A Pragmatic Guide to Trust

In the 14th century, Dante Alighieri wrote “Inferno”, his famous work about the nine circles of hell, where he ranked them from least horrible to most horrible. Each sin had an associated punishment with it — the worse the sin, the worse the punishment.

Lust and gluttony? You’ll be blown around by strong winds, and forced to lay in slush. Going against the beliefs of the church and committing heresy? Condemned to eternity in a flaming tomb — not exactly a pleasant way to spend the after-life, but still not the worst.

The worst sins, according to Dante — were fraud and treachery.

Breaking someone’s trust was the absolute worst thing a person could do, and it landed you in the lowest circle of hell. In fact, Dante went so far as to create an additionally bad placement within the last circle. Three unlucky souls, Judas (who betrayed Jesus) and Brutus and Cassius, who betrayed Julius Caesar, get to spend eternity being constantly devoured in Satan’s mouth.

My point is this — trust is one of the most essential needs that we have as humans. It’s incredibly sacred, yet how much thought have we given to this thing that is so pivotal to our well-being? From what I’ve seen, not enough. So here are some new thoughts to chew on (not you, Satan) about how we can have a healthy, happy relationship with trust.

No One is 100% Trustworthy

Here’s one of the least romantic things I’ve said in recent years (that says a lot). When a lover shares that she can completely trust me 100%, I might respond with, “that’s a beautiful sentiment, but it’s actually not true” (don’t worry, I couch it better than that in real life).1

The truth is, I can’t be trusted completely, nor should I be. For example, I can’t be trusted to always know what I’m feeling, I can’t be trusted to be on time, and apparently I can’t be trusted to publish an article every week on this website (but thank you to those readers who have emailed me recently, I really do appreciate you). You could probably say the same thing about yourself, there things you can be trusted for, and things you can’t.

Trust is always contextual, so often when we have the feeling of “I trust you”, it’s because our reality matches up with our expectations, not because this person has suddenly become 100% trustworthy.

Following that logic, if we have that experience of being betrayed, it’s less about that other person and more about our expectations. I can trust my Mom to remember my birthday, but I can’t trust her to keep a steady beat on a drum set. If I get upset with my Mom because she’s not holding a nice pocket while I strum some tasty licks, that’s not my Mom’s fault, it’s mine. I haven’t properly calibrated my trust-o-meter and I felt let down because her behavior didn’t match up with my expectations.

This is where I apply my “key card theory”.

The Key Card Theory

Think of your life like a high security office building. Every room in the building can be accessed with the right key card and you get to program (and reprogram) all the key cards.

When we feel betrayed by someone, it means their key card opened a room they shouldn’t have had access to, so our job is to go back and reprogram that card. For example, let’s say you have a friend named Seth, and you tell Seth a secret — something you don’t want anyone else to know. Seth even promises to keep that secret for you.

Two weeks later you find out Seth told his girlfriend, who told her best friend, and now a handful of people know. What do you do? Seth has demonstrated that he can’t be trusted with secrets, so you might decide to reprogram his key card.

You can still be friends with Seth, you can still love him and cherish him, it’s just that his key card doesn’t get access to your secrets, because he isn’t someone who can be trusted that way.

It’s not Seth’s fault for telling your secret, it’s just that the key card wasn’t properly programmed. You may hear that story and say “wait, but he also lied, he said he would keep the secret!” That’s true, and what I’ve found is that we do far better paying attention to people’s actions than we do their words.

This is another key component of trust, because often what people say is a distraction, but if we look at their actions, we find something far more trustworthy.

Trust People’s Actions

If there’s one quote I’ve said over and over again in conversations with friends about healthy relationships it’s this.

When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.

~ Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou didn’t say “when someone tells you who they are”, she said “when someone shows you who they are”, because typically those same people will tell you (and promise, of course) that they will “never do it again”. Sure, you could call them a liar and get upset, but what would be a lot smarter for you is to pay more attention to their actions and base your decision off that.

People’s actions are far more trustworthy than their words.

When someone demonstrates to you who they are (not tells you, demonstrates), believe them, and adjust your key card and expectations accordingly. If someone is consistently late, and the next time you’re supposed to meet, they say they’ll be on time, don’t expect it. Judge them on their actions, and plan for them being late. Then, one day if they change their actions, you can change your expectations.

Also, don’t hold out for the hope they will change — not because they won’t, but because you hoping for them to change is causing both of you suffering. If they end up changing, you can always adjust your expectations then.

Here’s what you can trust — people will be themselves and do what they usually do. That’s it. You can’t trust that people will share your values, share your morals or give a shit about anything you do. You can trust they will be true to their actual values, whether they are aware of those values or not.

And let’s not kid ourselves, we aren’t always congruent either. Often we say our values are one thing, but then our actions say something completely different. In the same way we should judge others by their actions and not their words, we can (and should) do the same for ourselves. Contrary to what many people seem to think, accepting yourself the way you are is actually a faster route to change than denial and living in a fantasy.

Know Thy Agenda

Imagine walking up to a stranger on the street and handing them a $100 bill, how would they react? They’d probably be confused. Now imagine handing them that $100 bill and saying “I’m doing 10 random acts of kindness today as a project for my church, please accept this gift of $100”. That’s different, right?

One of the things us humans need is to understand other people’s agenda, it’s what allows us to trust more fully. Once you understand your own agenda (because you’ve been able to be honest with yourself), then you can build trust with others by letting them in on your inner experience.

When you understand someone’s motivation on a deep level, you can more easily trust them. That’s because at the end of the day, what we’re ultimately trusting is that people will do what’s in their own self-interest. That’s how people work. We are primarily motivated by self-interest.

Why Pragmatism is Important for Trust

As evidenced by Dante, having your trust broken can have very serious consequences. Often around topics that can be incredibly emotional, like trust (and romance), pragmatism is a very useful tool.

We need a grounded approach to trust, not a whimsical approach where we fly off the handle every time someone doesn’t do what we expect them to. That’s just a recipe for our misery.

What also happens when we don’t have a good relationship to trust is we pendulum between “I totally trust everyone/everything” and “I don’t trust anyone/anything” which are both symptoms of an unregulated system. When I meet someone who “trusts everyone” I imagine they haven’t yet cultivated a good sense of discernment, and I see that as a flag if I want to become closer.

Taking the time to understand my own habits around trust, and breaking down these concepts into something I can digest when I’m not triggered or upset has been one of the most important elements to my mental health, and I can’t recommend it highly enough for everyone who wants to experience more heaven, and less hell.


Get weekly thought-provoking essays that question the status-quo
(and question questioning the status-quo).


  1. But not that much better.