Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of sharing laughter, food, and tales from the professional road with someone who has known and mentored me for a long time. On almost all accounts, it was an exceptionally fun evening, spent with someone whose keen (and accurate) observations of me brought laughter, comfort and validation of what I am learning to trust in myself. But one sobering observation made, sandwiched between layers of wine-fueled stories, resonated loudly above the rest. It was on the subject of trust. How, he asked, do I discern who I can trust? How do I assess what others’ intentions are? How open are people really being with me and how do I know for sure? In recent weeks and months, these same questions have come up again and again – at work, in my relationships, and in my choices for my life moving forward.
Interestingly, last night I attended a professional performance improvement program in which the speaker, a trained psychiatrist who advises the US Army and professional athletes on performance improvement, spoke to us about the workings and wirings of the human brain. Turns out, scientists have been able to determine that the human brain cannot distinguish between reality and illusion. It’s why we can fall in love with someone, even if the other person has a vastly different interpretation of the relationship. The mind, as my ex once reminded me, is a very powerful thing. It believes what it wants to believe.
If this is true, how do we discern who and what we can trust? How do we know what is real? Where we once perhaps gave our personal power over to others, how can we learn to trust ourselves? Sometimes I can’t help feeling a bit like Alice in wonderland, living in a world where nothing appears to be what it actually is, filled with riddles that hold the keys to the truth. As I reflect on these questions which continue to resurface, I continue to contemplate the lessons before me.
Experience, for example, has taught me that while not everyone is corrupt, people are corruptible and often act from self-interest, if not consciously, then subconsciously. For better or worse, it’s a basic human instinct. Let’s be honest here – even those of us who commit ourselves to philanthropic work do so because it feels good…because it serves our value system, providing an intrinsically positive experience for the giver, not just the receiver. In business, deals get done and people get hired or promoted because those actions best serve the needs and goals of the organization.
Still, on countless occasions in my past and present, I’ve been blessed by those who have selflessly extended a hand along the way, without the appearance of another agenda. I have received them as expressions of love and kindness, part of the karmic principle that what comes around goes around, though it is equally true that I have often (if not always) privately questioned the motivations behind the gesture.
On a related note, if a man is offering the kind gesture, can I accept the gift at face value, or must I always assume that ‘men are pigs’, as the expression goes? The truth is that while men constantly remind me that they are pigs, I have known some very kind men. If they’re being piggy in their heart of hearts, well, they haven’t imposed that on me, which I have always received as a sign of respect. No, I’m not blind or dumb, nor am I as naive as many would like to believe. I do recognize when a man is attracted to me, but that doesn’t mean I need to encourage him to sink to his lowest self, nor does it mean that I am interested in sinking to my baser self, either. Mutual attraction between two available people is one thing, but I don’t believe in bartering my affections for favors in return, period.
Experience has also taught me that intentions are not the same as actions, though actions (or inaction) are the real measure of a person. We intend to do this or that, but people judge us by what we actually do (or don’t). Moreover, while many people start out honorable in their intentions, given the right set of circumstances, people are capable of falling from grace in an instant. Sometimes it’s a tiny slip, other times it’s an irreparable fall.
From my perspective, as much as I want to believe in the inherent good of others, trust takes times to build. Lots of time. And sometimes that trust will be broken. Sometimes we will discover we were wrong about someone we chose to trust, though we may also discover we were right. Where I once used to place people on pedestals, I’ve come to accept that people are neither all good nor all bad, and all of us live our lives out in shades of grey. Moreover, as much as I want to seek and find the truth in every person and situation I encounter, it is not always possible. What is possible, however, is to know who I am and what I stand for. What is possible is learning to trust and honor our own instincts, our own choices and our own paths. After all, no one has our own best interests at heart as much as we do.
How do you establish and build trust with others? Do you tend to give people the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise, or do you approach people and relationships with a healthy dose of skepticism from the outset? How do you measure the intentions of others? Are you honest about your own intentions? How do you live and lead from your heart, without it shattering along the way? How to you learn to live, lead and work with others who cannot be trusted or do not share your same value system? How do you find that elusive balance between staying open to others, while listening, honoring and following our own internal compass and values?