Self Trust

Self trust is an interesting concept: widely assumed yet, unfortunately, not so widely practiced. It is also the foundation for leading competent and fulfilling lives. Self distrust (or self doubt), on the other hand, feels more prevalent. It piggybacks on the feeling that there is no safety, external or internal, and can manifest in several ways from overdependence on others to ?ber independence. The over dependent person looks towards others for safety or a means in which to trust life. They cannot find it within so they look for it in others: a Sisyphean task. In over independence, rigid walls are erected to protect oneself from the outside world. Flexible boundaries are scary for the overly independent. With no trust in self, to feel safe in the presence of another they ask, “what will happen to me if I let another in, let another help me or be kind to me?” Trust in self is the first step in feeling safe but it is also imperative in creating fulfilling lives and satisfying relationships.

  Loss of self trust can occur at anytime: we lose our job, fail an exam or end a relationship, and a period of self distrust follows. However, a persistent lack of self distrust will have its roots in childhood, a time when our survival was dependent on our caregiver’s thoughts, actions and emotions. In that dependency, we have to trust our primary caregivers and in turn, our caregiver’s job is to teach us to start trusting ourselves. Abuse and neglect can corrupt a child’s sense of trust but abuse of power doesn’t have to be so extreme. Parenting is a fine balancing act between “taking care of” and “taking over” in times of need. How many times have you been at a play ground and seen a caregiver prioritizing caution over a child’s physical initiative, or overheard an adult telling the child how they should feel, what they should think, or who they should befriend? Self distrust does not necessarily come from chronic physical or sexual abuse, it can be a slow corroding of a child’s confidence through the most mundane events.

  Parenting is a difficult profession; there are no exact rules or right methods. Children come into this world with different temperaments, strengths and vulnerabilities. They come into families with different temperaments, strengths and vulnerabilities, and sometimes that match isn’t great. So what can we, as a community, do about it?

  In 1955, a thirty year longitudinal study began with the birth of 698 infants on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. One of the goals was to document how early family conditions affect children in later years. The researchers compiled case studies; conducting extensive interviews from professional and lay caregivers and, later, the adult children themselves. One of the study’s main findings came from a sub-group of these infants that were ultimately exposed to several risk factors before the age of two. These risk factors included: perinatal stress, chronic poverty, poorly educated parents (less than grade 8), and family discord (alcoholism, divorce, mental illness, etc.).  The researchers found that in this sub-group (129 children), one third of them grew into competent young adults despite their family’s situation. The author concluded that these 72 “resilient” children thrived because all “had at least one person [relative, babysitter, sports coach, teacher etc.] in their lives who accepted them unconditionally, regardless of temperamental idiosyncrasies or physical or mental handicaps” (Werner, 1989).

  In other words, there was at least one person who was able to instill enough self trust in these children by just believing in them. Food for thought anytime there is the opportunity to spend time with a child.

For more info see Werner, E. E.  Children of the Garden Island. Scientific American, April, 1989: 106-11.


Jo-Ann Svensson teaches “creative codependence” and is a Bodywork Therapist.