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”.

Dave’s 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 you feel betrayed by someone, it means their key card opened a room they shouldn’t have had access to, so your 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 that his key card wasn’t properly programmed — so you can go reprogram it.

You may hear that story and say, “Wait, but he lied! He said he would keep the secret! Off  to Satan’s mouth with him!!!” That’s true, he lied — but what I’ve learned in my brief existence on this planet is that people don’t always do what they say they’re going to do.

I know, it’s shocking. But believe it or not, it’s the way people are. That’s why the smart, sane person will pay less attention to what people say, and more attention to what people do.

This is a 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.

Believe People’s Actions, Not Their Words

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 it would be a lot smarter to pay attention to their actions and base your expectations off them instead.

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.

In my experience, when people reflect back to me how I’m being (not what I’m saying) through adjusting their expectations of me, it can be quite sobering. When we believe what people say instead of what they do, we often help play into the fantasy that person is telling themselves, enabling them to continue lying to themselves and others.

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. Our values are determined in what we do, not what we say.

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, because it’s one of the things that 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. Especially around topics that can be incredibly emotional, 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 that’s a yellow 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 highy recommend it for anyone who wants to experience more heaven, and less hell.2


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  1. But not that much better.
  2. Unless you’re into that.