Complex trauma is ongoing or repeated inter-personal trauma – abuse and neglect – caused by other people. Often this ongoing abuse causes Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and/or Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Trust issues are one of the debilitating and life impacting results of enduring complex trauma. It’s very understandable, when you consider the survivor has been subjected to ongoing harm, particularly when from those they were meant to be able to trust, rely on and feel safe with.
This is intensified when the abuse/trauma was endured was in childhood. Not learning how to develop healthy relationships, not having this modelled, causes the survivor to have a deficit of needed skills in adulthood. Knowing how to appropriately trust people, is one of them.
Trust issues can be either not trusting anyone, or trusting too quickly and easily. Both resulting in further issues that are painful to endure. Survivors can swap between these, depending on what is occurring in their life. Often trusting too easily – results in the survivor being hurt more, and then they jump into ‘I’m never trusting anyone again’ mode. All ways of coping. All very understandable.
Not trusting anyone – is a coping and survival instinct. If we don’t trust anyone – we can’t get hurt…. right? But, this understandable way of protecting ourselves – means we don’t have healthy relationships with others. This can lead to a painful sense of aloneness and lack of connection with other people. And connecting to others, is a vital human need.
Trusting people too quickly and too easily often results in the survivor being harmed more. Not knowing how to build trust carefully – causes a greater issue of being in further unhealthy, toxic, abusive relationships.
I see very often in my work as an abuse survivor advocate and writer – complex trauma survivors saying they will “never trust anyone” and I want to gently encourage survivors to know – there is a way to build up trust slowly and carefully – that still protects them and keeps them safe.
My first trauma counsellor, was an amazing and wise woman, who helped me with my trust issues. As a survivor of multiple complex trauma endured from birth – my trust issues were deep.
This is how she explained how to learn to trust in a healthy way and develop safe relationships:
- Trust isn’t given, or demanded – it’s earned. Carefully.
- There are good people out there, that we can have healthy relationships with. It may feel hard to accept that – but it is true. Figuring out if someone is healthy, is key to forming healthy relationships.
- Not everyone is going to abuse us. There are non abusive people out there. No-one is perfect, but there are people who are respectful, caring and want good for others.
- You need healthy boundaries on your own behaviours and choices. You have to understand how we interact we others, how we build relationships, including trust – is our own responsibility and we have to learn self control in order to proceed carefully.
- You cannot 100% trust anyone. But you can learn who is trustworthy enough.
- You build trust – slowly and carefully. Not by jumping ‘all in’. And not by refusing point blank to try to trust someone.
- Don’t tell them straight up you have ‘trust issues’. Keep that information to yourself.
- Then sit back and discern how this person treats other? Are they kind? Are they interacting in a healthy way? Are their behaviours consistent? If yes, that’s a good start.
- If they treat others well, and you’ve gotten to know them a little, give them only a little piece of information about yourself, particularly about your trauma history. Something that’s not too revealing. So instead of revealing nothing, or telling them ‘all’ about your life – you give them a little bit and see how they receive that? How did they handle that? Did they deal with that respectfully?
- Once you’ve given them a little bit of information, sit back and watch over time what they do with that. Do they push you too quickly for more information. Do they seem dismissive about it? Did they not offer words of kindness? Do they go and tell others about it? Do they gossip about you regarding what you told them? If yes, to any of those, these are red flags that would suggest this person is not a ‘safe person’.
- If they seem to handle this well – after a while – give them a little bit more information and again – see how they respond and react? And continue this.
- This gradual way of revealing yourself, is about being careful. It’s about protecting yourself. You do not have to tell them too much. It’s much safer to real yourself slowly.
- Someone healthy and respectful will be okay with this gradual process. If they are not okay with it, then this is a red flag and someone who has unhealthy issues and I advise not to proceed with giving anymore revealing information, or any further information about your trauma history.
- You also don’t have to be too quick with things like sexual contact with someone, if this is a romantic relationship. If they push you quickly into sexual intimacy – this is not okay if you need to take this slowly, they should respect that. If they are respectful – you can build more trust in them over time.
- It’s also worth seeing how quickly they tell you about themselves. If they reveal nothing, or tell you a lot, this is someone with their own issues and we need to figure out why?
- Build this relationship in a mutually respectful, careful manner. Discern as you go what seems ‘off’ and take your time in figuring the person out.
- Proceed only if this careful process reveals healthy consistent, respectful behaviours.
- Enjoy the relationship you have built, based on trust and mutual respect.