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What is Trust and Why it Is Essential

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Everyone talks about how trust is essential to every relationship, but what is it?

Why is trust so important and difficult to cultivate?

Trust is the “firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something.”

Looking at the definition, it is easy to see why this would matter in any kind of relationship—familial, platonic, or romantic.

Tell us about a time someone broke your trust in the comment section below.

What is trust?

Psychologically, trust is even a little more complicated than this definition.

Trust is:

  • shown by our behaviors toward other people
  • an abstract mental state that concerns how deeply our faith lives in the surrounding people
  • an emotion that we feel that leads to confidence and security.

Philosophers and psychologists have all weighed in on their thoughts about what it is and why it matters so much.

What is trust when it comes to our words and actions

One level of trusting someone is believing they will behave a certain way.

This might mean that you can predict how they will react in a certain situation based on what you know about them.

We learn to predict people’s behaviors by watching how they behave and speak.

Words and actions matter beyond predicting their behavior in certain situations.

Do you believe that what someone is telling you is the truth?

Is this because their words have been true in the past?

When someone promises to behave one way, and then their actions do not back that up, it’s difficult to believe them.

In almost any relationship, words are not enough.

You need to have an action supporting that you are speaking the truth.

“Be impeccable with your word. Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean.” — Don Miguel Ruiz

Trust is relative

It is not created equal, and it is also not absolute.

You might trust your friend to speak about something with someone else but wouldn’t want them to perform surgery on your child.

While that example has two very different things, it illustrates how it works in relationships.

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Sometimes people think that because you say you trust someone, means you trust them implicitly with all things.

That is just not possible.

For instance, I trust my husband to love me and be faithful, but not with fixing our cars.

Why?

Well, we have been married for nearly 20 years, and he has always loved me and been faithful.

I know I can believe his words and actions.

However, one time he tried to fix something in our car, and instead, he set the whole engine and hood on fire.

This doesn’t make me love him any less, but when he says, “Oh, I can fix that,” I ‌cringe a little…

It is an involuntary reaction brought about by the neural process that is trust.

It is much more complex than you might think!

“Trust is not an obsession, it’s an extension of love. When we truly love someone, we give them our heart to hold in their hands. And when that love is returned, that very trust is balm to our souls.” — Julie Lessman

Trust is a neural process

According to the book Neural Correlates and Mechanisms of Trust by Elizabeth Eskander, Nathan Sanders, and Chang S. Nam, “The decision to trust is the foundation for proper functioning in technology, work, and social environments. For this reason, it is of critical interest to understand and investigate the brain mechanisms involved in human trust for the neuroergonomics community.”

Understanding that there are neurotransmitters and different neural correlates involved in deciding whether or not to trust someone is an important part of understanding what trust is.

Two neurotransmitters are essential for trust: Oxytocin and Testosterone.

Researchers believe oxytocin plays a part in the brain’s encoding of prediction error and, therefore, its ability to change preexisting beliefs.

The reason you think you can predict how someone will behave is in part because of their past behaviors and because of your own hormones.

According to the authors of the book, “Testosterone, which was thought of as an inhibitor of trust, only shows decreases of trust only in men and a subgroup of women who displayed social naivety.”

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Besides hormones (neural transmitters), there are parts of the brain where the decision to trust/distrust is made.

These are called neural correlates, and the ones that help determine trust are:

  • the prefrontal cortex (PFC) (specifically the ventromedial PFC and orbitofrontal cortex)
  • the insula
  • caudate
  • amygdala
  • anterior para-cingulate cortex (PCC)

Mistrust works in much the same way.

It is also an emotional process that goes far beyond estimating the unlikely hood of someone following through.

It differs from trust because mistrust is associated with negative emotions, like dislike and fear.

However, both reactions are a combination of cognitive appraisals.

I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.” — Friedrich Nietzsche

Why does trust matter so much

Part of trusting someone, as mentioned earlier, is the feeling of safety that comes from having faith in someone else.

This psychological safety helps us all be ourselves without fear of negative consequences.

Clearly, that would matter in relationships when we are our most vulnerable and closest to our true selves.

That neural process is a cognitive response that allows our brains to make faster decisions.

This happens because we believe that the other person has good intentions.

They’ve proven that they are capable, reliable, and competent in the past.

In relationships that are filled with trust, a person can respect the other person’s opinions and values.

This type of affirmation helps to boost the other person’s confidence.

It leads to more trust and openness and encourages people to be vulnerable.

Think about the relationships in your life where there is trust and those where it has been eroded.

It should be easy to see the difference in how that relationship feels.

Once it has been lost, it makes us less safe, less likely to make decisions easily, and less confident.

“Trust is like blood pressure. It’s silent, vital to good health, and if abused, it can be deadly.” — Frank Sonnenberg

How to build and maintain it

Communication is one of the key components of building trust.

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Keep your communication open and honest.

Be as transparent as possible about what you need and desire from the other people in your life.

Remember to talk to each other.

Also, keeping secrets is never a good idea in a healthy relationship.

Being open will allow space for trust to grow and help ease feelings of mistrust.

Experience positive things together.

This will help you connect and build intimacy.

Keeping your commitments to one another is also a great way to build trust.

Remember to be patient.

When you make a mistake, accept responsibility and apologize sincerely.

Come up with a clear action plan about how things will be different in the future, and follow through on your words.

“Trust is only gained when one person risks and doesn’t get harmed. It grows as both people increasingly risk and don’t get harmed in the process.” — Glen Williams

A final word

Trust is a pillar in any relationship, but it is also an expression of yourself.

To truly trust someone else, you must also trust yourself.

Build your self-awareness that way; when you communicate your needs, they are truly what you mean to say.

For any type of relationship to be successful, you need to be vulnerable and honest.

Once it is broken, it is difficult to get back.

It is possible, but remember, it will take work, and both parties must be invested.

Sometimes, you might need to reach out to a therapist to work on your own trust issues.

A marriage/relationship counselor might also help if trust has been broken.

Having a mediator can ensure your communication is as honest as possible.

What are your thoughts on what trust is and why it is important?

Do you have any other suggestions on ways to build it?

Share your thoughts with us in the comment section below.

Danielle Dahl, Managing Editor
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