pain is part of the process, or, some thoughts about trust

“You have to be willing to accept the fact that pain is part of the process of revolution. You have to take the field and stay on the field, the way we stay on the road.”

- Can’t find a source for this sound bite – it appears in a Buddha Bar CD and I’d love to know who the speaker is if anyone can tell me!

***

I’ve been thinking about trust a lot in the past little while. Figured I’d share a couple of observations.

We have to trust people to be what they are.

I know this sounds weird. What I mean is… well, it’s sort of a variation on the idea that actions speak louder than words. If someone consistently displays a certain sort of behaviour, it’s a fairly good bet they’ll continue to do so unless and until strongly motivated to do otherwise. Whether they’re objectively logical or not, we choose our behaviours for good reasons, and changing a behaviour is a complex process. I’d break it down into three main steps: self-understanding, motivation, and resources.

Self-understanding about the behaviour’s raison d’être is a big piece of making change. It’s not essential; certainly, we don’t absolutely have to understand the “why” behind a behaviour in order to make it go away if we are sufficiently motivated. But the lack of that understanding can act as a stumbling block in our process of motivating ourselves to change and can make it difficult for us to harness the appropriate resources to help that change take place.

This is dependent, to an extent, on the depth or scope of the change that’s being discussed. So, for example, it’s fairly easy to change a behaviour like leaving your dirty socks on the end of the bed, because chances are there’s very little emotional attachment to that behaviour in the first place; it’s likely just a habit of convenience, and therefore the depth of self-understanding required to attack the issue is probably negligible. Set up another habit that meets the “convenience” requirement, and allow a bit of time for adjustment, and chances are fairly high the behaviour can be altered without too much stress.

Logic and cognitive awareness can help here. So for example, Boi M had this very odd habit of folding his dirty socks together and throwing them in the wash like that. Totally annoying, because in order to actually wash them, on the occasions that I was the one doing laundry, I’d have to unfold them and peel them apart again. So I explained the illogic and asked him to stop, and he said “Hm, you’re right, that doesn’t make much sense.” I’m guessing it was a habit he picked up when doing canoe trips that carried over into apartment living. And within a couple of weeks, no more folded dirty socks. It happens on occasion now when he’s being absent-minded and reverting to old habits, but it’s rare.

For larger issues, though, cognitive awareness that a behaviour is problematic is rarely a sufficient motivator. So a person might know that smoking is bad for them, but that’s got absolutely no impact on whether or not they’ll stop smoking, because the choice to smoke was probably not made based on logic in the first place – or at least, not exclusively. For that sort of change, some deeper emotional work needs to be done, and the motivation to do that work and make the change need to be fairly strong. If a change is truly desired and internally emotionally motivated, rather than motivated by outside factors such as punishment or reward, then the change is likely to work. But if a person is being compelled to change by some sort of consequence, then the change is likely to either a) fail, b) be successful but only as long as the consequence is enforced, or c) be successful only when the enforcer of the consequence is there to observe the behaviour – in other words, the behaviour change will only last until the person finds a way to get away with the original behaviour and avoid the consequence. And when it comes to changes within relationships (romantic, D/s, friendship, workplace), all of this is predicated on the concept that a given person has sufficient influence or authority to effect a consequence in the first place – definitely not always the case, and certainly not without creating resentment and other problems.

Consequences that don’t involve human intervention – such as, say, a lactose-intolerant person getting sick from eating cheese – can work a bit better, but even then, it depends on the degree of attachment or pleasure the person has to the behaviour in the first place. I know plenty of lactose-intolerant folks who like the cheese, eat the cheese, and deal with the indigestion because for them it’s a price worth paying.

Back to the question of trust. With all this in mind, I feel that unless I can observe a person’s internal motivation and genuine desire to make a change, I don’t generally expect that change to happen, regardless of what they say about it. “I promise I’ll never yell at you again,” say, doesn’t work – whatever reason the person had for losing their temper in the first place won’t be eradicated by a promise alone. Anger management takes a lot of work and emotional patterns are hard to change. A promise combined with some serious inner work, that I take a lot more seriously. And that’s when the person has the resources required to do that work – the desire to do it is also not enough if the means are not available. Resources might include introspection skills, self-knowledge, external assistance or support as needed, and practical resources (money, time, supplies, space, etc.).

I know this sounds like it’s veering off the course of a post about trust. I think what I’m getting at is, if you trust someone’s word alone, you may be disappointed. If you trust their actions – observable patterns of behaviour – you’re more likely to get a clear sense of what you can expect of them, of what you can trust them to be and do. For me, that isn’t about distrusting people’s word. My feeling that this is how human nature works simply means I’m more realistic about what I believe when it comes out of someone’s mouth. If someone makes a promise about a change and I don’t see the rest of the change mechanism (self-understanding, internal motivation, presence of resources, etc.) in action, I’m more likely to ask questions to find out what’s going on, whether their promise is realistic, whether there’s something I can do to support a change, and so forth. It means I’m less likely to just want to hear what someone thinks I want to hear, and I’m more interested in the actual truth, even if I don’t like it as much as my fantasy world.

I’ll give an example of my own. Until about five years ago, I was one of those people who absolutely hated doing dishes. My whole house would be spotless, neat, clutter-free and nicely decorated… but a pile of dirty dishes resided in the sink just about all the time. It used to drive my roommates nuts. I fondly remember one roommate who tried every trick in the book to get me to change this behaviour – politely asking, cajoling, getting mad, and so forth. I felt bad about it, but even still, anytime I put a dish in the sink, I just couldn’t bring myself to wash it. Her last-ditch effort was to say, more or less, “Okay, I get it. You’re simply not going to change. With that in mind, is there any way we could come up with an alternate place for you to put the dirty dishes so that I can still get to the sink? I’m even willing to purchase a rubber bin or a shelf or something. Whatever it takes.”

That she finally resorted to such a practical and non-judgmental way of addressing the problem took off all the pressure. But it also made me realize just how stubbornly I was clinging to a behaviour that, by all rights, should have been no big deal to change – the motivation might have been mainly external, but the resources were certainly available (time and dish soap). But my internal motivation was nil. I asked her to give me a couple of days to think about it, and I aimed my brain at the question: “What the heck makes me so resistant to doing dishes?” Here’s where the self-understanding piece comes in; and because I’m generally pretty introspective and this wasn’t, in theory, a complex question, I had the resources to do the work.

The answer didn’t take long to arrive. When I was a kid, I was the oldest of four children, and the bulk of household chores tended to fall to me. At one point when I was 12 or so, my father decided that because I was the reliable one, it would be my responsibility to do the dishes every night for the whole family. Period. No taking turns, never mind if I’d eaten dinner with the family or not, no matter if I was vegetarian and scraping meat scraps and juices off pans made me want to hurl. Dishes were my responsibility. So I did so for years under duress, resenting every second of it. And I’d simply imported that resentment into adulthood. Leaving a pile of dishes in the sink was my way of saying “Piss off, you can’t make me!” in a way that I couldn’t when I was a kid.

As soon as I realized this, all of a sudden, it became really simple to reprogram the experience of dish-doing. I just decided that doing dishes would be about my own desire for a tidy home, the end. Not because anyone else was pushing or pressuring; not because of an unfair division of labour. Just because I wanted them clean. And since then, dishes have not been an issue for me. Self-understanding + availability of required resources + internal motivation = change. Up until that point, though, no matter what promises I made on the topic, I’d break – even if I really felt bad about doing so, and even if there were unpleasant external consequences (roommates hating me).

 

Trust is a choice.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s sometimes a very wise thing to choose not to trust someone. For example, if someone repeatedly violates your boundaries and repeatedly promises not to do it again, you’d be well within your rights – based on my earlier point about trusting people to be what they are – to stop trusting them to respect your boundaries.

In addition, there are plenty of circumstances in which your spidey-senses tell you “don’t trust this person” or “don’t trust this situation” and y’know, I say, listen to that little inner voice. It usually knows what it’s talking about. Too many people – women especially – convince themselves that unless someone actually does something bad to them, they are unjustified in mistrusting them. I disagree. If some creepy guy sits next to me on a subway and leers at me and covers his lap with his jacket and puts his hand under it, there is no universal law that says I have to stay sitting next to me until he grabs my breast or visibly starts beating off. I am well within my rights to get the fuck up and leave. I don’t owe anyone the benefit of the doubt when all signs point to the strong likelihood that he’ll do something that violates my boundaries.

But that’s not really the kind of trust I’m talking about.

What I’m getting at here is that we can choose to view the world as a place where people are likely to fuck with us, disrespect us and hurt us; and that will be accurate. In this case, we are choosing not to trust the world and the people around us, and the world will comply. In other words, if you decide that you’re going to view everyone with suspicion, you will doubtless be right about their bad intentions – or at least about their failure to live up to your expectations – at least some of the time, and possibly lots of it, which will justify your ongoing suspicion.

On the other hand, we can choose to view the world as a place where people are likely to be kind to us, respect us and help us; and that will be accurate. In this case we are choosing to trust the world and the people around us, and again, they will comply. Why? Because people feel good when they’re trusted. Trust is a gift. People will strive to keep our trust because it feels good to have it.

The trick is, if we decide not to trust the world, we will always find good reasons to feel that way. Why? Because people are imperfect. They will fuck up. They will hurt us. They will forget, or do it wrong, or say something painful, or their priorities will not match up with ours. There’s no question about it and there’s no avoiding it. This is true in every single relationship. Every friend will hurt us at some point. Nobody will get it right 100% of the time. But if we use that truth to justify a lifetime of mistrust, we’ll never benefit from all the good stuff that happens along with that hurt. We can go an entire lifetime in self-protection mode, which means we don’t reach out, don’t accept kindness, refuse to allow anyone to become intimate with us or to know us. And it doesn’t work. All our self-protection won’t stop people from hurting us. But it does is rob us of the chance to find comfort.

On the other hand, if we decide to give the world the benefit of the doubt, we may discover all sorts of circumstances that create opportunities for connection. If we assume positive intent and ask questions when a given behaviour doesn’t seem to line up with that assumption, we open the door to understanding.

So if a friend stands me up, I can assume she’s a jerk who doesn’t respect my time and is selfish and inconsiderate, and with that framework in mind, I can call her up and leave a message saying “Piss off, bitch.” Or I can think about all the many things that might have happened to prevent her from showing up, and I can call her up and say, “Hey, are you okay? I’m kinda grumpy about being stood up, but I’m also concerned that something’s gone wrong with you.” In the first instance, she’s necessarily going to be on the defensive, and anything she says is necessarily going to be coming from a place of hurt and mistrust because I’ve just attacked her. In the second instance, she doesn’t need to defend herself because I’m not attacking; she has lots of room to apologize, to explain, to say “thanks for understanding,” to reassure me of her good intentions. And I’m in a place to hear that explanation and accept that apology. It’s awfully hard to hug someone when they’re wearing a suit of armour.

I guess what I’m getting at here is that we can choose to trust the world, or we can choose not to. In either case we need to balance that trust with respect for our instincts and with a consciousness of our own patterns and flaws. But regardless of which one we choose, there is no way to avoid pain. It’s just a question of what we do with it when it shows up. I think if we can accept that pain is part of the process no matter what, we can stay on the field – and the project of building and sustaining trust is a revolution indeed.

One Response

  1. “we can choose to view the world as a place where people are likely to be kind to us, respect us and help us; and that will be accurate. In this case we are choosing to trust the world and the people around us, and again, they will comply. Why? Because people feel good when they’re trusted. Trust is a gift. People will strive to keep our trust because it feels good to have it.”

    Fantastic. Bang-on.

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