“I don't trust people who don't love themselves and tell me, 'I love you.' ... There is an African saying which is: Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt.” ~Maya Angelou
I like people watching.
It could be considered a light hobby of mine.
What I get out of people watching isn’t only voyeuristic entertainment but often insights into the human psyche.
There’s magic watching concepts and theories play out live, in-real-time, in real life, by people I don’t know and can’t predict.
Recently, I was in a trendy coffee shop in downtown Seattle. The café was packed and buzzing with energy. Which meant that people were sitting on top of each other.
On this day, people watching was a forced activity rather than a personal choice.
But what made my ears perk up was when a woman in an accusatory tone bark to her friend, “You ALWAYS do this! Why don’t you just TRUST yourself for once?”
The barky woman seemed to be personally offended. It was clear that she was disappointed that her friend didn’t trust herself...again.
Now I was hooked.
I leaned in while seemingly absorbed by my laptop screen, waiting in anticipation...how was her friend going to respond?
Finally, with some pause and in a quiet voice, her friend replied, “I don’t know how.”
My heart sank.
I won't share the rest of the conversation, but it reminded me how we all have moments when we feel disconnected from ourselves, and replace our truth with someone else’s louder or more popular opinion. Only later to experience regret for abandoning our truth.
The question is: WHY do we become disconnected from ourselves?
Stay with me and we’ll circle back to this important question.
In working with people from various backgrounds, I’ve observed a common theme for why people aren’t living the kind of life that they want - and it boils down to this...
But as it turns out, we can’t compartmentalize matters of the heart into different pockets of our lives.
For example, if our heart is closed off to love - we’re cutting off our openness and vulnerability not only with others, but also with ourselves. If there’s fear in our hearts, we’re applying a fear-filter across all life experiences - work, relationships and new experiences.
Similarly with trust. Distrust of others often signals a distrust of oneself on some level.
When we don't trust ourselves, we naturally suppress or second guess our:
And it's nearly impossible to trust others.
Basically, everything we need to live our happiest lives hinges upon our ability to trust.
So in exploring our trust issues - which is often expressed as a distrust of others, we must first look within.
Self-trust builds upon the tender topic of attachment and our natural tendency to prioritize human bonding when we come into this world (read more on attachment here).
We're born with an innate trust in ourselves. A two-year-old child trusts when s/he's feeling hungry, uncomfortable, joyful, playful, curious, hot/cold, safe/unsafe, etc. We know this because the young child will let us know by crying, fussing, squirming, laughing, smiling, giggling, cooing, dancing, running, snuggling, without first second-guessing him/herself. Also, try talking a young child out of hunger or preference over a favorite toy or not wanting to be picked up by that strange uncle - and you'll likely be met with iron-clad self-conviction rarely seen in a grown human.
Compared to an adult, talking ourselves into or out of how we’re really feeling is a common phenomenon:
Not trusting ourselves is a learned behavior shaped by our environment.
Many people point back to experiences in their lives that created doubt in themselves - in school, in relationships, or at work.
But the truth is that we learn at an even younger age how to distrust ourselves.
Let’s take a simple example, imagine you’re four or five years old… you’re walking around with your guardian when you suddenly see a park. Your whole body lights up at the sight of the playground and your body automatically pulls you into that direction. If you’re lucky, your caretaker is also feeling the park and off you go and have a great time.
But perhaps you’re not so lucky, and when you move toward the direction of the park, your caretaker stops you.
You might protest and babble something to communicate your desire to play. Perhaps your caretaker has other plans, or is on a tight schedule or is not attuned with your needs, or maybe your caretaker believes an adult knows best and a child shouldn’t have his/her own way (it’ll build character).
Whatever the reason, you’re pulled away from the park.
Perhaps you’re told a reason for why you can’t play:
Perhaps you’re told a lie:
Perhaps you’re told nothing. It is what it is and that’s the end of it.
In that small interaction, you as a young child immediately learned that:
With repeat experiences, over time, you might learn these things about yourself:
You might learn these "rules" about life:
All of this can be traumatic to a young child's spirit.
Trauma doesn't need to be a catastrophic event like abuse or an accident. Trauma occurs when there is a moment of disconnection with the self. A moment of distrust of oneself or resentment for trusting oneself (and being wrong for it).
When we begin to think that what we intuitively want or how we’re feeling isn’t the right thing to do, we begin to doubt ourselves.
Not only do we trust ourselves less over time, but we’ll also start reading people and scanning our environment for the right answer. Little kids get really good at reading the situation and figuring out what the right thing to say or do at that moment to get a kudos - to get a smile - to get some affection and love from their environment.
Next time they pass by a park, perhaps rather saying “I want to go to the park” a quick study might have the child say instead, “do we have to make dinner now?” or “am I wearing the right clothes for play?” or “is there someone at home waiting for us?”
In some cultures, the change in the child’s tone might signify maturity or a considerate child. And maybe that’s true, depending on the age of the child.
But if we’re talking about a child younger than seven years of age (who cognitively is unable to grasp other people's points of views based on normal human brain development), self-censorship is not only the beginning of learning how to lose one’s authenticity but also the start of distrusting oneself.
Many of us were taught by well-meaning but unconscious caretakers at a young age to say things we didn't mean or mean things we didn't say. This is the definition of inauthenticity.
Over time, we held back on our impulses and dismissed our calling in the moment. The more we did this, the more we distrusted ourselves. We couldn't be sure if our impulses are “right” or “good” or will “please” those around us, or worse, bring punishment.
Since this isn't a parenting blog, we won't focus on parenting. But there is a way to not succumb to every whim of the child and still validate and hold the child's truth with empathy. I'll leave this here from trauma and addiction expert Dr. Gabor Maté:
"[Trauma occurs when] the child's emotions lack a safe relational container. Because infants, young children, they need the attuned reflection of the adult, of the parent, to validate their emotions, to validate their experience. When the parents can't do that, without in any way being abusive, that child has to limit themselves, and their expression of themselves."
So, why do we disconnect with ourselves?
The example used above was simplistic and relatively harmless compared to the range of possible traumas that many children experience.
However, the common thread creating disconnection from ourselves is this: when we are open, vulnerable and expressing our truth, but are not seen, validated or valued, we think: I’m gonna have to shut that part of myself down because it’s too painful.
As a child, we disconnect from ourselves and learn to distrust every time our environment fails us:
Trauma is defined by Dr. Gabor Maté as: the moment when we lose connection with ourselves. When we chose safety over our own truth.
Every time we disconnect from ourselves, we etch onto our psyche and personality that it's unsafe to our authentic self and thus trust who we are.
As a child, we internalized these experiences to mean that there was something wrong with us - such as, our feelings aren’t right, our intuition isn’t right, we aren’t normal, we are needy, we aren’t good enough, we aren’t valued, we're alone, we're weak, we're pathetic, we're unsafe.
Some say that every generation is born embodying the lessons learned from the previous generation. So as children, we come into the world with a higher level of consciousness and so being met with the experience of unconsciousness by our environment is that much more jarring.
The original disconnection from the self starts young and continues throughout our lives.
Most of us can point to moments in school, in a relationship or in our career that made us second-guess our needs, intuition, or desires. With every experience of trauma and disconnection, we can either lay another brick on top of our existing trauma or choose to heal and grow from the experience.
What can we do about it as an adult?
According to biophysicist and psychologist Dr. Peter A. Levine, the father of Somatic Experiencing (a body-awareness approach for healing trauma)," 'time heals all wounds,' simply does not apply to trauma." Meaning, just because it occurred a lifetime ago, doesn't mean it's not still impacting our adult lives.
However, Dr. Levine also states, "Trauma is a fact of life. It does not, however, have to be a life sentence."
This means that disconnection and being wounded are inevitable. These wounds do not go away on their own. But if we choose to look at these wounds, we can release the energy that's trapped in our bodies and psyches, which influences how we live our lives in the present.
If our trust issues are rooted in moments of disconnection from ourselves, to resolve our trust issues, we must revisit those moments, and allow ourselves to connect with the way we were feeling.
And to allow the suppressed or interrupted to be expressed.
This healing journey can't be summed up in a concise "3-step process" because the journey isn't linear nor identical from person to person.
But as an initial step toward that journey, we can create a space of understanding and empathy to acknowledge what we experienced had nothing to do with us. The experiences we had as a child was a function of the adults around us and the society in which they lived. The dysfunction that we experienced is a reflection of the level of unconsciousness of our world. We just happened to be there to experience it.
As adults, we can thank and appreciate our inner child for doing what s/he needed to do to survive and protect him/herself.
As adults, we can have compassion for the child that internalized a confusing experience to make it mean something about him/herself - typically it's a story we tell ourselves that we weren't (fill in the blank) enough. We made up this story to make meaning of the confusion.
And as adults, we can see the story for what it is - a childish attempt at making sense of the dysfunctional world.
As adults, we can meet that inner child with validation, empathy and compassion for feeling so confused and alone in that moment, and finally give our inner child what s/he needs.
As adults, we can choose to shift our beliefs and thoughts attached to those dysfunctional stories and experiences.
Self-doubt is natural. Trusting ourselves and others take time especially when we're recovering from past trauma.
Especially when we've abandoned ourselves before. It's going to take some time to show ourselves that we have our back, we're here to stay, and that we're not going anywhere anymore.
When we no longer abandon ourselves, trust happens naturally. With oneself and with others.