Challenges in trusting people

Suspicion is the cancer of friendship (Francesco Petrarch, 1204 ~ 1274)

A Reader, whom I’ll call “Tom” writes, “In my 45 years of living on this planet life experience and living has much more frequently than not taught me that people are not to be trusted and that sooner or later you will be hurt by whomever it is you may confide in or develop any sort of relationship with be it at work or on a personal level. The longer I have lived the more I have (by choice) isolated myself from the degree of interaction I have with anyone. In my younger years I lived more as an idealist and realized with life experience and living that I was living an illusion and deluding myself. So I VERY STRONGLY DISAGREE with your statement `We exist not for ourselves but for one another’. I welcome any feedback to try to convince me to the contrary.”

Since Tom is 45 and lived as an idealist in his younger years, it is safe to conclude that he has been suffering from bitter feelings for about 20 years. He is deeply entrenched in a rut and sees no way out. Like an insect in a spider web, the more he struggles to set himself free, the more entangled he becomes.

Psychologists sometimes call the predicament Tom finds himself in a Mind Trap or Life Trap. Because he believes no one can be trusted, he feels all alone in the world. George Eliot (pen name of Marian Evans, 1819 ~ 1880) captured his pain when she wrote, “What loneliness is more lonely than distrust?”

The good news is Tom hasn’t completely given up. By writing to us, it suggests he suspects there may be a way out. And he has good reason to come to that conclusion. After all, you would have to be stone dead not to realize that there are happy people in the world. But if no one could be trusted, there would not be any happy people. Therefore, their existence proves that some, if not most, people can be trusted.

Our very nature is one of trust. Every child is completely trusting and loving. Well, at least that’s the way we all start out in life. Unfortunately, however, our caregivers, not knowing any better, say and do things that damage or destroy that trust.

Somewhere along the line, a very young Tom came to believe he wasn’t good enough. And because of this, he rejected himself. By rejecting himself, he had nothing to offer others. To them he appeared as a `loser.’ Once he started to get rejected by others, Tom took this as proof that he was worthless. But such a notion is too painful to bear, so he turned it around and convinced himself that people are nasty and cannot be trusted. Thus, the trap had been set, the spider web had been built and for two decades, Tom struggled.

We congratulate him for taking the first step by questioning his situation. He dared to ask himself whether there was a way out, whether he could change, and whether he could resurrect himself from the dead and join the world of the living. Although neither I nor anyone else can take Tom by the hand and lead him out of the darkness, perhaps I can point out the general direction of the exit. But he must be willing to work his way out himself. He must decide between accepting the pain of making big changes in his life or living with the odious pain of rejection and second- class citizenship.

Some things are too important to worry about the pain, such as his happiness and success. He needs to GO through pain, to GROW through it. Imagine if all women refused to have children because of the pain. If Tom is willing to accept the pain, he can give birth to a new, successful and happy Tom.

Being afraid of rejection and finding it painful is normal, but believing it signals one’s unworthiness is erroneous. People don’t reject others because they are unworthy; rather they reject others because of their own fears, suspicions, insecurity, weaknesses, and limitations.

Unaware of this, Tom is building a thick wall of isolation around him for protection. But instead of protecting him, it keeps out any hope of help. What is Tom to do? Some or all of the following 12 steps may lead him, if not all the way, at least part of the way home, home to his natural trusting, loving, and happy self.


1. Because the stakes are so high, there is not a moment to lose. Tom, start by going through all 12 points and then assess your situation. Be honest with yourself. Can you climb out of the pit you are in under your own power or do you need the help of a professional therapist? If you need help, get it. You’ve suffered long enough and deserve much better.

2. It is time to stop and reflect. As Franz Kafka (1883 ~ 1924) wrote, “Anyone who cannot come to terms with his life while he is alive needs one hand to ward off a little his despair over his fate… but with his other hand he can note down what he sees among the ruins.” What do you see in the ruins? Don’t waste time worrying about being rejected. Rather, think about what awaits you in the ruins if you don’t develop relationships.

Stop viewing others with suspicion, for it is the cancer of friendship. Here’s how Ben Jonson (1573 ~ 1637) described the poison of suspicion, “A new disease? I know not, new or old, but it may well be called poor mortals plague for, like a pestilence, it doth infect the houses of the brain till not a thought, or motion, in the mind, be free from the black poison of suspect.”

3. Tom, you are guilty of what you are accusing others of doing.
That is, you are rejecting others. Not because you are nasty, but because you are coping the only way you know how to. In trying to protect yourself, you reject others before they have a chance to reject you. You do it preemptively. Regardless how innocent your motives may be, your behavior is self destructive.

Also, it is time to rely on the power of rational thought instead of succumbing to your fears, suspicions, and self-doubt. True, if you try to make friends, you MAY be rejected or betrayed, but if you don’t make friends, you WILL be lonely. Life requires risk taking, and we need to take risks to experience excitement, adventure, and growth. Besides, if you don’t take risks, I can guarantee that you will lose 100% of the opportunities you refuse to take advantage of. Remember, too, that continually trying to protect yourself from rejection drains energy that is needed to develop positive attitudes and behavior.

4. What color is an apple, Tom? Red? Green? Yellow? The answer is it is white!
Yes, the skin may be red or another color, but it is paper thin and represents an insignificant portion of an apple. People are similar. You are quick to conclude that they are untrustworthy or nasty. But aren’t you just looking at the skin?

If you took the time to probe more deeply, you may discover that cold, aloof person is just shy, and that person who is avoiding you is doing so because you treat him with suspicion. It’s time to lighten up and give others the benefit of the doubt. People will either rise or sink to your expectations. If you think nothing of them, why are you surprised they think nothing of you?

Consider your behavior from all angles. For instance, when you refuse to get close to others to avoid pain, you appear cold and distant to them, thereby making rejection much more likely to happen.

5. Consider a change of attitude, such as this one by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 ~ 1882), “Dear to us are those who love us…but dearer are those who reject us as unworthy for they add another life; they build a heaven before us whereof we had not dreamed, and thereby supply to us new powers out of the recesses of the spirit, and urge us to new and unattempted performances.” In other words, embrace rejection as an opportunity to spread your wings, rise to the occasion, and make yourself a better man. Don’t let rejection beat you down, you were made for better things.

6. Accept people as fallible. They are imperfect. So are you and me. Why do you judge people falsely? Don’t you realize they feel just as insecure as you? People express their insecurity differently. Some, like you, try to protect themselves from pain by avoiding others. Yet, some wear a mask, pretending to be confident. If you knew their true feelings, instead of feeling threatened by them, you would feel compassion for them. Once you forget about your own petty needs and concern yourself with the needs of others, your world of fear, suspicion and mistrust will shatter and come tumbling down. In its place will be a world of love, peace, cooperation, and joy. To ignore the needs of others is bad enough, but to deny yourself of your inheritance is tragic.

7. We become what we think about. Since you are always thinking about how untrustworthy people are, you have become suspicious and doubtful of others. Your demeanor, body language, and looks drive others away. After driving them away, you then accuse them of rejecting you. It’s time to change what you are thinking about. Start thinking how wonderful it would be if everyone got along. Start thinking about the insecurity and pain that others feel. Start asking yourself what can you do to make the world a better place. When you change your thoughts, your feelings and behavior will change. When they change, the results of your actions will change. It’s all within your power, so start on this project today.

8. You already suspect that there may be some truth to the claim that we are here for a higher purpose and people are basically decent, or else you wouldn’t have written. But don’t stop with a hunch. Prove it to yourself. Do so by looking for shining examples of people who are trustworthy and caring. We always find what we look for. But the trouble is you have always been looking for evidence that people are untrustworthy, which has blinded you to most of the good that is going on around you. Now start looking for the good and don’t stop until you find it. Once you do, it will become progressively easier to find, until it becomes a second nature. Once you change your view, or mindset, you will change your life.

9. We have to give away what we wish to receive. That is, it is only by trusting others that you will win their trust. You, Tom, have a great need to be accepted by others. But when meeting people for the first time, instead of seeking their approval, offer yours. Accept them for who they are. You see, they are just as much in need of approval as you are. And when you accept others, they will come to accept you. It may take a while because they may be suspicious of you and feel threatened by you. But over time they will come to trust you and open up. The key to remember is your success always begins with you. You have to make the first move. Why shouldn’t you? That’s the mark of a leader. You want to be a leader, don’t you?

10. People don’t ask themselves empowering questions often enough.
Don’t make that mistake. Questions can unlock a great deal of power. Ask yourself questions such as, “Would I rather be safe and unhappy or grow through pain, take risks, and enjoy life? Would I rather be a victim or a glorious champion? Do I have a right to complain about life if I’m unwilling to change it? Who or what is in charge of my life – am I driven by fear or guided by rational thought? What inspiring books have I recently read – and if I haven’t read any, why am I neglecting my mental health?

11. Were you ever afraid that if you were rejected, you wouldn’t be able to handle the pain? Don’t allow such a thought to enter your mind because it is a fallacy. We are all equipped with the inner resources to cope with everything that comes our way. But the trouble is many people treat their inner resources as they do their home gym. It just stands there gathering dust. Don’t make the mistake of ignoring your inner power. And if you have been doing so, don’t get discouraged, it doesn’t get rusty and fall apart. It is always available. Just call upon it by making a commitment to make the necessary changes in your life.

12. Check your community for support groups. In a support group you will learn much more than you have here, make new friends, and have opportunities to practice your new interpersonal communication skills.

I’m sure all our readers join me in wishing Tom a speedy turn around and a joyful life. I’ll end with a brief list of resources.


1. Books dealing with Mind Traps (aka Life Traps)

a) MIND TRAPS, Change Your Mind, Change Your Life, Tom Rusk, M.D. and Natalie Rusk, Price Stern Sloan, 1988

b) REINVENTING YOUR LIFE, How to Break Free from Negative Life Patterns, Jeffrey E. Young, Ph.D. and Janet S. Klosko, Ph.D., Dutton, 1993

2. Excellent text book on interpersonal communication:

LOOKING OUT/LOOKING IN: Interpersonal Communication, Ronald B. Adler and Neil Towne, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1987.

3. A good movie dealing with rejection:

MARTY with Ernest Borgnine as Marty and Betsy Blair as Clara