by Dee Ann Miller
"I don't trust anyone any more--not even you!" I didn't know how to react the first time I heard those words. It was 1993. I was standing at the Re-Imagining Conference, sponsored by the World Council of Churches, in Minneapolis, where I'd just opened my first package of my new book, How Little We Knew. Already overwhelmed and humbled with the number of passionate women standing in line to tell their stories or ask questions, I felt as if I'd been slapped in the face by the speaker who was introducing herself to me with those words. Looking back, I fear my shock showed, despite my attempt to be gracious.
While I hadn't asked anyone to totally trust me, her choice to approach my table, in itself, showed a degree of trust. Of course, she was taking a risk, even though what she saw from my table indicated that I should be empathetic and understanding in regard to her story.
Following my gut, I responded: "I understand that it's hard to trust anyone when you've been betrayed." Yet, inside my head I was saying: "Either I don't understand or this lady doesn't really understand what she is saying."Wasn't her presence at the conference something of a contradiction to her statement? Getting on a plane, walking into a strange motel, and joining over 2000 people at an international conference was a testimony that she indeed trusted a lot more than she realized.
Later that evening, as I crawled into bed, reflecting on the intense hours in that unforgettable day, looking back at all of the lives that had touched mine over the course of a few hours, this woman's words above all others haunted me. Eventually, as I quieted my own thoughts, I realized that it had to do with my own past associations. I'd actually met people who'd made this same statement, through their actions, many times. Just never outside the psychiatric intensive care units. I'd often patiently coaxed patients to take pills or eat food that they were quite convinced would poison them! Yet those people were psychotic. To have someone, walking around at an international conference, making this statement about trust to a total stranger, was another matter.
Within a decade, I would have heard those words countless times from survivors of sexual abuse by clergy. No longer am I stunned. I am convinced each person believes what she or he is saying. However, I still question the accuracy of that statement each time I hear it.
Having had my own experience of deep betrayal by colleagues I previously considered level-headed, my confidence in a lot of people has been seriously eroded. Yet, I have trusted many people since: enough to apply for a job, buy a house, fill out Pell Grant applications to help our family survive in the midst of the economic devastation that had been created in the aftermath of that betrayal. In each of these situations, I was cautious, perhaps wiser than a few years earlier, definitely much more anxious, yet this did not stop me from moving forward, expecting things to work out. I have told my story and others' stories many times (with their permission, of course), yet without trusting my listeners to comprehend fully what I was saying. Each time we take a risk, there is always the possibility and maybe even the likelihood that people will not understand what we need. Yet there is also a good possibility some will.
Today, when I hear: "I don't trust ANYONE." I think of it as an incomplete sentence. I believe the lady at the Re-Imagining Conference was saying she did not trust me 100% to fully believe her story or to give her whatever she was seeking from me. She was wise not to trust me in that way, especially since many others had undoubtedly failed her in the past. Going back to that day many times to reflect on her words, I find the saddest thing is that she felt a need to make that statement at all.
To say that one does not trust ANYONE is to give more power to those who have failed us previously than those people deserve. To fully trust every stranger on the street, though, is as foolish as not trusting anyone. Both ends of the spectrum are irrational.
Some survivors put a preface to "I don't trust ANYONE" by saying: "I used to trust EVERYONE. Now I don't trust ANYONE! These survivors are the ones that concern me most. They seem to be under the impression that previously "trusting everyone" 100% was a good, healthy way to live. Truth is, while it would be magically wonderful if we could divide the world's population into two distinct boxes--trustworthy and untrustworthy--none of us would fit into either box. We all like to think we would. Yet we are all human, no matter how hard we try to be otherwise. Although I try hard to be trustworthy, there are times when I can't be trusted to come through perfectly. I do not want anyone to trust me 100%. Do you?
What I believe many survivors of any kind of power abuse are really saying is: "I don't trust myself to keep me safe, ever again. If I get into an unsafe situation or encounter a trigger, I fear that I can't find my way out. I fear that it will totally destroy me." That is also irrational. Yet, if that is your fear, you may want to consider the "I don't trust anyone" again. Chances are you are stronger than you see yourself as being. Chances are, with practice, you can trust yourself more than you realize.
Want a good exercise to assist you in exploring personal trust issues? Then make a list of every person in your life. Beside each name, put a percentage to indicate the degree you feel you can trust that person to do anything for you. Next, list all of the specific things you are certain you could trust that person to do. I think you will find that you trust a lot of people for a lot of different things, yet nobody 100%. This means you are healthier than you have been thinking yourself to be. Yet, what you write about each person is likely to vary, simply because no two people are alike. We all have a different set of strengths and weaknesses. That's why having a support TEAM is so important. Not every person can meet all of your needs. Not even a trusted therapist or your closest friend. Certainly not all survivors can meet all survivor needs. Still, the more people you know, the more likely you are to find ways to get your needs met. Trusting yourself to trust others enough to find a support team is crucial to your growth beyond abuse.
Now, if you are measuring others' trustworthiness, in the general population, based on whether they believe your story or can support you or go to bat for you, then perhaps you need to consider your litmus test. It's nice when all of that happens. It's just not likely that the average person on the street is going to meet all of those criteria. You'll be fortunate if they meet ONE! So perhaps the most accurate statement is: "I don't trust anyone to fully support me, in regard to this lonely journey I'm on." That's very rational. The same could be said of cancer or bereavement. Yet it doesn't negate you trusting others to meet some of your other basic needs, as well as some of your survivor needs. Even though a part of your life's journey is very lonely, there are many other parts to your journey--both past, present, and future--where people, yourself included, have been and will continue to be trustworthy.
There are always going to be situations that we do not foresee in an individual or situation. The world is full of con artists. Yet, it isn't SATURATED by con artists. Most of us can be trusted, by others, to do a lot of wonderful and decent things. Especially we can be trusted to trust ourselves, more and more, as we become wiser and healthier on our progressive journeys.
Of course, you trust--just not everyone all of the time. That's good! It keeps us on our toes when we remember this.
Dee Ann Miller is the author of Enlarging Boston's Spotlight: A Call for Courage, Integrity, and Institutional Transformation (2017) How Little We Knew: Collusion and Confusion with Sexual Misconduct (1993) and The Truth about Malarkey (2000)