Learning To Trust to Build Better Relationships With New Strangers

Photo by DJ Johnson / Unsplash

How do you define trust?

Is it the ability to freely express yourself with another person? Is it placing your mental, emotional, and physical safety in another person's hands? Or is it about shedding doubt and fear so you can live without worrying about the consequences?

A close friend once told me, "There are things ingrained into us as children that we will never be able to shake." For me, trust is one of those things.

Raised Not To Trust

As you journey through life, you constantly encounter new information that can alter the way you enjoy this life experience.

At around the age of ten, a conversation with my mother shattered my innocence in trusting people. Since then, I've been cautious with everyone I meet. I maintain a certain distance and disinterest initially. I need to assess who you are and how I want to interact with you.

I grew up feeling broken, just like many kids from Brooklyn or first-generation immigrant families. I've also been hyper-aware since childhood, keenly conscious of my mortality, my limitations, and my vulnerability.

As I grew up, I learned to withstand all sorts of physical pain. With discipline and conditioning, I've managed to increase my tolerance for physical discomfort. Fitness quickly taught me that that physical pain is temporary, and I could never let the physical defeat me. But emotional pain has a different grip—it has confined me to my bed and imposed limits on how I live my life.

Mental and spiritual pain were my constant companions—depression, funks, self-loathing, nihilism, and misanthropy. I knew I couldn't let those define my life. If I let my childhood trauma dictate how I see people, I’d never trust anyone, build a community or meaningful connections, or become a good father. Without confronting life's pain and evolving my perspective, I’d be swallowed by emotional, mental, and spiritual anguish, leaving me as just an empty shell.

Trust Is Part Of Every Life Experience

One day on a flight from JFK to MIA, I thought about trust. I've spent a lot of my life arrogantly saying I don't trust people. Yet, here I was in this giant machine, trusting my life to countless strangers. I trust the engineers designed the plane properly. I trust the plane inspector did his job wholeheartedly. I trust the pilot had adequate rest and is emotionally and mentally sound to operate the plane to get me to my destination safely.

I don't trust people?

I do! You do too!

Everything you eat, drink, touch, drive, or ride is an extension of trust. You trust that:

  • your organic fruit is pesticide-free
  • the products and clothes you buy are reasonably priced
  • the car you drive was built to work correctly with normal wear and tear
  • if you take public transportation, the bus driver and train conductors are awake and sober

When robots/AI start taking labor jobs, you'll trust in the robots. Matter fact, you're more likely to trust Google Chrome with your credit/debit card information, than you would your best friend.

The Disconnect

There's a disconnection between you and the people who build the technology you use, as well as those who operate or sell it directly to you. The more you're distanced from the source, the less fear, worry, and lack of trust you tend to feel.

Consider Murphy's Law—anything that can go wrong, will. The bus or train operator might be groggy one day. The pilot on your flight could be drunk. Even your local, state, and federal politicians might be secretly performing Satanic rituals as they make decisions that impact your life.

Is it a lack of fear that drives your willingness to trust strangers? If so, isn't trusting in social and economic systems a way to reduce the fear of exploring and enjoying experiences? There's always some level of total surrender to strangers. So, if you often find yourself thinking you don't trust people, what’s really going on?

When you're disconnected from other people, it's easier to establish trust. It feels safer to accept the responsibility of a stranger if there's no emotional or direct connection. This distance allows you to rely on broader systems and abstract assumptions. However, the challenge of trusting people you interact with directly is that there's a personal element. With direct interaction, you see their flaws, emotions, and inconsistencies up close. This proximity can make you more vulnerable, triggering skepticism and a heightened awareness of risks. It demands a deeper level of vulnerability and a more nuanced understanding of human behavior, which can make trust more challenging.

Memory of Pain

Yes, the memory of pain caused by direct interaction can be a significant factor in why it's challenging to trust people you interact with. Memory isn't just about recalling facts; it's a full-body experience that can transport you back to painful moments. Certain scents, touches, colors, or words can trigger a flood of emotions and sensory reactions, compelling you to revisit those dark corners of your mind that you'd thought were behind you. When these memories resurface, your heart races, your palms get sweaty, and your stomach churns—all signs that the emotional and physical remnants of past pain are still very much alive. This visceral response can make you hesitant to trust again, as the memory of pain feels as real as the moment it happened.

When it comes to trust, situations don't have to be identical to trigger doubt and fear. It could be as simple as a song playing in a store—one that you used to share with someone you loved. Suddenly, the flood of memories and the pain that follows come rushing back. It doesn't even have to be that exact song; it could be any song by the same artist, setting off a chain reaction in your brain's synapses that eventually leads to that painful memory. This kind of associative memory can catch you off guard, making you question the stability of the present as it pulls you back into the emotional echoes of the past. These unexpected triggers can reinforce a reluctance to trust, as they show how easily you can be drawn back into the pain you'd hoped to leave behind.

(My) Scenario: When your parents lie to you as a kid, it can shatter your trust in them. You expect honesty from them based on their role in your life, so when they lie, it leaves a deep wound. The fallout from this breach of trust can extend to others. You start questioning everyone—your spouse, pastor, boss, even your best friend—assuming they all have ulterior motives. This mindset can lead to paranoia, where you see hidden agendas everywhere. Trust becomes intertwined with paranoia, a sort of safety net that keeps you vigilant. Yet, it's also crucial to recognize when this fear-driven trust might be holding you back. To lead a fulfilling life, you need to strike a balance: having the safety net of trust, but also knowing when to push past the fear it can create, allowing yourself to build genuine connections without the constant shadow of doubt.

Freeing Yourself from Distrust

So how do you learn to trust when disconnection isn't an option? How do you trust when you want to build a relationship?

Although my default setting has been to distrust, I've found a way to reframe how I approach relationships by redefining what trust means to me. If I can trust a stranger with my life—like a pilot or a bus driver—I can trust a stranger with certain parts of my heart and emotions. As I get to know someone better, I adjust and adapt my level of trust, allowing it to grow or contract based on my experiences with them. This gradual process helps me build connections without feeling overwhelmed by the fear of vulnerability.

Here are some points that have helped me reestablish trust in people.

  • Let time work - Trust takes time to build. If you have the courage, sanity, and endurance to fight through the beginning of any type of relationship, trust naturally reveals itself down the line. Take baby steps.
  • Trust yourself - Who else is there to always depend on but yourself? Usually, when you meet someone, you'll feel their energy. What causes issues down the line is when you ignore your instincts. This doesn't mean hightailing it the moment you have a negative thought. It means knowing:
    • yourself
    • your expectations
    • what you're looking for,
    • and seeing if this person can fulfill this role in your life.
  • High risk, High return - You can't win if you don't play. There are some extremely great people in the world who are just like you. Find each other. Tying in with trusting yourself, if something feels right, take the risk and go for it. One of two things happens: you find someone you can trust, or you find someone you can't trust. Either you're mistaken, or you're right back where you started. In both cases, life goes on. There are always more people to connect with.
  • Communicate - Trust is two-sided. Your fears, doubts, insecurities — share them with the right people. If they're worth being in your life, they will understand and find ways to compensate and ease your doubts. If they don't, they're not worth your time.
  • Don't fear failure - Everything seems fantastic in the moment. Friendships and relationships feel vital when you're part of them, but once you step out, you see where the mistakes were. Don't fear failure. Out of the 8 billion people on this planet, you'll barely meet even .01%. Fail, move on, and find new people. There are always new people. The internet allows you to be everywhere with anyone. Whether they're across the country, across the sea, or the planet, they're there for you.

Trust Takes Time

Trust takes time to build. The idea of trusting someone will always seem scary. You can either live as a hermit or live carefully. Either way, take control of your life by understanding the people you allow in, the conversations you enjoy, the power you give people, and the decisions you make daily. Everyone is an individual; treat them that way.

Trust is a plant that needs nourishment to build for some people. Find the right people to be your sun and rain.

Clifford Genece

Clifford Genece