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When a child experiences abuse, betrayal, or dishonesty at the...
When a child experiences abuse, betrayal, or dishonesty at the hands of a caregiver or loved one, it can trigger a knock-on effect and impact future relationships. While some people are simply more prone to fretting than others, past experiences usually underpin pathological trust issues.
Being cautious and wondering whether to trust a stranger can be adaptive and is part of setting healthy boundaries with new people. However, if maintaining trust is challenging in intimate relationships, with friends, and in other relationships, even if there’s no reason to doubt them, there may be an underlying mental health condition at play.
Trusting is the act of believing in the integrity of another person, and it’s the glue that connects people in healthy partnerships and family units. Feeling comfortable being vulnerable around loved ones, being confident about meeting each other’s needs, and being careful not to harm one another are essential for strong, stable social ties. As such, it’s possible to describe someone with trust issues as lacking belief in people’s integrity and having difficulty feeling safe around others.
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Trust appears to be—at least in part—a heritable trait, while mistrust seems to be a learned behavioral response to influences relating to upbringing and environment.(1) Research in social psychology points to attachment style as having a strong influence on how trusting people are. For instance, people with an anxious attachment style seem to show less trust and more cognitive and behavioral jealousy in romantic relationships.(2)
An infant’s relationship with their primary caregivers shapes their attachment style, and scientists have found a strong link between insecure attachment and absent, inconsistent, or abusive parenting. Children who have adverse childhood experiences are more vulnerable to developing social and emotional issues because they’re forced to adapt to not having their needs met.(3) They might struggle to keep friends and feel uncomfortable with affection and intimacy into adulthood because they’ve learned through repetition that they can’t trust other people.
However, it isn’t just during childhood that people have the potential to develop trust issues. If an adult is repeatedly hurt, let down, lied to, or cheated on by romantic partners, family, or friends, they may experience ongoing difficulty trusting in close relationships.
Seeking support from a mental health professional and developing an uplifting support network can help someone overcome trust issues and learn how to enjoy secure attachments.
Types of Trust Issues
Interpersonal trust issues can manifest in any relationship, from romantic partners to work colleagues. Some people might have a hard time trusting in every type of close relationship, while others only have trouble in one area. To address trust issues, it’s important to know how they can present in a variety of contexts.
What Are Signs of Trust Issues in Romantic Relationships?
Toxic or otherwise unhealthy romantic relationships can have a devastating impact on future partnerships. People who had difficult childhoods or abusive exes are especially prone to develop anxiety around scenarios that remind them of those past experiences or relationships. Without treatment, these issues are likely to remain unresolved and potentially become increasingly detrimental to the sufferer’s life.
Signs of trust issues in relationships include:
Checking social media or spying: Trust is crucial for a healthy relationship, and snooping around in a partner’s apps or emails or obsessively checking their social media profiles are indicative of a problem.
Hypersensitivity: Hypersensitivity can manifest in a number of ways. Someone with trust issues might pick fights over petty things because they constantly feel threatened or insecure, get excessively jealous over small things, or erroneously think their lover has ulterior motives.
Avoiding commitment: Sometimes lack of trust in a partner shows up in someone quietly. They may find it hard to be vulnerable enough to open up and avoid talking about their feelings, rather than openly showing signs of mistrust.
What Are Signs of Trust Issues in Personal Relationships and Friendships?
Some individuals are trusting with romantic partners but have difficulty when it comes to building trust with friends and acquaintances. Even though they feel lonely, they might avoid getting close to people for fear of getting hurt, rejected, or abandoned.
Signs of trust issues in friendships include:
Over-focusing on the negative: Everyone has faults and weaknesses, but they also have unique strengths and talents. Someone who has difficulty trusting may be too quick to judge harshly and further alienate others as a result.
Not having friendships: Trust may become such an issue that a person avoids having close friendships altogether. Instead of seeking trustworthy people to befriend, they may have an underlying assumption that everyone will let them down.
Lack of confidence and people pleasing: In some cases, individuals express mistrust by not speaking up for themselves or going over and above by people pleasing. This could be due to a lack of trust that other people will accept them if they set firm boundaries and stick to them.
What Are Signs of Trust Issues Among Family Members?
Parents who experienced partner abuse or mistreatment during childhood and haven’t received mental health treatment are at risk of imposing their lack of trust onto their children or other family members. This may be through the use of:
Secret tracking apps: Using technology to keep track of a loved one without their knowledge is a breach of privacy and can indicate serious issues with trust.
Controlling behavior: Being intimidating, insulting, aggressive, or using other types of controlling behavior, such as dictating who they can be friends with or when they can go out is unacceptable.
Always being suspicious: It’s normal to feel suspicious when a family member has given good reason, but constant suspicion without motive is a surefire sign of trust issues.
What Are Signs of Trust Issues Among Coworkers?
If someone doesn’t have confidence in other people’s honest intentions, they may not even trust people at work. They could have:
Difficulty delegating: A leader might not delegate effectively because they don’t trust employees to work to their standards.
Self-sabotaging: Someone with severe trust issues might miss or blow opportunities because they lack trust in other people and get irrationally suspicious of their intentions.
Catastrophic thinking: Lack of trust can lead to someone blowing their problems out of proportion, believing situations are worse than they are, and acting in unhelpful ways based on their fears.
Do I Have Trust Issues in Close Relationships?
One way scientists explain trust is as a sense of comfort in the presence of another person, while a lack of trust feels like a sense of unease.(4) Someone in a healthy relationship who trusts their partner feels like they benefit overall from the relationship, and this diminishes their self-protective instincts. On the other hand, a person with trust issues feels like the relationship is more detrimental than helpful, which triggers self-protective measures, such as avoidance and suspicion.
Can Mental Health Disorders Lead to Trust Issues?
Yes, they can. Mental health conditions that have trust issues as prominent symptoms include:
Attachment disorders: In a systematic review of 12 studies, 11 supported the hypothesis that people with an anxious, insecure attachment style have a diminished ability to trust others.(5)
Anxiety disorders: Trust issues are a psychological symptom of anxiety.(6)
Borderline personality disorder (BPD): People with BPD face profound challenges around relationship maintenance and social interaction due to intense fears about rejection and abandonment that make it difficult to trust others.(7)
Paranoid personality disorder (PPD): Non-delusional paranoia characterizes PPD and has a close relationship to intense mistrust.(8)
Can Childhood Trauma Lead to Trust Issues?
In most cases, it’s possible to trace serious trust issues back to a lack of safety and/or consistency in the childhood home. Parents who harm their children through physical or emotional abuse or are unable to offer sufficient love and affection leave their children vulnerable to trust issues in later life. When someone couldn’t trust their abusive or neglectful parents to meet their needs, there’s a good chance they’ll intuitively find it hard to believe in others in the future. However, a counselor or psychotherapist can help people work through these issues and rebuild trust.(9)
Can Low Self-Esteem Lead to Trust Issues?
Trust and self-esteem underpin strong social bonds. Without them, there’s potential for suspicion and self-preservation to cause conflict. Trust facilitates vulnerability in relationships, which is essential for people to relate to each other. Someone who trusts themselves is more likely to trust their judgment in others and decide who to trust accordingly, so building self-esteem is a core element of treatment for trust issues.
Can Therapy Help With Trust Issues?
Talk therapy is one of the best ways to tackle trust issues for many people. A therapist helps patients identify the sources of mistrust and learn to mindfully notice when they’re irrationally acting out of mistrust. Once aware, they can start finding ways to put space between feeling suspicious and acting on that feeling.
Because of the detrimental impact lack of trust has on personal relationships, it’s important to address it head-on. Not feeling trusted can be painful and frustrating for the loved ones of someone with trust issues, as they may be exposed to accusations and suspicious behavior on a regular basis without cause.
Common Therapies Used to Treat Trust Issues
Below is an outline of some common therapy modalities used to treat trust issues.
There’s an unfortunate paradox for people with trust issues when it comes to seeking mental health treatment. Feeling suspicious of others can lead to isolation and social anxiety and make the idea of visiting a therapist seem futile. Someone who has an underlying belief that others are fundamentally untrustworthy is likely to extend that belief to the therapeutic process and is at risk of dropping out.
Online therapy can be a great way for people with trust issues to safely seek help. Individuals with anxiety and trust issues might struggle to keep up with appointments or fear leaving the house, and remote counseling is a lifeline in these instances. It allows patients to relax and feel comfortable in their own space while accessing the help they need.
In-Person Talk Therapy With a Mental Health Professional
Individual therapy is a cornerstone of treatment for trust issues and related mental health conditions. Working one-on-one with a therapist can help patients build trust as they work through the underlying thoughts, beliefs, and experiences that led to them feeling unsafe around loved ones.
Group therapy is an excellent treatment method and works well alongside individual therapy by offering a range of different perspectives and exposing people with trust issues to sharing their feelings with a group. Opening up and talking can help patients build empathy and feel more comfortable in social settings, and listening to other people’s stories offers deeper insights into trust issues and mental illness.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT is one of the most popular methods of treating people with mental illness. It can be effective for people with depression, anxiety, substance use disorders, family issues, eating disorders, and a wide range of other mental health disorders. There’s a lot of evidence to show that CBT can improve quality of life and functioning.(10)
The principles of CBT are:
Psychological distress is partly caused by unhelpful thinking patterns.
Unhelpful thinking patterns can lead to patterns of unhealthy behaviors.
It’s possible for someone with a psychological disorder to learn coping mechanisms that reduce symptoms and significantly improve their quality of life.
When it comes to trust issues, CBT aims to support patients in changing unhelpful thought and behavior patterns by helping them:
Recognize distorted thoughts as they happen, then put space between thinking and acting out
Understand how other people behave and why
Cope with stress using learned skills
Develop self-esteem and confidence
By learning to feel more secure and taking a mindful approach to coping with emotions, someone experiencing trust issues can use CBT methods to heal. There’s a leap of faith involved in trusting other people, and it isn’t possible to know what someone else is thinking for certain. CBT helps people struggling with trust come to terms with the unavoidable uncertainty that comes along with close relationships.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
As an evidence-based therapy, there’s a wealth of scientific literature supporting the efficacy of EMDR, which aims to reduce the intensity of emotion a person experiences when reliving a traumatic memory. A therapist guides the patient as they talk about a traumatic event and move their eyes from side to side. Through the eye movements, the brain is able to associate healthier thinking patterns and unlearn unhelpful responses to those intense emotions.
Trauma-Focused Therapy (TFT)
Trauma-focused therapy is a subset of CBT that focuses strongly on overcoming trauma-related issues, such as childhood maltreatment. It helps patients address unhelpful beliefs and thought patterns, process difficult emotions, and develop effective coping skills for stressful situations.
TFT draws from a number of other therapeutic approaches, including:(11)
This modality shows promise in treating people who have been through a range of traumatic experiences, including physical abuse, sexual abuse, disaster, domestic violence, and traumatic grief. Trauma can lead to trust issues, and addressing the underlying cause is essential to help someone build trust and enjoy healthy, happy relationships.
Getting Treatment for Trust Issues
The key to overcoming trust issues is learning how to step back and look at situations objectively in the face of difficult or intense emotions. This is easier said than done for many people, including those who have had unpleasant or abusive past experiences. However, mental health professionals can use a variety of tools and approaches to help patients become aware of unhelpful thought patterns, accept themselves and others, and use healthy coping skills.
How to Rebuild Trust When Healing
People who have unresolved issues from childhood or past relationships can provoke problems in current relationships without realizing they’re doing it. Here are some ideas for learning to trust again while healing:
Building awareness about having trust issues
Learning to separate rational suspicion from irrational distrust
Seeking closure about negative past experiences
Defining a set of personal values and ideals
Developing the ability to be assertive and speak up for one’s needs
Communicating when triggered instead of getting caught up in the emotions—even if it’s just to express a need for space to collect their thoughts
Taking people at face value
Meditating to relieve anxiety
It might not be possible to work through trust issues without support and guidance from a mental health professional, especially if an underlying mental illness is present. Admitting to having trust issues and seeking a therapist who can help are the first steps to healing.