To Trust or Not To Trust… Is That the Question?


“It was a mistake. But the cruel thing was, it felt like the mistake was mine, for trusting you.”

(David Levithan, The Lover’s Dictionary)

How will I ever trust again? That’s a question I hear again and again. And it’s not surprising, after the profound betrayal we experienced.

“Psychologists offer clinical evidence attesting to the devastating effects of betrayal. Betrayal acts as an assault on the integrity of individuals, affecting the capacity to trust, undermining confidence in judgment, and contracting the possibilities of the world by increasing distrust and scepticism. Betrayal changes not only our sense of the world, but our sensibility toward the world,” says Rodger L. Jackson, in The Sense and Sensibility of Betrayal: Discovering the Meaning of Treachery through Jane Austen. 

But life will not be good if we can’t trust others. “The risks of betrayal or rejection, though real, are outweighed by the certainty of insecurity and loneliness if we choose isolation,” according to Gordon Shippey, PhD.

What are we to do? Should we trust or not trust?

How about neither one? It turns out there’s another choice available to us.


I have a whole new take on trust after the psychopath, which I’ll explain later in this post. I realize now that before this experience,  I either trusted someone or I didn’t. That was dangerous. There was no middle ground, because trust wasn’t something I considered consciously; it just sort of happened without me being aware of it.

But once someone gains our trust and we hold an image of them as a trustworthy person, amazing things can happen. Psychopaths and other con artists count on this.

“Trust is absolutely pivotal. I try to cultivate trust in anyway I can. Empaths are blinded by positive emotions and are irrationally attached to the impressions they have of people.” ~ An anonymous psychopath

What is trust? “Trust is the ability to be vulnerable with another person. When you trust someone, you feel certain this person will keep your best interests in mind. You believe they are who they say they are. You believe the deepest parts of you will be safe with them,” write Townsend and Cloud, authors of Beyond Boundaries: Learning to Trust Again in Relationships

I hear a lot of people say if only they had listened to their gut, none of it would’ve happened. In response, I ask “Then why didn’t you?”

The answer is that psychopaths excel at disarming our gut feelings, which is precisely what makes them so dangerous, according to Mary Ellen O’Toole, the FBI’s leading expert in psychopathy.  She says that since our gut feelings aren’t reliable, we need to have another system in place. That system is based on critical thinking.

Whatever you do, don’t try to protect yourself against future victimization by vowing to trust your gut!*

*WITH ONE IMPORTANT EXCEPTION: If your gut does tell you something’s wrong or that you’re in danger, then you should absolutely listen to it. 


Developing trust in another person is usually outside of our conscious control. We believe we can “feel” or “just know” whether someone is trustworthy or not. This isn’t true.

“Just knowing” or “feeling” that someone is trustworthy come about from the automatic ways our brains work. Our brains are, in many ways, still mysterious. But one thing cognitive scientists do know for sure is that a factor underlying cognition, or thinking, is that the brain uses shortcuts called cognitive heuristics (or bias) to process information quickly and efficiently. The side effects of the shortcuts that optimize human cognition demonstrate the limitations of human reasoning. These shortcuts can impair decision-making.

“A cognitive bias refers to a systematic pattern of deviation from rationality in judgment, whereby inferences about other people and situations may be drawn in an illogical fashion. Individuals create their own “subjective social reality” from their perception of the input. An individual’s construction of social reality, not the objective input, may dictate their behavior in the social world. Thus, cognitive biases may sometimes lead to perceptual distortion, inaccurate judgment, illogical interpretation, or what is broadly called irrationality.” (Wikipedia)

Decision-making that relies on instinct and intuition is risky because humans are not inherently impartial. Scientists have observed and named many cognitive biases and logical fallacies that adversely affect our decision-making ability. Left unchecked, subconscious biases will undermine strategic decision making. Here are just a few that relate to trust:

  • Assumed Similarity Bias — a mental shortcut that leads us to the unconscious assumption that others share the same or similar values, thoughts and beliefs. We know now that psychopaths have profoundly different values, thoughts and beliefs. 
  • Basing future decisions on “sunk costs” — Investing more time in a relationship that’s gone wrong because you’ve invested so time much already.
  • Cognitive inertia — refers to the tendency for beliefs or sets of beliefs to endure once formed. In particular, cognitive inertia describes the human inclination to rely on familiar assumptions and exhibit a reluctance and/or inability to revise those assumptions, even when the evidence supporting them no longer exists or when other evidence would question their accuracy. Cognitive inertia is a key component of love, trust, and friendship. It can work for good or bad. For instance, if evidence showed that a friend was dishonest, the cognitive inertia of the friendship would demand much more evidence to form an opinion than that required to form an opinion of a stranger. In this fashion, cognitive inertia provides an additional level of trust in a relationship. At the same time, it can make us continue to trust someone who doesn’t deserve it.

“Although cognitive biases can sometimes be helpful in familiar situations or in dealing with predictable threats, they can lead to catastrophic failures in assessment of unfamiliar and unpredictable adversaries,” according to Tomek Strzalkowski, PhD. at the University at Albany. The psychopath was most definitely an unfamiliar adversary.


“Whenever we meet new people, our brain automatically and immediately begins to categorize them in some way – male or female, same or different, friend or foe – in order to predict what is likely to happen next. In those first seconds, we unconsciously decide whether or not to trust. Once we are convinced that someone is or is not to be trusted, we will go through all sorts of mental gymnastics to reinforce that initial judgment… The first step to making better decisions about whom to trust is to realize that we are all biased. While these mental shortcuts work reasonably well most of the time, they also leave us vulnerable to a variety of judgment traps. This is especially true when it comes to trust.”

Carol Kinsy Gorman, 6 Surprising Truths About Trust

I overcame my fear of trusting again when I decided to take trust out of the control of my subconscious cognitive biases and use critical thinking instead. The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking defines critical thinking as the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. 

That’s what led me to another choice beside trust or mistrust:

Neutral Trust. 

What this means is I don’t trust someone or mistrust them, automatically without even being aware of it. I no longer trust someone because I “feel” or “just know” they’re trustworthy, nor do I automatically mistrust them because of my past experience with someone untrustworthy. I have neutral trust instead, which is an ongoing process based on my observation of their behavior (not their words). 

When someone gains my trust, I take notice of that moment. And I make sure they keep my trust only as long as they continue to be trustworthy. Without this in place, people can become untrustworthy for a long time until we finally figure it out or act on it. That premise is something I think most of us are familiar with.

It’s as simple as that. I have much less fear of misplaced trust. Is it risk proof? Nothing is, but I believe it’s a big improvement.

A few other things factor in to feeling more confident about trust:

Developing clear and strong boundaries. Chances are that the psychopath taught you exactly what your boundaries are. From here, you might have also uncovered a lot of other things in your past and present relationships that you won’t allow anymore.  Once you’re clear on your boundaries, you have to make a commitment to stick to them for this very important reason: If you’re willing to bend your rules for someone, willing to break a promise you made to yourself that would protect you from another relationship with a disordered person, there’s a good chance you’re having your defenses disarmed. Someone who is trustworthy and truly interested in you will respect your boundaries. Someone who isn’t will pretend to respect them, at first.When you seem to willingly throw all caution to the wind despite commitment to your boundaries, a large red flag should appear in your path. For god’s sake, please read my book on boundaries after a pathological relationship if you haven’t yet worked on your boundaries.

Trusting yourself. That takes confidence. Not confidence in others, but confidence in yourself. Confidence in yourself means you trust yourself. It can be hard to do this for a while, because we made such a grave error in trusting the psychopath. But I’ve learned a lot since then, and I think you have, too. Even if you know you have, it can be hard to trust your new knowledge and awareness. The only way to do it is to take it for a test drive. When you think you might be ready but aren’t quite sure you should trust what you’ve learned, go out and meet new people. Meet new friends. Go on a few dates. You may find, like I did, that you’re a different person, in a very good way.

A reader named Ann shares some good advice:

“After a marriage with a person I now know to be narcissistic and then a relationship with a psychopath, the issue of trust took on huge dimensions for me. I was frightened and broken. But I was also determined to read all I could and learn about the disorders. I also was determined not to get into another relationship and just be with myself.

I would advocate that every woman recovering from a pathological take time out from romantic relationships for some time. Gradually I began talking to men again and was delighted to discover that I could see a player a mile away. My boundaries firmly in place, I found myself observing them.

I love the fact that I now have my own back and trust my perceptions one hundred percent. But this came very gradually, and the more I practised it the more confident I became. Its possible to get here, but only when you value yourself enough to take the time to work on yourself. And patterns of behaviour can be identified over an extended period of time.”  ~ Ann

♥ Thank you for reading.


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34 thoughts on “To Trust or Not To Trust… Is That the Question?”

  1. Yasmin

    What a thoughtful, insightful article! Thank you for sharing how you addressed the issue of trust. For me this is the major issue as I don’t trust my perceptions and feelings … And feel confused as to who is really sincere and who is not. Much food for thought here.

    1. Adelyn Birch

      I’m glad you found food for thought! The only way to know if someone’s sincere is by how they act, over time. There really is no shortcut. Good luck to you, Yasmin.

  2. I have struggled to put this concept into words…. Thank you

    1. Adelyn Birch

      You’re welcome, KD. I’m glad it helped you.

  3. Ann

    After a marriage with a person i now know to be narcissistic and then a relationship with a psychopath, the issue of trust took on huge dimensions for me. I was frightened and broken. But i was also determined to read all icould and learn about the disorders. I also was determined not to get into another relationship and just be with myself. I would advocate that every woman recovering from a pathological take time out from romantic relationships for some time. Gradually i began talking to men again and was delighted to discover that i could see a player a mile away. My boundaries firmly in place i found myself observing them,. I love the fact that i now have my own back and trust my perceptions one hundred percent. But this came very gradually, and the more i practised it the more confident i became.Its possible to get here, but only when you value yourself enough to take the time to work on yourself. And patterns of behaviour can be identified over an extended period of time.

    1. Adelyn Birch

      “I love the fact that i now have my own back and trust my perceptions one hundred percent.” That’s great news, Ann!

      I agree completely, time off from seeking a relationship is absolutely necessary. It takes time to process everything and to learn what we need to know to develop confidence in ourselves and our perceptions.

      Ann, I put your comment into the post.

      1. Ann

        Thank you for the honour Adelyn. It has been a lot of hard work, but the end result is more than worth it.

        1. Adelyn Birch

          You’re welcome!

  4. Linda

    As someone who is very intuitive, I find that I can easily give too much weight to my “gut”, which can be mislead by fantasies and wishes. I am often saved by my strong boundaries, but also put at risk by the shortcuts you describe. This post is exactly what I need. Practicing Critical Thinking and developing Neutral Trust… my new projects. Excellent post! Thank you!

    1. Adelyn Birch

      I think we’ve all educated to believe that we should rely on our guts and our instincts, and not the opposite. Common wisdom tells us if we only listen to our guts, we’ll always make the right decisions. It’s a dangerous concept. UNLESS OUR GUTS TELL US SOMETHING IS WRONG — IN THAT CASE WE ABSOLUTELY SHOULD LISTEN.

      Best of luck with your new projects, Linda!

  5. Jodie

    Well, talk about a timely post! Resonates with my most recent post about my time with a vampire/psychopath! It’s so true, unfortunately – our gut tells us one thing, but our mind is being led in another direction by the psychopath/vampire that makes us question everything. I love your blog and I have recommended it numerous times to others. Thank you, so much.

  6. Jan

    I needed to back off from a new possible friendship when the person started pushing too hard for us to have fun together; “new best friends” kind of thing. I took note of manipulations that were subtle. And I said “no thank you” to invitations without needing to give an explanation. This is an interesting time. I like having awareness. It’s true that if I’d gone with my gut reaction of “oh yes! This is simply a fun and genuine person!” I’d have already gotten into something more than what would be good.
    Thank you for this topic on trust. It’s the relevant topic for me right now.

    1. Adelyn Birch

      I’ve backed off from a few new people who’ve come into my life. One was a guy on a first date, who said something like, “I’m all about commitment!” I said something along the lines of, “Well, I guess that’ll become apparent over time, then, if we decide to get to know each other.” I decided the first date was all the time I wanted to spend with him.

  7. Dee

    So much to chew on. Great post!
    The thing is, my alarm system did go off all through the relationship with the psychopath, but as you stated in a previous post, the brain always works to align itself: To make the unconscionable, conscionable. I went against my gut and fought for love and went with my tendency to always see the best in people. I can see how this tendency activated “sunk costs” and “cognitive inertia.” So, that’s how I got trapped in the quick sand! Psychopaths count on ones investment in them. My ex psychopath never imagined I would leave because I was so invested in him, his career, and our mutual collaborations ( triple sunk costs and cognitive inertia!)

    I can see how “neutral trust” removes the fear of not being able to trust. “Neutral trust” means the pressure is off and puts me in complete control of my future. The main tool in my utility bag will be to employ the word “NO.” I will also use everything I have learned to assess weather or not I am dealing with a dangerous person. I think “over flattery” is a huge red flag. Psychopaths need to butter up their targets to get them to bend to their will.

    Like I said, great post. It’s one I will be re reading a few times, so all of the excellent points sink in. Thank you! xo

    1. Adelyn Birch

      You’re welcome, Dee! I thought about you first thing today — “OMG, I told Dee this post would be published yesterday, and it’s a post about trust!” Thanks for giving me another chance.

      Trust never has to be all-or-nothing, something you have or don’t have. And no one ever has to know this is the way you see it. As far as they know, you trust them completely. And you very well might — but only for as long as they are actually completely trustworthy.

      I agree, flattery is a big red flag. Every time I hear flattery now, I take notice. It’s one of the biggest ploys psychopaths use, especially when they flatter us by recognizing something we feel is under-appreciated. That makes us feel they’re really connecting with us, that they’re able to see and appreciate us and our best qualities, things that others fail to notice. It’s good to figure out what those things might be in advance.

  8. Tina

    “I make sure they keep my trust only as long as they continue to be trustworthy” Thank You!

    1. Adelyn Birch

      You’re welcome. I think it’s a shift in mindset that can make a difference IF we remain conscious of it.

  9. Asheley

    I just wanted to pop in and say hi! I haven’t commented in a while but I still read regularly and am still so grateful for the work you do.

    Almost two months ago I lost my sweet angel cat Casey who was the little love of my life for ten years. After it happened I was obviously highly emotional, while in the midst of a sob so powerful it shook my body from the inside out, I realized it was the same cry I had after I realized what was happening to me at the hands of P and during the extreme cognitive dissonance I felt. That moment was just one of many that made me realize how abnormal my situation was with P and at what it almost cost me. I certainly never cried like that for another boyfriend in the past. It was the same cry I had for my sweet cat that I rescued who ended up dying of cancer in my arms. Casey’s death put a lot of perspective on the situation with P. He was never worth my time or tears. If I could bring something back to me it would be my sweet healthy boy Casey, not Peter the psychopath. I regret all the 6 months of sadness that overcame me. He still comes by my work so I hear but I have never seen him, thankfully.

    1. Adelyn Birch

      Hi Asheley! I was wondering how you were doing. I’m terribly sorry to hear that you lost your beloved cat, Casey. That’s a difficult and heartbreaking loss. It’s good that you got a different perpective on losing Peter, though. As devastating as it is when it happens, eventually we realize we would never want them back, because they weren’t worth our time, or our tears, in the first place. That’s a big step in moving through this trauma!

  10. Asheley

    Losing my cat did put perspective on the situation with Peter. It was a tremendous loss but the gifts Casey gave me are immeasurable. Even still, I can’t help but think about what I was doing this time last year, falling into fake love. I’m slightly nostalgic about who I thought he was. I also miss how innocent I was before I was duped, I know it’s best to be cautious when trusting people but I feel as though the experience hardened me some, hopefully that is fleeting. I think I’ve made sense of the whole thing now though. If I could go back, I’d be home with my sweet Casey much more, I hate that he saw me so upset. I saw a recent picture of Peter last week that I was definitely not looking to find and I had the classic “why was I so in love with him, he’s not that good looking” feeling, it was awesome! :) I can tell his hair is receding, it looked like he had some type of creative come over going on. Nothing against bald people but I know how much his appearance matters to him, I remember finding hair loss prevention shampoo in his shower. This must really get to him…karma! Lol. I’m babbling now!

    1. Adelyn Birch

      It is definitely a loss of innocence, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing since there are people we need to protect ourselves from. We go from being “soft targets” to “hard targets,” and that helps to prevent future victimization. Maybe seeing your “hardening” in that light will give you a new perspective on it.

      “When you are hungry, it is foolish to hunt a tiger when there are plenty of sheep to be had.”

      Hopefully a creative comb-over is just the beginning of his long and dizzying spin on the wheel of karma.

  11. red

    I like the idea of neutral trust. The psychopath opened my eyes to my abusive upbringing. I am still realizing things now that I wasn’t aware of before. I learned that I was taught from a very young age that my boundaries could and would be violated by the people I relied on for safety and protection.

    Out of necessity, I’ve slowed down the pace of my life considerably. I am slowly building trust in myself with the help of a therapist. Neutral trust at this point seems like an almost lofty goal but one I hope to attain.

    Thank you for writing about this.

    1. Adelyn Birch

      This experience we’ve had can expose patterns of dysfunction and abuse in our lives that we didn’t see before. The same thing happened to me. It’s a real opportunity to break free from it. I think it’s great that you’re working on trust with a therapist, Red. I think you’ll definitely achieve neutral trust after you’re able to trust yourself. Good luck with it!

  12. Asheley

    Adelyn may I have your expert opinion on something? Over the last year total strangers have actually divulged things to me about Peter. I’ve not once solicited info or even knew it was coming, it’s been the strangest thing…. I’ve had a guy in a deli say odd things about him, people I don’t even know… anyway, a new guy started working for my company and today he came up to me and told me he knew many of the younger guys that work for us. He named them all off and included P. He said a lot of things, like that he was weird and that he must have hit on me because he hits on everyone. What stood out to me is he mentioned how their mutual friend was bringing P around a lot because Peter had been dumped badly by someone and that he was very upset by it. This was after he and I were over. It just threw me completely as I thought the guy had no soul! To be hurt you must have a soul right? I said to Gus that I didn’t really think Peter had a soul, he said he didn’t or that maybe he had a tiny bit of a soul but that it was probably just the fact that someone had done to him what he always does to others. Gus said it was karma. Now I’m thinking he may not be what I thought he was… I know it isn’t supposed to matter but it does to me for some reason.

    1. Adelyn Birch

      Well, I think you’re still going back and forth… but don’t forget that in order to do that, there has to be something to go back and forth between — the good guy and the bad guy. When someone leaves you guessing as to who they really are, it’s never a good sign.

      A narcissist is very bothered by rejection. It doesn’t mean someone has a heart. A psychopath isn’t bothered by it but he will be frustrated that he didn’t get what he wanted, and he might say he was upset about being dumped in the hope it would get back to you. I can only guess, in light of what you’ve told me about him.

      Whatever he was, he managed to leave you with a lot of doubt.

  13. Asheley

    If I’m honest… hearing that a girl might have broken his heart hurt me. I didn’t think he had a heart, guess it just wasn’t for me. Then again who knows what really happened.

    1. Adelyn Birch

      I’m sure hearing that about him hurt. But as you said, who knows what really happened? Since you still aren’t sure about who he really was, hearing something like that is bound to ignite your doubt. >>>The simple fact that you have so much doubt about who he was points to the truth.<<<

    2. Dee

      Ashley – Sounds to me like the psychopathic pity ploy. They play this manipulation game in between relationships to gain sympathy because it helps them lure new targets and helps to preserve their image. If the psychopath tells everyone he is hurting over a relationship gone wrong, then everyone will think he has a heart and they’ll feel sorry for him. Believe me, it’s all an act! When I dumped the psychopath he was cold and cruel. His emails were scathing and he launched a vicious smear campaign. At the same time, he was crying to all of his friends and family, telling them how much he missed me and how sad he was. Yet, in the next breath, he coldly told them, we just weren’t a good match, oh well. I keep asking myself, “Who is this man!”

      The fact that your brain is ping ponging is a clear sign Peter is a toxic man. My brain went back and fourth for a very long time too and kept me hooked to feelings of loss, confusion and sadness. Those feelings will subside in time.

      Recently, I took inventory of my relationship with the psychopath and in my check list I couldn’t find one thing he actually did for me. The tally of all of the things I did for him was overloaded. This was shocking to me because, for a long time, I carried the belief that he was such a kind and generous guy! Truth is, he was a great manipulator who got me to do a lot of things for him, while he sat back and enjoyed the fruits of my love, attention and hard work. I was in a deep trance.

      1. Adelyn Birch

        Thank you, Dee. “Ping-ponging” is truly a big red flag.

  14. Asheley

    I’ve really had my mind made up about him, I knew who he was for the most part, haven’t felt sad over him in a long while. Today was the first time I’ve ever heard that he had any feelings of any kind. And then I of course started rethinking things and seriously considered that it was all my fault. I ran him off because I was too needy, or perhaps not loving enough. Not pretty enough, smart enough. I was annoying, or I played it too cool. I really couldn’t win with myself today. I also learned that he “loves cocaine” which was a good revelation bc no matter what he is, I don’t want that in my life. Apparently he was dumped badly 6 months ago and I’m just hearing of it now. Wish I never heard any of it at all. Thanks for listening and being so great. ♡

    1. Adelyn Birch

      It’s a good thing this guy is out of your life. I’m sorry you have to hear about what’s going on in his. One day, though, you’ll find it doesn’t bother you anymore when you do. You’ll get there in time.

  15. Asheley

    One thing I am positive about, his eyes were unlike ANY eyes I’ve ever encountered. He used them is the strangest and scariest of ways. He stared right through me. That has to say something.

    1. Adelyn Birch

      “It’s their eyes that are the most remarkable feature. How they drill into you.”

      Dr. Robert Hare

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