My first experience losing someone’s trust was when I was eight years old. My dad asked me a question, and I made a gesture touching my forehead which, as I had learned from my Mexican schoolmates, meant, “I’m thinking”. Dad, however, had learned from his upbringing in the Netherlands that this gesture meant, “you’re crazy.” Dad got really mad at me and I had no idea why. The more I protested, the more he accused me of lying. Worse, he accused me of being just like his mother, an insult of the highest order in our household, since she was a haughty and selfish person who could be downright mean. Lately I’ve been learning about narcissistic personality disorder and I suspect that’s what she had. That would have made Dad an adult child of a narcissist then. Looking at the situation now, that could explain his behavior. But as an 8-year-old it was an incomprehensible loss of the previously close and trusting relationship I shared with my Dad.
Tragically, the rift this incident created between us lasted until I was an adult. Eventually we were able to build a close and trusting relationship again, but we both had to do a lot of growing up on our own, and suffer some painful losses, before we could get to that place.
My rowing coach, Nate, has a medium-sized black mutt that he adopted from the animal shelter several years ago. Her name is Sheik. Sheik is our little team mascot. The last time she came to practice, she bounded into the midst of the 60-odd rowers assembled at the boathouse and came up to greet the people she knew best. Naturally her favorites are the ones who bring treats, but the rest of us got some love, too.
I was reflecting on what a change that was from when she was first adopted. The first time she came to the boathouse she slunk around with her tail between her legs. If someone reached out to pet her, she shied away sideways so that she could keep her eyes on the person as she got away. Looking at her behavior then, I could easily believe she had been a victim of abuse. I expected that there would be no change in her behavior and that maybe such a skittish, nervous dog should be spared the stress of dealing with big crowds of noisy people.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Nate established a basis of trust between himself and Sheik. He kept bringing her around, right into the big crowds of noisy people operating the rowing machines. He didn’t react to her skittishness, neither comforting nor scolding, just being the calm presence in the room. She started to adjust. The dog lovers in the group paid her special attention and brought her treats. She took the treats shyly at first, refusing to make eye contact. Eventually, she started trusting more people. She started to sit in front of the usual bringers of treats and look at them expectantly. She started to come up to those of us who just petted her and submit to a little pat without flinching.
This spring we did a yoga session and Sheik took a seat on the mat next to mine, companionably waiting for the start of “downward dog”. Her calm and friendly demeanor was such a far cry from the shy and skittish behavior she started with. Sheik’s expectations have obviously changed. Rather than expecting to be needing to run away, she now expects to be greeted affectionately by any and all of us. The majority of the credit goes to Nate for providing her with an affectionate and consistent environment. But we, the team, by being a large number of completely unthreatening people, also participated in bringing about this change in Sheik’s outlook.
This building of trust took years. The breaking of trust between my Dad and me took an instant. How sad that trust is so easily lost and so hard to restore.
In spite of my early experience with Dad, I tend to start out trusting people until they prove that they are not to be trusted. (Exception: people who repeatedly say, “trust me” or “believe me”, mostly because experience has taught me that the constant repetition of these phrases indicates I should do neither. I first noticed this when dealing with a car salesman who literally said, “trust me” in every sentence. For some reason I ended up using his car while mine was in the shop, and as I drove it I noticed that the speedometer wasn’t working. Neither was the odometer. He had, illegally, disconnected them to make the car look like it had less mileage than it did. Trust him, indeed.)
It hurts me when people I deal with show that they don’t trust me. Maybe it’s one of the buttons that brings out my inner child, the 8-year-old who inexplicably lost her father’s favor over trust. But even as an adult I find it difficult to be in the position that I have to prove to someone else that I’m trustworthy, to earn their trust, when I know in my heart that I never meant them any malice or did anything to deserve losing their trust.
On the other hand, it also hurts me when someone does something that makes me lose trust in them. Like my father’s disappointment in me, my disappointment runs deep and may take years to dissipate, if I can get over it at all.
In the story about me and Dad, a bond of trust was broken suddenly and took years to rebuild. In the story about Sheik and Nate, neglect or abuse was probably a very good reason not to trust, and learning to trust took time and a large number of countering experiences. Whether the trust was initially there and lost, or it was never there to begin with, the work of building it up requires patience and consistency.
Trust is like money: a treasure to have, often under-appreciated until it is gone, painful to lose, and hard to earn. Only, it can grow by giving it away.