibility to those with whom I am in a relationship to provide enough space for them to share with me. To do that, I must be receptive to what they are sharing.  So, how do we do that? Well, it starts with me setting aside my own agenda and being in a place where I am ready to listen to what they are experiencing.  Here’s the key: it does not matter whether or not I agree with what they are saying, and it does not matter whether or not I believe they have all the facts right.  What matters is that I care enough about them to try to understand what they are feeling and thinking.  It requires humility to listen, especially when someone is telling you that you have personally hurt them or when they believe you have done something wrong.  It can take everything in us to remain in a place of understanding and stay away from defensiveness (i.e., passing the blame or denying your responsibility) or stonewalling (i.e., disengaging from the conversation physically, mentally, or emotionally); when we can do this, we continue the chain that is required in order for trust to grow.

The third link is very much a result of the second: consistency between your word and actions.  We prove that we are trustworthy when our words and our actions align consistently over time.  This pattern allows the person I am in relationship with to say, “you are who I think you are.” When I say that I want to be trusted, connected, understanding, loving, etc., I must back that with my actions.  We have all heard the saying, “your actions speak louder than words:” there is much truth there.  When someone takes the risk of being vulnerable with me and I listen receptively, I show that I mean what I say.  When I choose to react out of my own hurt feelings, when I nitpick the facts of the situation, or when I refuse to listen in any other form, I show my true character and intentions.  Your actions will always say more than your words and when it comes to trust, showing that you are who you say you are by the way you choose to listen will go a long way.  

Which brings us back to the first chain, being willing to open up and share my experience with another.  The more receptive someone is when I choose to share; the more likely I will be to share again in the future.  The opposite is also true.  Being vulnerable by sharing and having someone disengage or become defensive is like reaching out to touch a hot stove.  I am not likely to reach out again once I’ve been burnt.  Choosing to be vulnerable is incredibly challenging even in the best circumstances.  When we throw on the additional complexities of trust that has been betrayed, we are in for a wild and seemingly unpredictable ride that most of us do not want to get on.

Despite how frequently I teach about vulnerability and its importance, it never gets easier for me to be personally vulnerable.  I can value it and understand its impact, but my understanding does not remove the risk of sharing my internal world with someone else.  Staying silent is safer. I tell myself, “If I do not share, I cannot be disappointed or rejected.” But this is so far from the truth.  Regardless of whether I share, I cannot control the actions of others.  I cannot control whether someone believes me, trusts me, likes me, etc.  I cannot control the outcome of a situation.  But, logically, I would much rather take control of what I can in a situation and give myself the best opportunity possible to be heard and understood and I do this by sharing.  After all, I want an intimate relationship.  I want to be connected and accepted.  I want to be understood.  Don’t we all?

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When I decide not to share due to my lack of trust, it is self-defeating to a healthy relationship.  Let me be clear, there are certain situations in which you trust an individual and they break your trust and you decide to no longer share vulnerably with that individual, thereby distancing yourself and setting appropriate boundaries.  This is sometimes critical for our safety, for our health, and/or for our wellbeing.  But, when our desire is to connect and build intimacy and trust, not sharing out of a fear of being hurt again is self-defeating.  If I want to rebuild trust with someone after it has been shattered, I must provide opportunities for that individual to prove they are trustworthy.  I must give opportunities for them to prove they are who they say they are.  I must give them opportunities to see me and be receptive.  Without those opportunities, that individual has very little to no chance of regaining my trust.  Even after a deep betrayal, if I have hope of restoring the relationship, I must be willing to put myself out there again.  On the other side, after I have betrayed someone’s trust, when they choose to open up to me again, I have to be aware that they probably feel like they are out on a limb hanging over a cliff just waiting for it to break.  We have to be aware that each of us is trying our best and we aren’t going to do this perfectly. We also both need to be aware of the truth of this cycle and how it works and we need to be patient with each other in the process.

Trust is hard.  Trust takes time.  Trust takes a lot of work to establish and even more so to reestablish.  And, despite all of these things, trust is necessary and absolutely beautiful.