When I was about nine or ten years old, about two years after my parents had divorced and I was still living with my mother, she met a man called Iain McDonald at a singles’ bar and soon afterwards invited him to move in with us (‘us’ being myself, my brother, who is three years older than me, and my mother). He accepted this offer with alacrity.
He was an alcoholic and used to go missing for periods of time. He also hired cars and neither paid for them (he wrote cheques he knew would bounce) nor returned them (until the police caught up with him)
Usually, too, he would drive these cars with way over the legal limit of alcohol in his blood – including when I was in the car.
Indeed, he once drove me, my older brother and my brother’s friend, Leslie, to a funfair. Upon arrival, after he had parked the car in a haphazard manner, rather like a gorilla who’d only had one driving lesson and was blindfolded, he slumped forward in his driver’s seat, seemingly on the verge of unconsciousness.
Because of this kind of behaviour (e.g. the drink-driving, financial fraud and stealing of cars) he was frequently arrested. Indeed, I almost became used to the police coming around to our house or seeing them waiting in their panda car parked directly outside our house, adjacent to the small front garden.
As Iain’s criminal activities escalated, he started to receive harsher penalties from the Court. Whilst he was living with us, he served some short terms of incarceration at Pentonville Prison in London. From his cell, he would write to my mother. I remember seeing the letters with several words, phrases or sentences having been redacted by the prison censors – thick black blocks of ink.
The key element of this short tale from my past, and the one that is perhaps most pertinent to the title, is what we discovered after the first time we found out he’d been arrested, which must have been several months, possibly longer, after he had first moved in with us. This is what happened:
One night there was a phone call from the police. Iain had been arrested and was in their custody and they wanted my mother to go immediately to the police station, presumably in order to help them with their enquiries.
She duly went and did not return to our house until about 9 or 10 pm. I was in bed and my light was off. Nevertheless, she burst into my bedroom in a highly distressed and hysterical state, declaring that she had just been informed by the police that the man we all knew as ‘Iain McDonald’ had been living under an alias. His real name, apparently, was John Lee. Also, he had not been living in Australia before he met my mother as he had claimed, but, in fact, came from Kelso in Scotland. Furthermore, he had a family there (in Kelso) – a wife and children. (He had told my mother he was single and childless). It seems that one reason why he had been stealing cars was to enable himself to drive to Kelso in Scotland, a journey of perhaps five hundred miles, to see them.
My mother blurted out all this information, through her tears, with such speed and urgency that it was very hard to take in. I just remember feeling stunned and confused.
I was not yet even eleven years old.
Such experiences, of course, undermine our ability to trust. Indeed, without effective therapy, such experiences may mean we are unable to trust others properly for the whole of our adult lives, causing us tremendous problems both forming and maintaining relationships.
Other childhood experiences that can potentially seriously undermine our ability to trust others during our adult lives are being abandoned or rejected by our parents, being neglected by our parents (emotionally and/or physically), exploited or abused by them. All of these experiences could lead us to develop a profound sense of having been betrayed and it is the effects of such betrayal that I now consider.
If we suffered parental abuse during our childhood, this clearly equates to a serious betrayal. Being betrayed by one’s parents is particularly devastating as parents are the very people who are responsible for our psychological welfare and are supposed to protect us.
This is why parental betrayal can so profoundly alter and shatter our view of the world and of those who inhabit it.
Before betrayal occurs the child views the world as essentially safe. However, after the betrayal, his view of the world will frequently change in a very drastic manner:
S/he now views the world as unsafe and everyone in it as a serious, potential threat and danger. He is likely to always expect the worst where others are concerned; this is a psychological defense mechanism to make him feel safer – the rationale behind it (conscious or unconscious) being that if he expects the worst of others, at least s/he will be prepared for being badly treated rather than being taken by surprise.
Indeed, he is even likely to treat people who have earned a reputation of lifelong integrity and moral rectitude with deep suspicion. In other words, he becomes very prone to underestimating people’s trustworthiness.
Because of this, he is likely to be perceived by others as paranoid and cynical: Why do you always insist on seeing the worst in people? is a refrain s/he may not infrequently be subjected to hearing, or: Why do you take such a jaundiced view of everything? is another.
The answer may be simple: in large part, it is likely to be due to the conditioning s/he was exposed to in childhood.
Indeed, research has demonstrated that significant childhood trauma may lead to an area of the brain, known as the amygdala, being damaged, physically, and adversely, altering the brain’s development and priming the affected individual to be super-sensitive and hypervigilant in relation to a perceived potential threat.
Because the affected individual, through no fault of his/her own, finds it so exceptionally difficult to trust others, this makes the development of healthy relationships with these others impossible. This inevitably leads to a deep sense of loneliness, and, in all likelihood, concomitantly high levels of anxiety and depression.
How Can A Healthy Trust Of Others Be Redeveloped?
Whilst the affected individual may accept, on an intellectual level, that he has an unreasonably negative view of others, he may still find it all but impossible to accept this very same idea on an emotional level due to childhood conditioning (and, in some cases, due to damage to the amygdala (as referred to above) which is intimately involved in the brain’s processing of fear and emotion.
To rebuild a sense of trust, an effective therapy that may well prove helpful, which I have frequently, previously referred to on this site is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
The stages most people go through in gradually developing a healthy (i.e. neither naïve nor overly suspicious) trust of others are as follows:
- slightly on guard when we first meet someone new
- as we gradually get to know the person, we start to build an impression of their trustworthiness based upon the evidence available to us
- form a firmer opinion of their trustworthiness in light of ongoing evidence
- revise and adjust this opinion, if necessary, in the light of continuing evidence
A rule of thumb tends to be to trust a person in accordance with the degree to which that person has so far proved to be trustworthy, no more and no less.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).