By Martha Beck
O, The Oprah Magazine
I’m writing this in the African bush, where I’ve just watched five lions dismantling a dead buffalo, a hungry leopard stalking impala, and several baboons snitching part of my own breakfast when my back was turned. Out here, my safety depends on the knowledge, courage, and selflessness of just a few human beings. Some of these people I know well; others I’ve barely met. We are of various colors and creeds, sharing only a conflict-riddled ancestral history. Yet I feel safer at this moment than I once felt in my suburban American bedroom. It’s not that I’m blind to life’s fragility or the dangers around me. It’s just that I possess a gift offered by many mistake-filled years: At my age, I have a pretty good idea what and whom to trust.
It’s because I’ve learned to depend on a handy little inner mechanism—you’ve got one too. Call it a “trust-o-meter,” a bit of hardware preinstalled on your hard drive the day you arrived, tiny and vulnerable, from the stork factory. Ever since, your trust-o-meter has been programmed up the wazoo, first by caregivers, then by you yourself. If your inner software is working well, your trust-o-meter is guiding you safely through life’s many hazards. If it isn’t, you smash into one disappointment or betrayal after another. The good news is that no matter how faulty your trust-o-meter, it’s never too late to debug the system. Trust me on that.
Read this; then you make that call.
Step 1: Testing the System
I’m about to reveal one of my favorite life coaching tricks, which I’ve used on literally thousands of people. In the middle of a speech or coaching session, I’ll suddenly say, “Are you comfortable?” Most people look startled, squint at me as though I’m a few chocolates short of a full box, then assure me that yes, they’re comfortable.
“Really?” I’ll say, earnestly.
Yes, they insist, getting a bit annoyed, they’re totally comfortable.
Then I ask this: “So, if you were alone in your bedroom right now, would you be sitting in the position you’re in at this moment?”
It takes them all of 0.03 seconds to answer, “No.” But it takes them much longer to come up with the answer to my next question:
Some people will just sit there blinking, as if I’ve asked them to explain why they didn’t invent spaghetti. It takes them much consternated thinking to come up with the answer—which is, of course, that the positions in which people sit in public settings are generally much less loose than the positions they adopt when unobserved, in a room designed for rest and relaxation.
In short, they’re a bit uncomfortable.
Now, the problem here isn’t the discomfort itself—people can handle a world of hurt if necessary. The problem is that they aren’t conscious of their own discomfort, even though it’s obvious. They lie to my face in clear daylight, believing they’re telling the truth even though they know (and I know…and they know that I know) they’re lying.
Do you find that last sentence confusing? Welcome to denial, which, oh, honey, it’s true, ain’t just a river in Egypt.
Denial exists because human infants, though equipped with trust-o-meters, are built to trust, blindly and absolutely, any older person who wanders past. Life would be brief, incredibly complicated, and unbearably frightening for any baby who didn’t invest automatic confidence in her caregivers, who suspected adults of deception whenever they said, “Drink this; it’s good for you” or “Those people are evil” or “Grandma will take care of you.” We all have faith in the people we encounter during our early youth. If they deserve this, our trust-o-meters are programmed to function accurately, and we’re well on our way to a life of wise discernment.
Sadly, however, few child-rearers deserve the unmitigated trust babies invest in them. Some adults, purposely or (far more often) accidentally, give children unhealthy drinks, from tainted water to Jack Daniels. Others, out of malice or (far more often) ignorance, create unwarranted fear and prejudice. Sometimes Grandma is a psychopath or (far more often) a short-tempered neurotic whose idea of childcare involves strapping the kiddies into her Cadillac so she can cruise the red light district searching through binoculars for her ex-boyfriend’s car.
If something along those lines happened to you, you’ve been conditioned to attach the definition “trustworthy” to people who are, in fact, untrustworthy. If your parents let you sip their whiskey as an expression of affection, you may be wired to swear by alcoholics. If you were raised by white supremacists, you may rely on lunatic skinheads. If your beloved Grandma was a stalker, obsessive jealousy may inspire your confidence. You’ll be extremely uncomfortable the whole time, but you won’t recognize the discomfort.
This is why denial is so baffling: You have no idea you’re in it. Rather than thinking, “I am now displaying unwarranted trust,” you just feel…off. Confused. Maybe a little crazy. Maybe a lot crazy. Something seems wrong, and over time, it feels wronger and wronger. Those of us with badly calibrated trust-o-meters usually think the wrongness must be in us, that if we can somehow think or work or love better, our painful relationships with the alcoholic racist stalkers in our lives will somehow become perfect.
For those of us who want to know if we have defective trust-o-meters, the evidence is blessedly obvious: Our relationships and life situations don’t work. We’re lying to ourselves, pretending we’re at ease when we know we aren’t, so, in the converse of Goethe’s dictum, we don’t have a clue how to live. We’re often rudely awakened, bitterly disappointed, shockingly betrayed. If this happens to you once, perhaps [you’re just unfortunate]. If it happens repeatedly, there are bugs in your system.
Step 2: The Scientific Method
All child-rearers—myself among them—are confused, mistaken, or ignorant about some things, so don’t waste time insisting that your parents fix every glitch in your programming, or flagellate yourself for not spotting their errors. Just start using the scientific method to reboot your trust-o-meter. This involves three basic steps: making predictions about how the world works, looking for evidence to either support or disconfirm those predictions, and changing your hypotheses in light of what you see to be true.
Start by thinking of someone important to you, and rate your trust in that person on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 = lowest possible trust, 5 = highest). Then, evaluate the person by recalling your observations of his or her behavior.
Here are a few obvious questions I’ve found very helpful in quantifying the trustworthiness of people in my own life. The first three are the “yes” questions; if Person X is completely trustworthy, you’ll answer yes to all three. The second three are the “no” questions—if Person X deserves your trust, the answer to all three will be negative.
The “yes” questions:
1. Does Person X usually show up on time?
2. When Person X says something is going to happen, does it usually happen?
3. When you hear Person X describing an event and then get more information about that event, does the new information usually match Person X’s description?
The “no” questions:
4. Have you ever witnessed Person X lying to someone or assuming you’ll help deceive a third person?
5. Does Person X sometimes withhold information in order to make things go more smoothly or to avoid conflict?
6. Have you ever witnessed Person X doing something (lying, cheating, being unkind) that he or she would condemn if another person did it?
These questions might seem trivial. They’re not. As the saying goes, “the way we do anything is the way we do everything.” I’m not saying we have the ultimate power or right to judge others. But if you trust someone whose behavior doesn’t pass the six screening questions above, your trust-o-meter may well be misaligned. If Person X rated more than one “no” on the first three questions, and more than one “yes” on the second three, they don’t warrant total trust at present. If you trust someone who blew all six questions, you need some readjustments. You don’t have to change Person X (you can’t), but you do need to take a hard look at your own patterns of trust.
By the way, if you’re now rationalizing Person X’s behavior with arguments like “But he means well” or “It’s not her fault; she had a terrible childhood,” your trust-o-meter is definitely on the fritz. These are the small lies we use to tell ourselves we’re comfortable when we aren’t. It’s not the end of the world if Person X lies to you. Lying to yourself, on the other hand, can make your life so miserable, the end of the world might be a relief.
Step 3: Learning to Trust Everyone and Everything
So what does it mean to “trust people who aren’t trustworthy”? I pondered this earlier today, as I watched the lions devour the buffalo, the leopard attack the impala, the baboons stealing breakfast. I am very wary of these beasts, but that doesn’t mean I don’t trust them. I depend on them deeply—to do what they usually do. Lions and leopards can be trusted to eat animals about my size. Baboons can be trusted to steal food whenever possible. Because I know this, I adapt my behavior to avoid getting eaten or pilfered.
By the same token, if someone in your life pulls in a dismal score on the Trust Test, perpetually failing to keep promises, tell the truth, quit drinking, or show compassion, this is exactly what you can depend on them to keep doing. Addicts can be trusted to lie. Narcissists can be trusted to backstab. And people who reliably do their best, whose stories check out against your own observations, can be trusted to stay relatively honest and stable.
When you spot faulty programming in your trust-o-meter, you may experience some deep grief. You’ll have to acknowledge what you already know, deep down: that your alcoholic dad may never be reliable, that you may have picked an irresponsible partner, that the friend who never supports you probably never will. You may face some tough choices as your debugged trust-o-meter directs you away from familiar negative patterns and into new behaviors. But as you more accurately predict what will happen, you’ll feel a new, growing confidence. Your life will begin to work.
This is why I feel so much safer today, in the bushveld, than I once did in my home. Yes, it’s a jungle out here, but it’s a jungle everywhere. Life, in fact, is just one big wilderness. But you were born for this wilderness, and you have the instruments to negotiate it safely. Does that thought feel comfortable? Really, truly comfortable? As soon as it does, you’ve found your way to the first part of Goethe’s promise: You can trust yourself. And because Goethe was a trustworthy person, you can rely on the second part of his promise following automatically. You really will know how to live.