Someone recently queried about how those of us who have lived through abuse, of any sort, have worked to rebuild trust (if we have) or moved on.
This is a difficult question, because of course — like so much in life — circumstance and experience can make all the difference.
Trust is an integral part of our social dynamic, as humans — and critical to our survival. Although it sounds trite, we do practice trust every day, to some extent (i.e. – we trust other drivers to follow traffic laws, we trust our children’s teacher’s to do right by our children). And when trust is broken, even in one of these small and everyday ways, we feel betrayed or afraid or angry. When our trust is broken by someone close to us, these feelings amplify. We may feel we need to wall ourselves off or cry for days or walk away from the relationship or seek professional help processing our huge feelings. You know what? Any of these responses is perfectly okay.
All of this can be good, to some extent. It helps us weed out those who are toxic to us and can also make us more aware of our surroundings and/or compassionate toward others who might be experiencing what we experienced. It can help us get through the moment, if it’s just a moment, or to create a life transition, if that’s what needs to happen.
It’s less great when we continue to rely on coping mechanisms that no longer serve us — ones we learned, perhaps, in childhood or earlier adulthood. Ones we perhaps saw modeled for us by the person or people who raised us. Ones we’ve seen modeled by movies or TV or our culture at large.
Unfortunately, it’s incredibly easy to fall back on these coping mechanisms. We know that they are safe (enough) for us. We know that they’ve worked in the past. We are perhaps still healing from old wounds (which is, 100% okay, because that’s how emotional pain, in particular, works) or just healed enough to be worried that a new emotional pain would be more than we could tolerate.
It can be hard to recognize the ways that we have grown. The ways that we are strong(er). The ways that we are beautiful and whole even when we still feel broken.
It can be hard to accept that if we’re lucky, we have people in our life who love us and will support us if we let them. That despite our walls or bristly exterior or facade of cool/calm/collected, there are people who are saying, please let me in or how can I support you or I’m so fucking tired of watching you do this to yourself because I give lots of shits about you. It can be hard to trust the good people in our lives.
And it’s hard to trust those good people because even good people fuck up. If we live with trauma related to people hurting us, then we might place additional significance on these fuck-ups. We might see them as intentional instead of a mistake, because at some point, someone deliberately did something to hurt us and we’re still carrying that around. Because memories. Because self-protection. Because learning that we needed to be self-reliant because the people who were supposed to care for us couldn’t or wouldn’t. Because brain science.
And maybe those good people do something that they know will hurt us because they believe it’s for the greater good. I’ve had that happen. It sucked. A lot. It sucked because I was still opening myself up to trusting people again, after most of a lifetime of not trusting people. And, it sucked because it was someone I care, and cared, deeply about and who I knew cared, and cares, deeply for me. I had to make a decision, when that happened, about what type of relationship I wanted us to have going forward. I had to figure out if I wanted forgiveness to happen (spoiler: I did) and how that could look, and then I had to go off and do my own work.
That sucked also. There were times I felt deeply betrayed — though I didn’t assign blame to that person because I knew and trusted that they were doing what they thought was best. Besides that person was blaming themselves plenty.
At times I felt a vise clamping on my heart because I wasn’t sure I could do that work of healing and forgiveness alone (meaning without the person who hurt me). But I had to (with some pro help and a supportive community of other people). There were tears and fights and there are still moments of uncertainty, where I ask that person for reassurance. They offer what they can, when they can, and are honest about what their limits are.
And that’s all I can expect of someone else, and also one of the greatest gifts you can offer someone else: being present enough to listen and talk when you have the emotional bandwidth and being honest enough with yourself and anyone else to admit when you don’t. Saying that you don’t have the emotional bandwidth right now doesn’t mean I don’t care. It just means, I’m human, I’ve got my own shit.
That last bit is a lesson I’m still learning. It’s still easiest for me to interpret someone setting that limit as I don’t care. It’s hard to hear that someone can’t be there for you when you need them. Or can’t be there in the ways that you want or readily recognize.
It can be hard to hear realize that someone you once relied on is stepping out of your life — or that they’ve been gradually stepping out of your life until your relationship with them lives only in memory.
But these things are okay too. We grow. We develop new interests or hobbies or sets of relationships. We have things that take us away from things and people we still care about, because again, that’s how life works.
All of this being said, sometimes it’s best to simply keep a person who has broken your trust out of your life, as much as is possible, (depending on your relationship with them because relationships are complicated, especially if there are more than just two people involved). Sometimes you can step away and move on and work to build new relationships, or cultivate better ones with people whose light has previously only been an ambient glow in your life.
Sometimes, we need to tend to our embers, to nurture that fire that lives in all of us. To not be afraid to say, I am here, I am strong, I have survived.