‘What matters most in life is how well you walk through the fire.’ – Charles Bukowski
Charles Bukowski was an acclaimed author of fiction, poetry and non-fiction, and a rampant alcoholic. Consciously or otherwise, he knew a thing or two about self-trust.
Widely regarded as one of the leading influencers of 1950s and 1960s American pop culture, his work represented a life-long exercise in self-exploration characterised by life choices and decisions that the majority of apparently ‘right-minded’ people would likely consider ill-advised even in today’s socially-entrepreneurial society.
In good mental health, self-trust comes as standard.
Some may tut disapprovingly at Bukowski’s lifestyle and outwardly reckless approach to his financial security, and many might speculate about whether his choices spoke to deeper mental health issues.
Yet all the available evidence paints a picture of a man who appeared never to be in conflict with himself. Shame, the familiar bedfellow of addiction, was apparently absent from his life. His decisions and their inherent personal risks appear to have been calculated and rational.
So often in life we think and talk about trust as an externalised concept – we speak of ‘trust issues’ in the context of the trust we have in others, or perhaps our inability to trust in them.
Lack of trust in others manifests itself in one of two ways:
These trust-related behaviours are those that are tangible and potentially visible to others. They include things like phone checking, social media account snooping, and irrational accusations.
Acting out can also be seen in what is known in psychology as ‘splitting’ – pinballing between extreme decisions or behaviour.
It’s those days of partying hard followed by three weeks of nothing but wheatgrass juice followed by another hedonistic week of partying, or swearing on the lives of everyone you love that you’ll never go out with that person again, only to do exactly that the next day.
These are internalised behaviours that are largely psychological and hidden from others. They may include paranoia, a feeling that people don’t like us or don’t want to spend time with us, the belief that all men/women are unfaithful, and the avoidance of intimacy in romantic or social relationships (also known as social, emotional or sexual anorexia.
Other signs that you may have trust issues
You view people with suspicion about their motives
You don’t share your true feelings
You assume the worst intentions by others
You make every interaction all about you—how could they do this to me?!
You doubt your own capabilities and decisions
When we are operating on a ‘non-trust’ level we’re inclined to keep ourselves closed off from all the opportunities available to us.
There are many valid reasons to be mistrustful, of course. I’ve written before about how trauma, especially in childhood, can erode trust.
The trauma of living with addiction, abandonment, neglect, rejection or scapegoating can have a catastrophic impact on trust and inevitably makes us predisposed to be wary and suspicious.
Trauma always disconnects us from our ‘self’ because it creates a split and makes us forget who we really are, creating a mistaken (yet powerful) belief that ‘what happened to us is who we are’.
Healing these wounds is always possible – but it requires time and commitment, because healing from big stuff is messy and magical and awful and brilliant and all of that again on steroids.
We also have to recognise that our wounds never really go away – it’s just that the other parts of us become strong and adult and big enough to contain them. Most importantly, these muscles prevent the wounds and triggers of childhood trauma from dictating how we live in both the present and the future.
And whilst it hurts like hell to trust and be betrayed, it also really hurts us to not trust because we are engineered to be inter-dependent. Intimacy is always challenging, but it’s even harder if you’re constantly in scanning mode for threats that are invisible.
So , how do we learn to trust?
It starts with learning to trust yourself. Self-trust makes us more likely to make good decisions, set good boundaries, and listen to our intuition with clarity so we can accurately identify when something feels ‘off’.
Self-trust makes you less likely to be seduced by the siren call of strong physical emotional attraction without also first listening to your more objective inner voice, which may pick up signals you might otherwise ignore or miss. And, yes, you may have a few false starts before you master this.
But it all takes practice. Most people who have learned to trust themselves have succumbed to opportunities that in hindsight would have been better off politely or not so politely declined. But you often need more than one rodeo to get the hang of making the right decision for you.
Trust is not black and white
Life is always coloured in shades of grey, so in building self-trust we have to have the emotional maturity to stop seeing people as either trustworthy or not. Yes, sometimes people will let us down, but it doesn’t mean they always will.
One of the main benefits that comes from trusting yourself is having faith in your ability to recover when things go wrong – to be able to walk through Bukowski’s fire.
No one knows for sure what life will throw at us. We make life choices believing that they will turn out the way we expect – no one, for example, gets married while they’re planning their divorce. But to avoid taking those chances for the fear they’ll go wrong is to waste life’s most beautiful opportunities.
Loving anyone or anything requires us to be vulnerable. It’s part of being human, no matter how iron-clad our facades might be.
When you can walk through fire and live to tell the tale, it’s suddenly possible to believe that you’re more capable of getting up and dusting yourself off than you ever thought possible.
It’s impossible to overplay the importance of listening to your gut instincts. How many times have you overridden your intuition only to be steamrollered by our old friend Captain Hindsight?
How do you learn self-trust?
I’m a big fan of small steps. Start by trusting yourself with the small decisions and take action based on what the responses of your intuition, because it is only action that validates that sixth sense.
Strive to be who you are and not the person you think others want to see. As a result, and with commitment and time, you’ll begin to discover that the right people will come into your life.
Be kind to yourself. This is the single most important gift you can give to yourself because it is impossible to have a good life without self-compassion.
Set reasonable goals. To begin with your ambitions may exceed your ability to achieve them, and to try only invites failure, which often results in loss of confidence and self-esteem. So, set smaller targets that may be demanding but are achievable.
Spend time with yourself. It’s easy in today’s world to spend your entire life caught up in a whirl of mindless activity and a forest of twitching detail, but sometimes that noise drowns out our own voice.
If you can’t listen to yourself or hear your inner thoughts, it’s impossible to trust yourself.
Putting trust in yourself in the face of adversity takes courage. There is no thing as fearlessness, because absence of fear is really recklessness. True courage lies in recognising fear and standing your ground and moving forward – that walk through fire, again.
Be true to yourself
There has never been as much divisive noise in the world as there is right now and it can be hard see what is right and wrong for you amidst the incessant howl of social media; but a part of you always knows what’s right for you – it’s our inner sat nav and we have it for a reason – so listen to it, and act on it.
We spend a lot of time in our lives worrying about how we are perceived, how others judge us, whether we fit the template of other people’s lives. But the reality is that to achieve true happiness there is only really one person whose respect and approval you need.
If you can look in the bathroom mirror each morning and like and trust the person staring back at you, can believe in that person’s ability to look out for you and protect you, and have faith that they are the person who is – or is at least becoming – the person you strive to be, then the person you see has already achieved something remarkable.
They have walked through the fires of self-doubt. And they know they can do it again.