Sunday, June 16, 2013

Interpersonal connection

Some of my patients have been betrayed, abused, or otherwise mistreated so often in life that they give up on trying to have relationships with other people.  For the majority of these individuals, the maltreatment began in childhood.  Some were physically or sexually abused by a parent or step-parent.  Others were verbally insulted, criticized, or condemned on a regular basis by a parent or caregiver.  Still others were neglected or ignored.

Of course, some people have perfectly good childhoods and still decide as adults that it is safer to stay away from people than to risk falling victim to treachery.  Anyone who has been repeatedly deceived could conceivably reach this conclusion.  Even a single betrayal, if it is severe, can be enough to shatter one's ability to trust others. 

Perhaps it is "safer" to withhold trust.  It does solve the problem, at least in theory.  If you never give your trust then you will never be betrayed.  So why do I see patients like this in my office, again and again and again?  If the strategy is so effective, why see a therapist? 

Honestly, most patients do not identify lack of trust as their primary concern, although this does sometimes happen.  Typically the lack of trust comes out later, when we start digging into the problem and find the patient's inability to trust lying at its core. 

So what kind of problems come from witholding trust?  Depression and anxiety are probably the most common.  People have an innate need for interpersonal interaction.  The earliest humans (Cro Magnons) lived in small tribes or clans and these groups depended upon one another for survival.  A single human living alone was easy prey for large animals and would not have survived for very long.  As our species evolved, those who cooperated best were the most likely to survive and to pass on their genes to their offspring.  There were no "loners."  Now fast forward to the present day. 

People who intentionally prevent themselves from having close relationships with others are very rarely happy.  Humans truly are social creatures.  It is in our very nature.  Going against our innate tendencies often feels unnatural.  We get lonely.

Fortunately, we do not have to choose between being lonely or getting betrayed.  This is what I tell my patients.  We can learn to exercise caution while we're getting to know people.  We can allow trust to develop gradually.  We can learn that trust doesnt' have to be "all or nothing;" we can trust people to varying degrees.  We learn that it's okay to trust a given individual with some things while not trusting them with others.  We can discover that connection with others occurs on many levels, from very superficial to deeply intimate.

We do, however, have to be willing to accept some risk.  Inevitably as we begin to interact with other people we will encounter some who are untrustworthy.  So often my patients view such encounters as additional evidence that people simply can't be trusted and that they are better off keeping to themselves. I see things quite differently. Most of these experiences represent successes, not failures.  If you begin to interact with someone and soon discover that he is not someone you can trust then you have learned valuable information.  If you then decide that this is not a person you want in your life you have made a wise decision. How can a wise decision represent anything other than success?  \

Beginning to reconnect with others after a long period of isolation can be scary.  It's not easy.  In the end, however, the potential benefits are worth it.

1 comment:

  1. You make a very solid point on trust. I am sorry to have disappeared from commenting on your journal yet I am an avid reader and have been for a long time. I hope this summer finds you well.


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