The Anatomy of Trust

Lissa Rankin, MD
8 min readJun 4, 2023

We Can’t Protect Ourselves Without Understanding Trust

Since I’m preparing curriculum for my upcoming class Becoming Unf*ckwithable, I was noodling what it actually takes to be both vulnerable and protected from those who might wish to mess with us- and any time I think about vulnerability and strength in the same sentence, I think of Brené Brown and how her research into what made people “whole-hearted” led her to the surprising conclusion that the most open-hearted, generous, loving people were the ones with the firmest boundaries. It took me years to understand that.

It took trusting the wrong people- and not trusting the right ones- to make any sense of that bit of research. But now it makes perfect sense to me. Of course we have to screen in the trustworthy people into our inner circles and boundary out toxicity in order to safely keep our hearts open without getting crushed. Keeping our hearts open with untrustworthy people is masochism, and then we lose trust in ourselves (or rather, some parts stop trusting other parts, to be IFS precise.) If we want to be kind and compassionate with ourselves, we need to reserve our most vulnerable, sweet, tender parts for those who can hold them delicately, safely enough, and with sensitive care.

How do we do that? We have to have a better understanding of trust, how to be trustworthy in a relationship, how to discern if someone else is trustworthy in a relationship, and how to assess if we can trust ourselves.

To prepare for the trust section in the Becoming Unf*ckwithable class, I pulled out Brené Brown’s Super Soul Session “ The Anatomy of Trust “ and took some notes and grabbed some hot quotes that I find so helpful. In the online class, I will dive deeper into the topic of who to trust, how to spot the red flags of untrustworthy people, how to know when it’s safe to let your guard down, and how to boundary against people who can’t be trusted- while still extending compassion for those who might hurt us but without letting them off the hook of accountability- in the online class.

The early bird special expires on Memorial Day, so learn more and register for Becoming Unf*ckwithablehere

Let me share the gist of what Brené Brown said- but please, watch the video yourself and show it to your teenagers and clients. It’s such important stuff- and it’s a helpful antidote if you’re in recovery from spiritual bypassing tendencies that might disable your ability to protect yourself, discern who you can trust and who you can’t, and boundary against untrustworthy people.

Brené began by quoting a definition of trust from Charles Feltman, author of The Thin Book of Trust. “Trust is choosing to make something important to you vulnerable to the actions of someone else.”Feldman says that distrust is what I have shared with you that is important to me is not safe with you.

She likened trust in a relationship to a jar of marbles. Whenever we risk expressing something vulnerable, we put marbles in a jar. When they don’t hold us safe in these precious moments, we lose marbles from the jar. “Marble jar friends,” those with a lot of marbles in the jar, turn out to be built upon small moments where trust is earned, like when we show up for the funeral of a friend’s loved one. In these moments when we can tell someone might need us to show up for them, there’s an opportunity to build trust- and there’s an opportunity to betray.

BRAVING

But what is trust? Based on her research, she boiled it down to the acronym- BRAVING. Because when we trust, we are braving connection with someone.

BOUNDARIES — Boundaries are essential to trust. I trust you if you are clear about your boundaries and you hold them, and you’re clear about my boundaries and you respect them. We have to know where our own edges are in order to be trustworthy to others, and we have to know where someone else’s edges are in order to behave in trustworthy ways with others. There is no trust without boundaries.

RELIABILITY — If you say you’re going to do something- and then you don’t do it- I cannot trust you. I can only trust you if you do what you say you’re going to do. And not just once- consistently. Reliability means you do what you say you’re going to do- over and over and over again. You cannot gain and earn my trust if you do what you say you’re going to do once. We have to be very clear on what we’re available and resourced to take on so we don’t overcommit. It’s better to underpromise and overdeliver than to overpromise and underdeliver.

ACCOUNTABILITY — There is no trust unless we can both hold each other accountable when we inevitably make mistakes. I can only trust you if when you make a mistake, you’re willing to validate my right to feel triggered, own your mistake, apologize for it, and make amends. And it has to go both ways. I can only trust you if when I make a mistake, I am given the chance to own it, apologize for it, and make amends. If you expect me to let you off the hook with no repair conversation and not change in behavior, trust cannot build. If I expect you to let me off the hook time and time again with no consequences to my bad behavior, our relationship cannot be safe. No accountability, no trust.

VAULT — For trust to grow, we both have to know that what I share with you, you will hold in confidence. What you share with me, I will hold in confidence. Confidentiality is key. We need to be clear about what’s shareable and what’s private. If anything I say to you winds up on your blog or in your Christmas letter, we cannot have trust. But it’s not just that. Anytime we gossip, we risk losing someone’s trust, not just the trust of the person we’re gossiping about. If a good friend comes up and starts gossiping, they have just shared something that was not theirs to share, and now my trust for that person is completely diminished. A lot of times we share things that are not ours to share as a way to “hot wire connection” with a friend. Brené calls this “common enemy intimacy,” when our closeness is built on talking trash about other people. If the intimacy we have is built is based on hating the same people, there is no trust. The vault means you respect my story, but you respect other people’s story too.

INTEGRITY — I cannot trust you and be in a trusting relationship with you if you do not act from a place of integrity and encourage me to do the same. She defines integrity as 1) choosing courage over comfort 2) choosing what’s right over what’s fun, fast, or easy 3) practicing your values, not just professing your values.

NON-JUDGMENT — When we practice discernment but withhold judgment, I can fall apart, ask for help, and be in struggle next to you without being judged by you, and you can fall apart, ask for help and be in struggle next to me without being judged by me. Which is really hard, because we’re better at helping than at asking for help. And we might mistakenly think we’ve set up trusting relationships with people, we might think they trust us because we’re always there to help them. But if you can’t ask for help, and they can’t reciprocate that, that is not a trusting relationship. When we assign value to needing help, when I think less of myself for needing help, whether you’re conscious of it or not, when you offer help to someone you think less of them too. You cannot judge yourself for needing help but not judge others for needing your help. You’re getting value for being the helper in the relationship, but you might be diminishing the person you’re helping. If you think being the helper is what makes you worth something, you risk judging the person you judge as more needy and therefore weaker than you. But real trust doesn’t exist unless help is reciprocal in non-judgment.

GENEROSITY- Our relationship is only a trusting relationship if you can assume the most generous thing about my words, intentions, and behaviors. And then check in with me. So if I screw up, forget something, say something that hurts you, if there’s trust, you will make a generous assumption but speak up about it if it upset you. As opposed to not returning emails, not returning calls, holding grudges and ghosting someone- and then waiting for the moment you can spring an ungenerous interpretation on me.

Can We Trust Ourselves?

The BRAVING acronym works with self-trust too. So, if something happens and we’re questioning ourselves- maybe we failed at something or caused harm to ourselves or others, we can ask ourselves- “Did I honor my own boundaries? Was I reliable? Can I count on myself? Did I hold myself accountable? Was I really protective of my stories? Did I stay in my integrity? Was I judgmental toward myself? Did I give myself the benefit of the doubt? Was I generous toward myself?”

Brené closed by saying, “If braving relationships with other people is braving connection, self-trust is braving self-love. Self-respect, the wildest adventure we’ll ever take in our whole lives. And so, what I would invite you to think about when you think about trust is if your own marble jar is not full, if you can’t count on yourself, you can’t ask other people to give you what you don’t have. So we have to start with self-trust.

There’s a great quote from Maya Angelou that says, “I don’t trust people who don’t love themselves, but say I love you.” Right?

She quotes an African proverb when she said that, and she said, “Be wary of the naked man offering you a shirt.” And so, a lot of times if you find yourself in struggle with trust, the thing to examine first is your own marble jar, how you treat yourself. Because we can’t ask people to give to us something that we do not believe we’re worthy of receiving. And you will know you’re worthy of receiving it when you trust yourself above everyone else.”

The Road To Self Trust

I think this is where Internal Family Systems (IFS) can be very helpful. If our “parts” don’t trust our “Self,” we can’t be very trustworthy with other people, and we can’t have good discernment about who’s worth trusting to let close. But when we start to repair the disconnections between parts and Self, when the divine Self inside earns the trust of our hurt or protective parts, we can rebuild Self-trust, and that’s the foundation for everything worth living for in this world.

Only then can we truly protect ourselves, become “unf*ckwithable” and have our own backs safely and with kindness for our parts and the parts of others.

The early bird special for the online class Becoming Unf*ckwithable ends May 28, so sign up now if you feel called to join us.

Learn more and register for Becoming Unf*ckwithable here.

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Lissa Rankin, MD

Lissa Rankin, MD, New York Times bestselling author of Mind Over Medicine, The Fear Cure, and The Anatomy of a Calling.