Trust is a basic foundation of human life and relationships. And unwanted or abusive childhood experiences are violations of trust.
We all grow up having no choice but to trust in others. As infants and young children we are totally dependent on others to meet our most basic needs.
Getting the attention and care they need gives babies and young children a sense of trust in the world – and in themselves. It provides predictability and safety in one’s most important relationships, which are the bedrock of feeling safe, secure, and confident in life.
Violations of trust are betrayals that have lasting effects
Abuse and exploitation happen to children who are dependent on adults to care for them and protect them from harm.
Children depend on adults because they’re learning everything about life – how to physically do things (like swim, or throw and catch), how to think things through, and how to respond emotionally to situations in helpful ways.
For these reasons, children cannot help but trust in others – especially parents and people in roles of authority – to care for them and to look out for their best interests.
Their dependency and need to trust also makes children vulnerable to manipulation, exploitation and abuse by adults, teenagers and other children.
Betrayal of Trust and Its Consequences
When children are subjected to unwanted or abusive sexual, physical or emotional experiences by adults or older children, they experience betrayal, the violation and destruction of trust.
This is also true when adults fail to play protective roles toward children, or otherwise fail to meet a child’s needs. Those are betrayals of trust too.
Trust can be undermined even more if a child tries to speak up but is not listened to, or not believed.
And so, after such experiences, difficulty trusting others may go very deep.
Children learn that important people in their lives cannot be trusted to have their best interests at heart. They may be told, “You want this,” or “This is the way to show love,” or “You don’t deserve to be treated any better than this.”
Such messages deeply harm the ability to trust. It may feel impossible to trust others enough to let down your guard.
And then there’s the flip side: wanting so badly to find someone worthy of trust that you are easily fooled by untrustworthy people, and end up being betrayed over and over again.
You can learn who to trust, when and how, including yourself.
In this way children who have been abused, exploited or otherwise harmed by trusted adults can find themselves cycling back and forth between having no trust and being too trusting. This pattern can continue into adulthood, with each new betrayal feeding into the cycle.
Difficulties Trusting Oneself
Tragically, experiences of betrayal and abuse can also make it difficult to trust oneself.
If you were young when it happened, you may not have understood what was happening and may have believed it was your fault. This can be especially true for unwanted or abusive sexual experiences, but children tend to blame themselves for any harmful things that adults, especially their parents, have done to them.
Or maybe a sexual experience happened with someone who pretended it was something you wanted, who said it was something good, who said one thing while doing another, or otherwise undermined your ability to trust your own perceptions and instincts.
Finally, some children respond to unwanted or abusive experiences by ‘spacing out’ or disconnecting from what is happening (aka dissociating). Cutting off from your body and feelings like this can begin to happen automatically, with all intense experiences – even good ones, like doing fun things with friends or being sexual with someone you love.
This can leave you feeling disconnect from yourself, or from reality, which then undermines your trust in your own experiences and memories. It can affect your understanding of the past and what it means now. In short, it can cause you to distrust yourself.
Learning to Trust
If you’re struggling with trust in these ways, you are not alone.
Major goals of healing are learning how to trust yourself, and how to find people who are worthy of your trust.
Figuring out who can be trusted – in which roles, with which kinds of information, under which conditions – can be a big focus of learning.
And it can be liberating: You can avoid the extremes of telling others almost nothing about yourself or saying too much. You can know when it’s safe to tell more to a close friend or partner. If you’re in therapy, you can finally get to talk safely about things that you really need help with but have feared would provoke rejection and betrayal.
Getting better at choosing who to trust, and when – and getting positive responses and support from those who really matter to you – will rebuild your sense of trust, not only in other people and the world in general, but in yourself too.