Humans 101

The Art of Taking People and Things at Face Value

How trust can help you live authentically and spontaneously

Photo: Milan Popovic/Unsplash

I was sitting in my therapist’s office when I divulged, “I told him I loved him. I couldn’t keep it in any longer.”

“What did he say?” she asked.

“He told me he loved me too,” I replied. “But he had to say something back,” I added. “I don’t know if he really does.”

“Why don’t we take him for his word?” my therapist suggested.

Good idea, I thought. I hadn’t considered that.

It was easier for me to believe that the universe was in on a giant hoax to fool me than to take people for their word.

I’ve always been a bit mistrustful, skeptical. I regularly question others’ intentions. Did she really want to hang out with me, or did she not have anyone else to hang out with? Did my boss really think I was doing a great job, or was she just not paying attention? Even when I submit stories to a publication and the editor says “Great, we’ll publish it next week,” I wonder if she is just being nice. It has always been easier for me to believe that the universe is in on a giant hoax to fool me than to take people at their word.

This persistent skepticism has caused me to play small. I’ve done this to avoid the disappointment I was sure would come once I exposed the “truth.” It manifested as dating men with whom I would easily have the upper hand, resulting in inequitable and unfulfilling relationships, staying in an uninspiring job, and shying away from meeting new friends.

On trusting others

Not trusting others and playing small is the ego’s way of protecting itself. While we may avoid disappointment by going this route, we also stunt our soul growth, as well as limit our intimate connections with others. This is not a great way to live, and definitely not what our higher self would want. Our higher self wants us to accomplish great things, make close connections, and raise the vibrational energy of the world with our love and inspiration. We can’t do this if we’re hiding from disappointment and vigilantly making sure we don’t get screwed over.

I started to wonder: What would happen if I made the decision to trust? What if I assumed people were with me because they enjoyed my company, and I made progress on my work because of its quality? I wouldn’t be anxious all the time, wondering when the truth would be revealed. I would save so much brain capacity and time by no longer questioning someone’s motives, taking their words and actions at face value instead. I could respond based on what people told me and how they behaved, rather than some fictional meta dialog that existed only in my head.

When we trust others to be at their best, we encourage people to rise to the occasion.

By taking people at their word, the responsibility sits with them to make sure they clearly communicate their intentions. I have a big enough task trying to manage my own feelings and motivations; there’s no reason to also take on the role of interpreter for others. Taking people at their word, I realized, would let me be free to live authentically and spontaneously, reacting to what’s happening in the present moment rather than responding to outdated beliefs or fear of the future.

I realized trusting would make me vulnerable, but I also knew vulnerability is vital for intimate connection. Sure, my heart may get trampled, people won’t always behave how I expected or wanted. However, I knew I would likely break hearts as well, disappointing others when my path takes me on a different course than what they had envisioned. A little disappointment seems preferable over a lifetime of anxiety and playing small.

Another benefit of learning to trust is that we raise the bar for the behavior we expect. People generally don’t want to disappoint. When we trust others to be at their best, we encourage them to rise to the occasion. We’ve even seen this behavior in studies, such as the Rosenthal study. Teachers in this experiment were told a particular group of kids was gifted; in reality, they were chosen at random. This resulted in the teachers treating them in a way that led the students to outperform their peers. This is the Pygmalion effect: Our expectations of others affect their actual behavior. So rather than question our partner’s whereabouts, maybe we should just tell them “go have fun with your friends.”

On trusting yourself

Maybe you’re thinking, “Well, that sounds nice and all, but I’ve been dating this girl and she’s cheated on me twice, I don’t think I should trust her.” No kidding? Trust yourself to make that decision and move on.

I’m not suggesting we give a free pass to those who have given us reason to doubt. Rather, we should trust ourselves to make decisions about who we let into our lives. And if we allow them in, let’s assume what they say and do is an accurate representation of their feelings and beliefs. If they are acting like a jerk, trust that they are, and respond accordingly. We don’t need to overcomplicate the situation.

I often reflect on this quote by the spiritual guru Osho: “Trust should not be dependent on the trustworthiness of others. Trust should be a quality in you, not a relationship.” It’s a reminder not to judge others for their perceived trustworthiness, but to cultivate trust in ourselves.

On trusting the universe

Trust that no matter what challenges you face, everything will work out, and you’re right where you need to be at this time. This one requires a bit of faith, but I don’t really see an alternative way to live. When we stop analyzing and start trusting, we open ourselves up to flow with the universe. This creates fantastic connections with our fellow humans and opens the door for opportunities we never thought possible.

I was recently watching Forrest Gump with my children. I hadn’t seen it since it was first released in 1994. It occurred to me that Forrest Gump’s success in life was due to trust. He took people and things at face value, which allowed him to live honestly and in the present, taking advantage of opportunities along the way. He didn’t consider people’s ulterior motives or hidden subtexts. He didn’t question whether Bubba really wanted him to go into the shrimping business with him, or even why Jenny returned to stay with him for a while. He lived in the present. I’m trying to live more like Forrest.

On Cultivating Trust

Here are a few practices that have worked for me as I learn to trust more, be less skeptical, and take people and things at face value.

Make a choice
When I’m confronted with doubt, I first consider whether this is an actual concern or some form of paranoia stemming from the past. If I suspect an old wound resurfacing, I make the decision to trust. I repeat the mantra, “I trust that I am safe.”

If I think there may be some foul play, I confront the issue without second-guessing myself or wallowing in suspicion. I repeat the mantra, “I trust myself to see clearly.”

Practice Gratitude
I talk about gratitude often. I have found it to be the most impactful practice to counteract fear and anxiety. Gratitude helps to rewire our brains for happiness. Every morning, while your mind is still bright and open, write down three things that you are grateful for, and why. Make your items unique and specific.

Note pleasant experiences
We are hardwired with a negativity bias. This means we are more likely to hold on to negative experiences than positive ones, and they have a more significant impact on our emotional state. This “feature” may have been helpful thousands of years ago, but it is less useful now. To give your nervous system an update, start noting pleasant experiences — maybe it’s your first cup of tea in the morning, a mother turkey walking with her babies across the street, or a stranger’s smile. Keep a small notebook and jot down these experiences.

I still get a little anxious when I don’t hear from my partner when I expect to, or when I’m waiting for paperwork to finalize a project that I’m excited to begin. My mind immediately jumps to the worst-case scenario. But I’m getting better at recognizing these fear-based thoughts and making the decision to trust. Since I’ve made a concerted effort to trust more, my anxiety has decreased, while my overall mood and energy have increased. I can see that living with persistent skepticism added no value to the quality of my life. Moreover, it did not protect me from disappointment, it only perpetuated fear.

To maximize our time here, we need to believe that the people with whom we share our hearts will be careful with them. We need confidence in our own wisdom to make decisions based on the present without being swayed by past wounds or fear of the future. We need to trust that no matter what chaos is currently in our midst, things will get better.

Each day, we have a choice to make about how to approach life. We can choose to live with an open heart, believing that others will act honestly and responsibly, or we can close our hearts in a spirit of protection. I trust you will choose the path that leads to the most love, connection, and growth.

This story is part of The Art Of, an ongoing series that supplies you with instructions for living.

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