Cedric Johnson, Ph.D and Kristine MacKain, Ph.D
We all know that when trust is broken, it hurts.
Trust is the bedrock of every relationship both political and personal. Without trust, we are like a boat, left to drift with no anchor. From infancy to adulthood, trust is the cornerstone of healthy relationships, personal well-being, and civil society.
Though we all know trust is important, why does trust matter?
In infancy, the answer is obvious. Without trust, an infant can literally perish. When, as children, we cannot trust our parents, we grow up coming to believe that we can’t depend on anyone else either. Later as adults, we may have very low expectations of others and be hesitant to ask for help. This lack of trust in others can be isolating and may affect our personal well-being and our ability to establish bonds with others.
Trust is an important factor in developing bonds with each other and is determined by how well we meet our obligations (implicit or explicit) to each other. Our bonds can be strong or tenuous, healthy or not, depending upon how well these obligations are met, be they in friendships, marriages, and/or work.
In adult life trust is broken when mutual obligations are violated. For example:
A partner betrays the other through lying or infidelity
A boss does not deliver on the promise of a promotion
A politician lies to us
A friend reveals information about us that was confidential
A colleague bad-mouths a peer to their boss in an attempt to gain advantage
Recently, an organization conducted a survey among its senior executives, asking them what leadership competencies they most highly valued. Interestingly, trust came out on top. Trust was critical because trustworthy individuals behave in ways that optimize organizational effectiveness. Specifically, trustworthy individuals:
Behave ethically and honestly at work
Consistently follow through on commitments
Establish a climate of mutual respect
Maintain the confidentiality of restricted information
In the absence of trustworthy behaviors, such as those noted above, an organization (or any relationship, in fact) can eventually descend into chaos.
Responding to Broken Trust
When trust is violated, we typically respond with strong emotions. Below, are some typical responses:
Anger is a natural response to betrayal. Anger functions as a defense mechanism that keeps the perpetrator (individual or organization) at arms length. Anger is useful in that it can protect us from further hurt and give us time to regroup while we develop a more productive response. However, anger also has a downside in that it can spill over, negatively impacting everyone in our life. Anger is a tricky emotion and one that needs to be managed carefully. Unlike sadness or crying, which can be cathartic and restore one’s emotional equilibrium, anger often produces more anger, and anger can be addictive.
Another response to broken trust is to respond by shutting down our emotions. People often describe this as feeling numb. Though this response may be useful in protecting us in the short-term, eventually it can backfire because when we shut down, we also tend to shut out our significant others, potentially damaging our relationship with them and depriving us of the help they can provide.
Disappointment, sadness, and confusion are typical responses to a violation of trust and are important responses in validating our experience of betrayal. However, sustaining feelings of hurt over the long-term can result in seeing ourselves as a “victim”. Embracing a victim identity may attract support and validation from others but eventually it disempowers us by depriving us of more productive responses.
Recovering From Broken Trust
As discussed, our initial responses to broken trust are anger, hurt, and the numbing of our emotions. What typically happens next is we get stuck in these emotions and we can’t let them go, resulting in emotional paralysis.
How do we disengage from these emotions and move on?
First, Find a safe context or person who can contain, validate, and normalize our emotional responses to being betrayed.
Second, learn to detach from our feelings so that we can begin to talk about the experience without getting overwhelmed and derailed by our emotions.
Third, explore new coping strategies that allow us to change our orientation to the painful experience. For example, change the way we think about the experience; distract and reorient ourselves by engaging in physical activity, which also helps to relieve the stress; and talk with others about their best practices in moving on from the pain of broken trust.
Finally, turn the negative emotions into productive action. Ask yourself: “What do I need to do to turn this situation into a growth opportunity or a productive outcome?” Then begin to visualize the details of that productive outcome.
We may never be the same again after the severance of trust but we have a choice: we can grow and produce a satisfying outcome or we can regress to unproductive states such as feeling emotionally paralyzed or perpetually angry.
There are countless stories of people who have grown through pain. Let yours be one of them.
(Please see the links below on this blog site for three other resources for recovery)
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