It was October of 2013 when I wrote the post Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy. While the post is an anchor post, there are a few things that deserve some clarification. (If you’ve not read it yet, now would be a good time, since the rest of this post builds on what is there.)
First, I failed to adequately express that trust leads to perceived safety that allows vulnerability. It was one of the places where I had the curse of knowledge (see The Art of Explanation for more). To be vulnerable, we need to feel safe. This is the primary concern that I have about Amy Edmonson’s work as described in The Fearless Organization. The premise is that you can make a psychologically safe organization, and therefore everyone will be courageous and bring their whole selves. There are so many external factors that influence your feeling of safety that I can’t accept this conclusion. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t make our organizations more psychologically safe. I am saying I think it’s not enough. I believe that Brown’s work on helping individuals to be more whole themselves is also required. (See I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t), The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, Rising Strong, and Braving the Wilderness for more.)
Second, though the post explains that trust isn’t a single thing and that trust and trustworthiness are often confused, it doesn’t go far enough to explain the nuances of trust. Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order goes further in explaining how the focus of trust can both be shaped and itself shape entire societies.
Third, in my discussion of vulnerability, there was an underlying current of appropriate vulnerability. But I never clearly articulated that, when it comes to psychological vulnerability, there are some who’ve not earned the right to hear your story. Vulnerability needs to be earned through trust built on the backs of smaller disclosures. John Gottman in The Science of Trust explains that there are bids for attention, and these bids make a big difference. The way we make ourselves vulnerable to others is with small bids for them to build trust. They’re an opportunity for us to take an appropriate risk to see if the other person is worthy of trust.
The Relationship Between Trust and Vulnerability
It’s a catch-22. You must have trust to be vulnerable. You must be vulnerable to build trust. From a single, causal perspective, there’s no good solution. One requires the other. The trick is that it’s a systems thinking problem, not direct line causality. We’re taught to think in a single-iteration causal kind of way. We’re not taught to think about things that influence success. (See The Halo Effect for more.) We fail to realize that we don’t have positive control, we have degrees of influence on the outcome. Trust leads to more vulnerability and vulnerability leads to more trust – in the general sense.
Systems thinking gives us the second part of the solution for this conundrum. Systems are iterative. They keep going, and the outputs feed back into the inputs. The language of systems thinking is stocks and flows. We have a storehouse (stock) of trust that can cause us to be more vulnerable (a flow), and the outcome of that vulnerability – when it’s honored – is greater trust. If you want to learn more about systems thinking, see Thinking in Systems: A Primer. Though The Fifth Discipline popularized the idea of systems thinking, Thinking in Systems is more complete coverage.
Bringing these concepts together is Gary Klein’s work about the mental models that we use to make decisions – including decisions like whether we should be vulnerable or not. What Klein discovered was that people build mental models in their heads. They simulate situations and decide on courses of actions based on those simulations. (See Seeing What Others Don’t and Sources of Power for more.)
When we make the decision to be vulnerable, we make that decision based on the probability that our vulnerability, and therefore trust, will be rewarded or we will be betrayed. The more that our trust is rewarded with a correct prediction – and we’re not betrayed – the more our model will predict that trust is the right answer.
Building Trust with Ourselves
An important aspect of trust is how we trust ourselves. The degree to which we trust ourselves influences how much we trust others and the degree of safety that we feel and therefore how willing we are to be vulnerable. Everyone has some degree of mistrust of themselves. Some trust themselves more and some less, but everyone has some level of doubt.
Like any form of trust, trust is contextual. You may trust yourself to get to work on time, but you may not trust yourself to forgo the chocolate cake for dessert. Your trust – or lack of trust – for yourself will influence how you trust others. It’s often been observed that we get the most frustrated with others for the things that we ourselves struggle with. Our goal is to increase trust with ourselves so that we don’t burden our trust of others with our lack of trust for ourselves.
The way to build trust is to create and meet – or renegotiate – commitments. This applies to our relationships with others and with ourselves. If we find that we’re not meeting our commitments to ourselves, we’ll begin to trust ourselves less. (See Building Trust: Make, Renegotiate, Meet for more.) It may seem odd to be making commitments to ourselves, but we do it all the time – we just don’t do it formally.
We say, “I’ll take the trash out in the morning” or “I’ll find time for me (self-care) tomorrow.” When we don’t do these things, we reduce our self-trust. It’s natural to have some degree of forgetfulness, and that’s why self-acceptance is important. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on acceptance.) However, you can’t put all the cards in the acceptance basket. We must find ways to improve our ability to meet our commitments to ourselves (and to others as well).
For probably a decade now, I’ve had a reminder on my phone to take out the trash Wednesday at 6:30 AM. Generally speaking, I know I’ll be awake, and I know the trashmen don’t come until at least 8AM. The result is that I don’t have to worry about meeting my commitment to take the trash out. In fact, I don’t even make this commitment to myself anymore. It doesn’t even come up, because I’ve got a system to support it.
I don’t have a reminder system to support my self-care. However, with exceptions for temporary situations, I generally make time for self-care. I’ll forgo it to support a sick child or if I need to help a friend. However, since I typically meet the commitments that I make to myself, I’ve got more than enough acceptance to believe that I’ll resume my self-care soon. Often, I’ll renegotiate to “I’ll find some time for me (self-care) next week.” Given the level of trust I already have, it’s easy enough to accept the renegotiation.
I’ve worked with some friends who have struggled with a self-trust that is very low. Many have come from the depths of addiction and have made so many commitments to themselves about what they’ll abstain from – and they find they cannot – so they relapse. The most challenging issue isn’t that others have lost their trust of a friend or loved one impacted by the relapse. The most challenging issue is the fact that they’ve lost trust in themselves. They’ve developed learned helplessness, or they’ve lost their sense of control (or hope). (See The Hope Circuit for more.)
The climb out of this spot is long and hard. Twelve-step programs start by admitting there is a problem, admitting that the person is not capable of saving themselves, and, more importantly, that someone can. (See Why and How 12-Step Groups Work for more.) The first two steps seem like they’re tearing down the person’s sense of hope – and, to some extent, that’s true. They’re there to ensure that the person is ready to address their addiction. The third step externalizes the hope that things will get better. This transfers the weight of correcting the situation externally and allows the addict to focus on being themselves. By believing that someone or something else can help you, you can regain the hope you’ve lost.
For an addict to claim that they’re not going to relapse, without support, is wishful thinking. At the point that they’ve identified themselves as an addict, they’ve already demonstrated it doesn’t work. When they make that commitment, they’re making one they’ll miss – and further erode their trust. That’s one reason why addicts make commitments for the day. “Today, I won’t drink” is a powerful commitment. It is more likely to work, because it’s not forever. Even when there is a relapse, the addict can retain some level of trust, effectively saying, “Of the 365 commitments I’ve made not to drink over the last year, I’ve only missed the commitment twice.”
Still some commitments are bad commitments to make. Commitments made from reason – like New Year’s Resolutions – that must be carried out by our emotions and willpower aren’t the best choices. You can frame this from the point of view that our willpower is an exhaustible resource, which frequently fails when we’re tired or hungry, or from the idea that our emotions are in control. (See Willpower for more on willpower and The Happiness Hypothesis for the fact that our emotions are in control). Either way, making commitments to yourself that you’re likely to not meet won’t help to build self-trust.
Commitments and Trust
To proceed through trust, vulnerability, and intimacy, we must first practice with ourselves. We must trust ourselves – and that means meeting our commitments to ourselves, whether they’re made explicitly or implicitly. We must learn to accept ourselves and recognize and accept our vulnerability, because we’re all vulnerable in one way or another. All of this is so that we can know ourselves more and more. (For more on knowing ourselves, see my thoughts on integrated self-image in Rising Strong, Schools without Failure, Compelled to Control, and Beyond Boundaries. Also, see my thoughts on stable core in How to Be Yourself, Dialogue, and Resilient.)
Ultimately, as social creatures, we yearn for connection to others. To connect with others, we need to first connect with ourselves. The path that we use to find our way to others is one that we must first travel alone.