by Tanya Ruckstuhl LICSW
At birth our developmental “job” is to receive love and care. This systematically builds our capacity to trust on three levels: first with our caretaker (the immediate, intimate relationship), then our environment (the larger world), and finally ourselves. With this trust-skin in place we can show up in the world with discernment of who to trust and who to avoid, and confidence that we are worthy of receiving love. Just like a good immune system, a healthy trust-skin allows us to protect ourselves when our emotional or physical safety is jeopardized.
A former client came in recently to show me her beautiful new baby. It was awesome to see the way she attended to her child, anticipating her needs, offering help but not interfering with the baby’s exploration. Her baby was calm, curious and joyful. This child was getting her needs met and felt pure trust in her mother as well as the world around her.
Of course none of us received or can possibly provide perfect care all the time, so we all bear some wounds in our trust-skin. The size of our wounds varies due to family circumstances as well as individual temperament and mitigating influences. Children born to parents with addiction, depression, anxiety, abuse, poverty, and discrimination have caretakers only partially available. Imagine watching a toddler only half the time.
A child who grows up without a trustworthy caretaker and safe environment becomes an adult who cannot trust themselves. Mistrust of others is a healthy adaptation in a physically or emotionally dangerous environment. But without repair, adaptation becomes mutation. The neglected or abused child might become the adult who shields themselves in isolation and cynicism in order to avoid the pain of relationship disappointments. They may become rigid and judgmental, striving to control people and situations around them so that they feel safe. They may lack interpersonal boundaries and accept or perpetrate abuse. They may compulsively people-please, taking care of the needs of everyone within a mile radius in order to feel likable.
These painful adaptations do not have to be life sentences. Our trust-skin is formed, damaged and repaired through the magic of relationships. Healing damaged trust happens naturally in stable and long term relationships where we feel safe, deeply known, and valued. The best form of this is a healthy love relationship with a partner who can express their own as well as accept their beloved’s full range emotions (love/anger/sorrow/fear/joy/curiosity/etc.) without alarm or rejection. Honestly, this is rarely seen. Typically women are emotional virtuosos able to indentify, describe and express emotions while men treat emotions like Shaggy and Scooby Do entering a dark cave: with mortal terror. But men need repair of their trust-skin as much as, if not more than women.
And these generalities are not limited to heterosexual couples. Gay and lesbian couples have the exact same patterns, with one party typically being more emotionally expressive and relationally oriented and the other being more emotion-avoidant.
Providing the safety to heal our trust-skin requires both members to value their connection above the familiarity of emotional withdrawal, above being better-than and above the moment’s convenience.
How do we value connection over the moment’s convenience? It means you stop playing on your computer or reading your book or watching your show when someone you love is talking to you. It means eye contact, listening, asking clarifying questions, responding thoughtfully and affirming your partner/child/best friend. It means asking for time and space to meet your own needs so that you do not show up for your loved one filled with resentment.
Therapy is a venue for this type of repair as well. In therapy you are attended to in a safe, stable and predictable fashion by a person whose agenda is your wellbeing. There are no distractions and the time is limited so the experience of being solely focused on is not too overwhelming.
People in therapy are then able to bring the experience of finally feeling valued into their larger life as a functional set of expectations for how they treat and are treated by those around them.
It’s never too late. We are never too old. And we are–every single of us–worth the work it takes to heal.