Learning to Trust Myself: Distrust to Mistrust
I’ve been on a journey of learning to trust myself for quite some time, although I didn’t realize it until recently. If you haven’t read my previous post, I suggest starting there (link below); I talked about the question that started this reflection and some of the ways shame hijacked my thinking and bred distrust.
In this post, I’m going to talk about the difference between distrust and mis trust and explore what helped me get from one to the other.
Learning to Trust Myself: Asking the Question
Distrust vs. Mistrust
By definition, these two words are virtually the same, and they’re often used interchangeably, but I find it helpful to use them with more nuance. Dictionary.com highlights some subtle differences in how the verbs are used, but I prefer the more distinct definitions one finds in some political discourses. Here are some examples cited in Trust, Mistrust and Distrust: A Gendered Perspective on Meanings and Measurements by Hannah Bunting, Jennifer Gaskell, and Gerry Stoker:
Lenard (2008, p. 313) for example, defines mistrust as “a cautious attitude toward others; a mistrustful person will approach interactions with others with a careful and questioning mindset” and distrust as “a suspicious or cynical attitude toward others”. Citrin and Stoker (2018, p. 50) define mistrust and distrust as follows: “mistrust reflects doubt or skepticism about the trustworthiness of the other, while distrust reflects a settled belief that the other is untrustworthy”. Bertsou (2018, p. 215) defines distrust as “a negative attitude held by an individual toward her political system or its institutions and agents”. The idea generally…is that political trust makes good governance possible; mistrust, in the right measure, supports good governance by driving accountability; distrust is viewed as a threat to good governance, as it risks disengagement and disorder.
Hannah Bunting et al., Trust, Mistrust and Distrust: A Gendered Perspective on Meanings and Measurements (see article for reference links)
Although the authors are talking about political contexts, I’ve realized that the same nuance applies nicely to my own experience of self-distrust and self-mistrust. When we mistrust our own thoughts, we hold space for some skepticism and caution, which encourages us to ask questions and be honest with ourselves. When that becomes dis trust, we inherently reject our own thoughts without holding space for self-honesty or dialogue.
Self-trust makes good self-governance possible.
When I trust myself, I feel at home in my own thoughts. I don’t have to wrestle with shame and self-doubt, which helps me to be freely creative and imaginative about possibilities. It also lets me be free to fail without the backlash of shame.
I make better decisions more easily when I trust myself. I feel better about who I am and my own thoughts, so I feel more confident and able to choose what I think is good without fear of becoming disconnected. (That’s the core of shame, by the way: a fear of becoming disconnected from others or disenfranchised.)
I don’t see absolute self-trust as the goal, though. I’ve met many people who seem to have an unjustified over-confidence in their own thoughts and perceptions. I think unchecked self-trust can lead to conceit and condescension, which is why I think some amount of self-mistrust is important.
Self-mistrust, in the right measure, supports good self-governance by driving accountability.
Remember: mistrust, as I’m using it, isn’t a complete lack of trust; it’s caution or wariness. When I say, “In the right measure,” I mean that I want to leave room to question my own thoughts and conclusions. Being confident in self-trust is fine, as long as it doesn’t come at the cost of honesty and self-assessment.
To put it another way, I think a healthy level of self-mistrust is what we might call humility. It leaves room to say, “Or, maybe I’m wrong.” It leaves room to ask, “But, is that actually true?” I think these sorts of qualifiers are essential for leaning into creativity and imagination — that is, leaning into possibilities.
Too much self-mistrust, however, can render one unable to be decisive or to act confidently on one’s beliefs. For me, this can be a version of paralysis by analysis. It’s been one of the challenges of deconstructing my beliefs; I still have to continue living and making decisions even when I’m not sure what I believe about certain things. In ministry, for example, it might be easier to step away entirely while I figure out what I believe about heaven/hell/worship/eternal life/etc., but I don’t know for sure that stepping way is the right decision. And, I don’t have the luxury of being certain before making decisions, because I still have to wake up every day and do something.
Healthy levels of self-mistrust allow me to honestly say, “I don’t know if I believe that, anymore,” while still living life without being overcome by shame.
Self-distrust is a threat to good self-governance, as it risks disengagement and dissonance.
This goes back to a lot of what I mentioned in the first post. The way shame encourages self-distrust (the belief that I am untrustworthy) caused me to largely disengage from my own thoughts. Environments that use shame to direct people encourage less self-evaluation and more conformity. Basically, “Don’t think too hard about [whatever], because your thoughts aren’t trustworthy; trust in me/us/this thing, instead.”
In my experience, disengagement leads to several unhealthy outcomes.
- Numbing: being disengaged from my own thoughts stunted my ability to dwell in my emotions, so instead of bearing the uncomfortable weight of feeling, I’d engage in numbing. This is something I still struggle with — overstimulating to shut off my brain.
- Passive Formation: there might be a technical term for this, but I mean that if I don’t engage with my own thoughts, I can’t actively engage in my own formation. Others will control the shape of my growth and the direction of my life. I become the product of others’ desires for me. When those who formed me were the same people who shamed me, my mind was enslaved.
- Cognitive Dissonance: I mentioned less self-evaluation; failure to engage my own thoughts means I can’t bring my various beliefs into dialogue with each other intentionally. Without engagement, I have no conscious way of resolving dissonant beliefs. The quote I paraphrased above originally said “disengagement and disorder;” I think dissonance is the self-distrust version of disorder. Moreover, cognitive dissonance can create discomfort and anxiety, which can exacerbate all the shame-related things I’ve mentioned.
Not Engaging vs Not Thinking
I said that I’m hardwired for more information. I enjoy details and nuance. I can’t turn off that hardwiring, so disengaging from my thoughts doesn’t mean that I don’t have conscious thoughts. I’ve always been a rather thoughtful person, but remember that I said my hardwiring got hijacked by those shame-informed frameworks (i.e. that fundamentalist need for rightness). It wasn’t that the thoughts and the information stopped coming; it was that I stopped trusting myself to engage that new information and those new thoughts.
I still think I was more contemplative as a child than most of my friends. I spent a fair amount of time philosophizing about the world and life, in general, and dissecting my friendships and my faith. But, because I distrusted myself, I don’t think I was honestly engaging those thoughts. Instead, I was letting them come in and then passing them off to the doctrines and dogmas that were “right.” Those things — those “trust this instead of yourself” things — would decide if my thoughts were “right” enough to keep.
That’s what I mean by disengaging; the thoughts still come, but something/someone else does all the interpretive and paradigm work with those thoughts. That’s also what I mean about having my hardwiring hijacked. That part of me that thrives in the possibilities became an apologetics tool for theological gymnastics. “This isn’t consistent,” someone might say, and I’d respond, “Well, technically, these possibilities, however unlikely, would still fit. Therefore, this doctrine is still technically right.” It’s hard to have honest engagement when that’s the default response.
From Distrust to Mistrust
So, how did I start moving from distrust to mistrust? Honestly, it was mostly accidental (on my part), but I can see it, looking back. There isn’t enough space to list all of the specific things that coalesced (and continue to coalesce) into my journey, so I’m going to mention general categories of events and then, in the next post, I want to explore one significant thing, specifically.
Somewhere along the way, I was taught that pride is bad. The more I embraced that idea, the more important humility became. What I learned recently is that humility and empathy are related, and empathy is a counter to shame. I think my virtual obsession with humility as a critical part of Christ-likeness has acted as an unintentional, growing inoculation throughout my life that slowly helped me move from distrust to mistrust. Basically, I wanted so badly to not be prideful that I started questioning my own distrust of myself. Oops.
This is kind of like when we believe so fully what we were taught about Jesus that we end up tearing down those hypocritical systems that taught us about Jesus.
Love your neighbor as yourself.
Pursuing humility eventually led to practicing compassion and grace. Slowly, those ideas started interacting with questions about love, and that promoted thoughts about self-love. How can I love my neighbor as myself without loving myself? That question really challenged my feelings of shame. There’s no self-love in shame, and the dissonance of trying to love my neighbor while I was captive to shame seemed almost catastrophic.
I think the more intensely we experience dissonance, the more likely we are to reach a breaking point where we’re compelled to change. So it went: humility > compassion and grace > love > self-love > self-compassion > empathy.
Despite the many shaming contexts I’ve experienced, I’ve also encountered people who, whether they realized it or not, would somehow validate my thoughts — parents, teachers, friends, or even just a person asking for my opinion. I think the power of that last one is often overlooked. The very act of asking for someone’s opinion implies that their thoughts matter, and actually listening to their thoughts can alter the course of someone’s life. It can give them a voice and acknowledge their dignity as a human being. I feel blessed to have had close friends, particularly in high school and undergrad, who created space for me and validated my thoughts regularly.
I grew up believing that I was not creative. It was easier to believe that than to address the shame of not having any skills. Shame often nurtures perfectionism, and I definitely bought into that. I was too ashamed to be bad at something, so I rarely put in the time to get good. I think that’s why I liked math so much; it’s far more structured early on, so improving my math skills didn’t require stereotypical creativity. I also got to lean into that “rightness” of set structures.
Learning to be creative and to embrace the processes of creativity (including failure) has helped me move away from self-distrust by challenging the idea that everything needs an end goal or a controllable outcome. Creativity welcomes uncertainty and is, therefore, an anti-shame practice, for me.
The Perfect Substrate
At one point, I awkwardly stumbled into (or, perhaps, was wrapped up in) a particular community that served as the perfect substrate for my personal growth. The categories of things mentioned above were present in this one, significant context that, I believe, acted as a catalyst for my journey toward self-trust, and that’s what I want to dive into next.
If you’re enjoying the content on Breaking Bread Theology or find it helpful, please consider supporting this work. I would love to make this a full-time effort and continue to expand the available content, but that will only be possible with enough support from readers like yourself. I hope that together we can continue to create safe spaces for people to explore faith and theology.