What some people call “trust issues” may be thoughts and behaviors linked to your attachment style and past experiences. If unresolved, they can impact every relationship in your life.
“Trust issues” is a term thrown around casually, often to indicate when someone displays habitual behaviors of distrust, particularly in intimate relationships. It promotes the stigmatization of complex emotional challenges.
Chronic distrust can affect how you view yourself and all the relationships in your life. You might find you frequently doubt other people will come through on their obligations, for example, or you may be afraid of getting too close to others or feel suspicious when someone is kind to you.
Some of the behaviors associated with a difficulty trusting others can make relationships challenging, but they don’t necessarily have to do with the relationship itself.
What some call “trust issues” may instead be challenges with intimacy and bonding that can manifest as:
- persistent jealousy
- constant suspicion
- ongoing false accusations
- symptoms of anxiety
- avoidant behaviors
- needy behaviors
- emotional sensitivity or reactivity
- reluctance or inability to forgive
- abandonment fear
- signs of codependency
Paranoia vs. trust issues
Distrust is not the same as paranoia. Distrust typically has roots in reality — you’ve experienced something that’s made you doubt the reliability of others.
Paranoia is defined as irrational, intense suspicion and mistrust.
“Where trust is based on learned experiences, paranoia has no origin story. With paranoia, there isn’t evidence to support the suspicion cast on a person or experience,” explains Kali Wolken, a licensed mental health counselor in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Paranoia is often associated with delusional disorders, conditions where you vehemently believe in something untrue.
Several theories on the framework of trust and distrust exist, but in 2005, researchers explored the close relationship between trust and the need for control.
They found that when you don’t feel a sense of control, you’re less likely to form positive expectations of others, a key feature of trust.
Why you might not feel in control may depend on your past experiences and current circumstances.
Possible causes include:
- unloving childhood
- rejection in childhood
- past relationship experiences
- insecure attachment style
- mental health disorders
Living with some side effects of trauma, including long-term, persistent levels of distrust, is natural.
Trauma can be so impactful that research from 2020 notes that mental health professionals must establish a baseline for trust between them and people living with trauma, so those people can go and develop trust in their other relationships.
Maltreatment during childhood doesn’t have to be a singular, devastating experience. It can be exposure to long-term or harmful behaviors that become damaging over time.
Past relationship experiences
Known as “betrayal trauma” or “trauma perpetrated by close others,” these events cause a shattering of trust in a relationship.
For many people, this is an act of infidelity. Still, it can also be an experience so unexpected it ruins a close relationship with family or friends, like acts of theft or sabotage.
In 2014, researchers found, consistent with prior studies, that people with betrayal trauma experiences were less trusting of romantic partners and others in general. However, everyday trusting behaviors overall did not appear significantly affected.
Attachment style theory suggests that how you bond with your primary caregivers as a child directly impacts how you form relationships as an adult.
Insecure attachment styles are thought to be the result of parents who didn’t meet certain needs as you were growing up.
For example, inconsistent parenting may have led to an anxious attachment style, often associated with abandonment fear later in life.
In 2015, a
Mental health disorders
Certain mental health disorders may involve symptoms of distrust or paranoia, including:
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- paranoid personality disorder
- dependent personality disorder
- psychosis/psychotic disorders
- depressive disorders
- anxiety disorders
It’s natural to experience some level of mistrust, or general unease, even on a daily basis.
Everyday trust, the kind of trust that lets you walk near strangers on the street, is determined by:
- your natural predisposition toward trust given by your temperament
- confidence in the information or knowledge
Entering an unknown city with unfamiliar people, for example, can cause you to experience mistrust.
Chronic distrust may be a challenging pattern to stop, but it’s not impossible to overcome.
“When it comes to building trust, open and effective communication is essential,” says Dr. Kamran Eshtehardi, a clinical psychologist in Pasadena, California.
Eshtehardi recommends discussing your challenges with trust, letting others know your values, and explaining where your lines are drawn.
Wolken suggests avoiding “you did this to me” during these conversations and focusing on “I felt this way” statements.
An example would be: “I felt disappointed when you didn’t show up on time.” This assigns ownership to your feelings rather than solely blaming the other person.
Wolken explains trust is more easily built when you’re an active participant in the process. Communicating trust is the first step.
Allowing people the chance to change
If your distrust stems from someone’s habits, Wolken says the best way to rebuild trust is to allow that person a chance to prove themselves.
To do this, open communication about the issue is a must, and clear expectations have to be set.
Example: “I feel disappointed when you’re late to important events. On Saturday, I’d appreciate it if you were there on time.”
If habits that break trust continue after open communication, it may be time to reconsider that relationship.
Finding a place for trustworthy people
When someone hasn’t given you any reason to doubt them, Kevin Coleman, a marriage and family therapist in Columbia, South Carolina, suggests finding an emotional starting point for them.
“Identify one small area where you could let them in emotionally speaking, and one small step at a time, you can trust them a little more than you used to,” he says.
This can mean opening up to them about your favorite hobby, for example, or telling them something meaningful about your family.
Validating what you’re feeling
Coleman also recommends examining your feelings when you’re experiencing distrust.
By listing why you distrust someone, you can take a step back from distorted thoughts and ask yourself if they have a concrete basis.
Writing your thoughts in a journal can help you express what you’re experiencing and can help you see patterns in chronic distrust toward multiple people.
The roots of chronic distrust often emerge from significant life experiences. In addition to trust issues, you may live with other challenges, including mental health disorders.
Speaking with a mental health professional can help.
You can work together toward exploring the causes and effects of the original event that created chronic distrust. A mental health professional can also help you discover new pathways toward building and maintaining trust.
If you’ve been told you have “trust issues,” people may be referring to patterns of distrust they see recur throughout your relationships. In reality, you don’t “have issues” but rather probably live with the psychological effects of a significant life experience.
Chronic distrust can come from a traumatic incident, an unloving childhood, or experienced betrayal in other relationships.
Overcoming trust challenges often involves understanding where these feelings come from. A mental health professional can help guide you in the process of recovery.