I was talking to one of my clients, a very bright and wonderful woman, mother of a delightful young girl, and usually one of my favorite people. This visit, however, I began to experience the cycle of mistrust.
When she came in I was in a good mood, I smiled and said hello. She looked serious.
The last time we were together she had said that she was feeling disconnected and more uncomfortable than in the past talking to me. Her seriousness got me to wondering how today’s session would be. Then, in the first few minutes, she twice misinterpreted something neutral that I said in a very negative and critical way.
Both times she got angry and pointed to the interactions as proof that I really didn’t understand her. It took a fair amount of effort to calm her down, and I don’t think I ever did convince her that the way she interpreted those remarks was not the way I intended them, either consciously or unconsciously.
At this point, I found myself being very careful about everything I said. When that happens, I know that I tend to become less expressive emotionally, as I try to monitor everything to make sure that I don’t inadvertently convey some unintended criticism.
As I became more removed and cautious, she experienced that as proof that her mistrust was justified, and the cycle of mistrust was in full-gear.
There is a way out of this cycle. Just as when you look for potential criticism coming from the other person that tends to create mistrust, when you reveal something personal or yourself emotionally vulnerable you elicit caring and tenderness from the other person. This creates its own positive feedback loop of growing trust and emotional connection.
Why it is that we switch back and forth between these two patterns is sometimes mysterious.
If you are wondering why your relationships are seeming less close, it can be helpful to try to look at your conversations from a third-person perspective. Write down exactly what the other person said that made you most upset and then later try to see if someone else hearing the same words might have understood what was meant differently. This technique is the basis for a form of psychotherapy that can be very helpful for people with chronic depression (who often get stuck in mistrust more or less permanently) called the Cognitive Behavioral Analysis System of Psychotherapy (CBASP).
Back to my conversation – it was, of course, difficult to sit in the room with her, but I was even more affected by the realization that mistrust is terrible painful and isolating for the person who is trapped in it. I wanted to somehow reach out to her and take away the fear, anger and anxiety. I didn’t find a way to do that then, but we did manage to end our conversation on a slightly more positive note… and then the next time we met she had switched out of mistrust and was back to her usual self.