• We often take trust for granted, until it is broken

  • Psychologist and author Chris Skellett explores the three dimensions of trust: in oneself, in relationships, and in the world

  • If your trust has been broken and you need to talk to someone, find a therapist here 

Trust is like oxygen. It’s all around us. It is an absolute necessity for living a healthy life. When we live in a trusting world, we take it for granted and we hardly realise that it is there.

But take away trust and we are suddenly gasping for survival. A sudden accident or trauma, a partner’s infidelity, or a business deal turned sour…these kinds of experience all lead to a major re-think of how we see the world. Suddenly we find ourselves questioning everything.

Our complacent assumptions of a safe and predictable world are shattered. We become suspicious, fearful, and full of self-doubt. We feel betrayed. We can no longer trust our judgements about the world. What had once seemed so straightforward and simple now becomes complicated and confusing.

We start to assume mistrust, and this inevitably takes us into a confusing world of insecurity and second guessing. We look for hidden agendas, unexpected consequences, and dark motives. At its worst, we become paranoid. A world without trust is riddled with avoidance, negativity and fear.

We speak so often about trust, but few of us have any idea as to how it can be usefully managed and conceptualised. 

For example:

  • Is it something that we should give freely, or is it something that must be earned?
  • Is it something that lies within ourselves (“I have great trust in him”) or within others (“He is completely trustworthy”)?
  • Are we being excessively naïve when we trust, or are we being overly cautious when we don’t trust?

It turns out that the more that we stop to think about trust, the less we seem to understand what it is.

I define trust as an assumption of predictable and affirming outcomes. This suggests that when we trust, we are assuming that what we expect to happen will actually happen, and that events will generally work out favourably for us.

By defining trust as an assumption, it becomes something that we choose to do and is therefore something over which we can gain active control.

Assumptions of trust are generally forward looking. We see that essentially they are about managing future risk. They require us to make best guess estimates about the probability of a positive or a negative outcome.

Trust operates in a world of optimism, pessimism, and general uncertainty. It is a subjective world based on one’s personal belief about the future, and encompasses the powerful emotions of hope, fear and despair.

The three dimensions of trust

There are three domains of trust to consider:

In trusting ourselves, we trust ourselves to make good decisions, to perform competently, and to manage ourselves well. We trust ourselves to keep good boundaries with the world around us, and the people that we meet.  We also trust ourselves to remember our past effectively, and to plan well for the future.  We are confident.

In trusting our relationships with others, we trust others to act in our best interests, to respect us, and to be honest. Trust is widely acknowledged as a necessary platform for any healthy relationship.

In trusting our world, we trust our world to be predictable and to be safe. We assume that the natural rhythms and patterns of events will unfold as we expect. We also trust that the way we view the world is essentially correct, and that what we believe to be true is actually the truth.

Clinical problems will usually arise when our trust in one or more of the domains has been compromised.

The core domain to nurture should always be to trust in oneself. It is the key to personal resilience. Because if we keep trust in ourselves following adversity, we can always dust ourselves down and rise again… 

Chris Skellett is the author of The Power of the Second Question

Further reading

How time-keeping and trust relate in therapy

How therapy can help build interpersonal trust

Why don't we trust our own feelings?

Therapy helped me recover after an affair