“The only way to know if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” ~Ernest Hemmingway
In a world where it seems as though all we hear about and see is how one person betrayed another, how do we allow ourselves to trust someone to get close at all, let alone trust them to be near the most fragile parts of us?
Over the course of the last year, I’ve been working as an intern-counselor at a residential high school with around 70 teenagers. Many of them have come from unbelievably challenging backgrounds where they have had to learn to not trust anyone as a matter of survival.
Imagine having spent your entire life always having to watch your back literally and figuratively, not just because there are strangers who may want to harm you, but also because even those who are supposed to be close to you could turn against you in an instant.
How difficult do you think it would be to let down the defenses that kept you safe and in some cases, alive, for so long?
In my own world, I’ve struggled with allowing people to really know me because for most of my life, it felt as though I was burned every time I did.
Over time, I learned how to seem friendly but kept virtually everyone at a distance, and those who got too close I rapidly pushed away, sometimes completely out of my life.
I was already struggling to put my pieces back together after several major tragedies in my family, and allowing others in meant (the possibility of) compounding my heartbreak. I just couldn’t handle anymore at the time.
Eventually I began to open up, but each time found myself wondering why I had been so naive again.
Then there came a point where, slowly but surely, people began to enter my life who showed me what it meant to be able to trust—trust them to show up, trust them to listen, trust them with commitments, and the biggest one of all, trust them with my heart.
These people came in the form of friends who are now my family and have had my back in countless ways over the years, and the most surprising and recent of all, a man who is not only telling me, but showing me, what a man does to express his profound interest beyond just the physical.
If I wouldn’t have begun to take down my walls, I may have never found these amazing people. They didn’t appear because I had perfectly learned to trust already. They appeared because I was willing to learn to trust, even if imperfectly.
As I’ve been learning to trust and lower my defenses, I’ve been working with my students to do the same.
Their stories are different in that many of them have come from a history of abuse and/or gang related activities. But we share a similar outcome in struggling to realize that what once protected us is no longer needed, and in some cases, is actually hurting us further by isolating us from the love we need to heal and move forward.
It’s like taking too much medicine; sometimes a certain amount is necessary to get better, but beyond that it can break our systems down.
We each come to crossroads in our lives where we have to make the decision to let go of our old survival mechanisms in order to grow and make room for something better.
Sometimes what used to protect us becomes what harms us and stifles the capacity for our lives to be open and full of joy, love, and peace.
When it comes to trusting each other, we have to accept that our past is not our present. We have to be able to recognize that what hurt us before is not necessarily what is currently standing before us—even sometimes when the situation looks frighteningly similar, and sometimes even when it’s the same person.
Does this mean we won’t ever get hurt again? Nope. That’s a part of life. People will let us down, and we will let them down, but that doesn’t mean our efforts to disassemble our defense mechanisms are in vain.
If we never allow ourselves any vulnerability, we lose out on the opportunity to make incredibly deep and meaningful connections that open up our lives in ways that couldn’t happen any other way.
Those connections draw out the very best within and create a new reality—one where we learn that the only way to know if you can trust somebody is to trust them.