“Trust me” is a phrase we hear in all types of relationship dyads. From intimate partners, to parents and their children, friends, and even work colleagues and acquaintances, we all want to feel trusted and know if we can trust the other person. If we look closely, we might even wonder if we can trust ourselves. It begs the questions - “Why is trust so important?” and “How do we know if we have trust?” The challenge is that like most things in life (dare I say ALL), it isn’t black or white. It’s not as simple as “Yes, I trust you” or “No, I don’t” in most situations...
As I reflect on my 10+ years of experience as a therapist, I can safely say that every one of my clients have struggled with the question: How can I know if I trust him/her/them? I can easily recall the pain in the eyes of a 16 year old client who had worked for months to mend their relationship with their parents after a period of greatly deceptive behavior, as they asked, “Can’t you trust me now? What more can I possibly do?” And the simultaneous confusion, grief, doubt, hope, and uncertainty in the eyes of the parent who responds, “I don’t know; part of me says ‘yes’ while another part says ‘no way!’” There’s also the employee who can’t quite pinpoint why he feels so uneasy in interactions with his boss. Or the woman who sits in my office wondering out loud if her boyfriend can truly be trusted, despite her deep love for him. Most of the time, it’s painful to examine trust in our relationships and yet, it’s completely necessary.
If we want to be seen and valued in our relationships, trust is essential. Trust is the foundation upon which we can engage in and build authentic relationships with one another. It determines if we feel safe enough to be vulnerable or if we feel the need to put on our armor and self-protect with another person. Trust is not something that we can expect to have with other people instantly. Rather, it is much like a flower - it requires patience, attention, nurturance, and flexibility in order to thrive. When we see warning signs that things aren’t going well, we must take a look at the components of trust to know what is getting in the way and whether it can be salvaged. So what are the components of trust?
Researcher, author, and storyteller, Brené Brown has identified 7 elements of trust which are incredibly helpful when evaluating and examining where there are challenges and strengths in a relationship. Quoting from her book Rising Strong: The Reckoning, The Rumble, The Revolution (pgs 199-200), she defines these elements with the acronym BRAVING:
B - Boundaries: You respect my boundaries, and when you’re not clear about what’s
okay and not okay, you ask. You’re willing to say no.
R - Reliability: You do what you say you’ll do. At work, this means staying aware of your
competencies and limitations so you don’t over-promise and are able to deliver on
commitments andbalance competing priorities.
A - Accountability: You own your mistakes, apologize, and make amends.
V - Vault: You don’t share information or experiences that are not yours to share. I need
to know that my confidences are kept, and that you’re not sharing with me any
information about other people that should be confidential.
I - Integrity: You choose courage over comfort. You choose what is right over what is fun,
fast, or easy. And you choose to practice your values rather than simply professing them.
N - Nonjudgment: I can ask for what I need, and you can ask for what you need. We can
talk about how we feel without judgment.
G - Generosity: You extend the most generous interpretation possible to the intentions,
words, and actions of others.
This is one of the most useful measuring sticks for trust that I’ve found. It takes something that is very murky and hard to define, and makes it just a little clearer. The reason the parent may struggle to say whether she trusts her teen is because their child may be incredibly reliable but struggles greatly with accountability. The employee may feel uneasy around their boss because the same boss they are supposed to have rapport and safety with is the same person who revealed deeply personal information to him about another colleague. The newly formed romantic relationship may be strong in generosity but weak in boundaries.
This stuff is complex. The good news is that if we take a look at each of these components we will likely find strengths to acknowledge and praise, as well as new language to explain the reasons we’re struggling with trust in our relationships. Similarly, it can help us to identify our own areas of weakness that may cause others to mistrust us or to mistrust ourselves.
So, the next time you feel uneasy or uncertain about your level of trust in an important relationship, take some time to get quiet, take a deep breath, and evaluate your strengths/weaknesses according to the BRAVING model and the strengths/weaknesses of your counterpart. Keep in mind, the point is not to blame the other, but to make this murky concept of trust a little clearer, which means looking within as well. As the saying goes, “it takes two to tango.” We have to be willing to look at our part in building and maintaining trust, as well as the other’s part.