A while back, I worked with a client who was interested in leaving her corporate marketing job and opening a health food store. Although she knew a lot about the products she wanted to sell and had a passion for her business, she had no experience dealing with the logistical issues—like finances and inventory—that come with running a store. Thus, she was interested in finding a business partner knowledgeable in those areas. However, she was having trouble making the leap from thinking about finding a partner to actually seeking one out.
She told me the reason she was blocked was that she found it hard to trust people. When she’d start taking steps to find someone to work with, her mind began conjuring up nightmare scenarios where her business partner bankrupted the store, stole her money and ran off to parts unknown. After watching those mental horror movies, she’d resolve to learn how to run the store herself. However, this thought prompted fears that she’d fail to handle the business properly and ruin it.
It seemed that in my client’s mind, whether or not she found a partner, she wouldn’t handle the situation well—either her partner would rob her blind, or she’d run the store into the ground. Thus it struck me that, at a deeper level, my client’s issue might be that she simply didn’t trust herself to manage her business, or more generally to take care of herself. To explore this possibility, I had her visualize the scenario where her partner took advantage of her, and I asked her “where are you in this picture? What are you doing?”
She thought about it for a moment, and then gave a despairing sigh—clearly she didn’t like the image that came up. “I’m helpless,” she said. “I’m just sitting in the corner of the room, and I can’t do anything to stop my partner.”
“It sounds like you don’t feel strong enough to protect yourself from being exploited.”
“Yeah, I don’t,” she finally replied, after another deep sigh.
To see if it would help calm her fears, I asked her to keep the image in her mind, but this time to visualize herself standing up tall. Before I got around to having her imagine protecting herself, she chuckled and observed how much just making that small adjustment in her posture changed her experience. She suddenly felt more empowered in her business life, and an ability to handle whatever setbacks might arise that she hadn’t often felt before.
Since we had this conversation, whenever she feels plagued by imaginary failure scenarios, my client has made a habit of turning her attention toward what she’s doing in the “mental movie” she’s creating. Almost invariably, an image of herself cowering in the corner comes up. When she imagines herself standing up, her fears immediately seem less intense and she feels a sense of composure.
As it turned out, my client’s problem wasn’t that she didn’t trust others—it was that she didn’t trust herself. When she formed an image of herself as strong and resourceful, her worry that she’d be taken advantage of and that she couldn’t protect herself faded away.
Today, I regularly recommend this kind of exercise to people with difficulty trusting others to help or support them. Often, when their anxieties around trusting others come up, they form mental pictures of all the terrible things that might happen if they relied on someone and were let down.
Once they’ve described the image that usually comes up, I have them turn their attention to where they are and what they’re doing in the picture. Like my client, they tend to see themselves spacing out, ignoring the problem, or putting up no resistance against their exploiters. When they instead imagine themselves taking action to prevent others from harming them, their fears of being betrayed tend to subside. Developing trust in themselves, in other words, helps them rekindle their trust in others and the universe.
Psychologist Stephanie Dowrick aptly describes the connection between our self-trust and our ability to trust others in Choosing Happiness: Life And Soul Essentials. We tend to assume, she writes, that our sense that we’re unsafe in dealing with someone stems from the fact that “the other person is so unreliable and you can’t trust them.”
Often, however, “the person you can’t trust is yourself. Your feelings are not ‘about’ the other person, even if you do feel them only in this relationship. They are ‘about’ you. When you feel highly possessive or desperate in relation to another person, it is almost always because you have not yet developed your own inner feelings of safety.”
When we develop trust and confidence in our own abilities to overcome the obstacles we face in life, trust in others follows naturally. Of course, others may break their promises and try to take advantage of us. But if we have a sense of certainty that we can set appropriate boundaries and handle the situation, our relating with others no longer seems so dangerous, and takes on a new ease and even joyfulness.