Healing from an unhealthy or toxic relationship involves learning to trust yourself again.
Unhealthy relationships erode your ability to trust yourself
Unhealthy or toxic relationships can destroy your trust in others. For example, if your partner cheated on you or called you derogatory names, it makes sense that you may have trouble trusting that your next partner won’t also betray and hurt you.
Unhealthy relationships can also destroy your trust in yourself. Abusive, toxic, and narcissistic people chip away at your self-esteem and ability to trust your instincts and judgment by:
- Questioning your abilities
- Criticizing your choices
- Not asking about or caring about your opinions, needs, interests
- Making all the decisions or telling you what to do
- Saying or implying that you’re inferior (stupid, incompetent, etc.)
- Calling you derogatory names
- Threatening to leave
- Gaslighting and lying
- Blaming you for their actions/choices
These behaviors create an atmosphere of insecurity and encourage unhealthy dependency. An abusive, toxic, or narcissistic partner wants you to think that you can’t live without him; he needs to be needed and he accomplishes this by convincing you that you’re incapable.
Signs of self-doubt
A lack of self-trust is often experienced as a sense of unease or feeling anxious or on-edge. More specifically, when you don’t trust yourself, you may do some of the following:
- Criticize yourself for not having seen the red flags or for staying in the relationship for so long.
- Second-guess yourself and doubt whether you’re capable of making good decisions, taking care of yourself, or being single.
- Question your perceptions or memories.
- Wonder whether you were to blame or whether things were really as bad as they seemed.
- Use unhealthy coping skills such as drinking, smoking, cutting, or other forms of self-harming.
- Feel depressed, hopeless, or anxious.
- Seek external validation.
In short, when you don’t trust yourself, you’re not sure what to think, feel, and believe. This can be very upsetting and confusing; a lack of self-trust makes almost everything in your life harder. However, self-trust can be rebuilt. Let’s take a look at how to get started.
How to trust yourself again
To trust yourself, you need to believe and act like you’re valuable and capable. You need to know that you can count on yourself, that you’re going to do what’s in your own best interest rather than abandoning yourself to make someone else happy.
Of course, these are difficult things to do, especially when you’ve experienced the trauma of a toxic or abusive relationship. So, let’s break it down into smaller pieces that you can work with. Here are some ways to rebuild self-trust:
- Keep your commitments to yourself. When you trust yourself, you know that you can count on yourself, that you’re going to do what you say you’re going to do – because you matter. You can start by setting a small, manageable goal that you know you can accomplish, like brushing your teeth every night before bed or throwing away the old birthday cards your ex gave you. The key to building trust in yourself is making a commitment that you are 99% sure you can stick to. And as you build self-trust and confidence, you can set bigger goals and take more chances. But to begin, set yourself up for success.
- Establish strong boundaries. When you trust yourself, you’re confident that you can keep yourself safe. Setting boundaries is a way to protect yourself from physical and emotional harm. Your boundaries tell others how they can treat you, what’s okay and what’s not okay. And if the other person won’t respect your limits, you will take action to protect yourself (such as leaving the situation, hanging up the phone, choosing not to spend time alone with them). Setting boundaries is a skill you can learn. Start by identifying a safe person and practice setting a boundary with him or her. With practice, you’ll gain confidence and be able to set more boundaries with more people.
- Be authentic. When you trust yourself, you know that you will be true to your principles, that you won’t abandon your values, beliefs, and needs to fit in. You need to believe that you’re acceptable and lovable just as you are and you can tolerate disagreements, criticism, and even rejection. Again, start small by expressing an opinion or idea about something low-stakes (such as what you want for dinner or what music you want to listen to in the car) and work your way up to expressing ideas that feel riskier.
- Listen to your feelings. When you trust yourself, you appreciate and use the important messages that your feelings contain. Your feelings are valid and have a purpose. When you avoid, minimize, or doubt your feelings, you’re discounting a big part of who you are. You’re missing the opportunity to understand yourself and what you need. And your feelings can help you make decisions. For example, when you notice that you feel afraid or angry (and you value those feelings), you can take steps to keep yourself safe. You can read more about listening to your feelings here.
- Take good care of yourself. When you trust yourself, you know you will take good care of yourself. Self-care isn’t always enjoyable. It includes doing things that are in your own best interest, even if they’re painful or unpleasant, like going to the dentist or having a difficult conversation. Of course, self-care is essential to stay physically and emotionally healthy, and making your own health and happiness a priority, is a concrete way of valuing yourself.
- Don’t judge yourself. When you trust yourself, you treat yourself with kindness and honesty. It’s not fair to use what you know now to judge your past behaviors. It’s okay to have regrets – to wish you’d done things differently – but it’s not helpful or kind to criticize yourself or dwell on them. Self-trust means that you know that you did the best that you could, even if you’d do things differently now. You can forgive yourself for past mistakes because you know you’re doing your best. And as imperfect people, we all make mistakes, even when we’re doing our best. Read more about self-forgiveness here.
Learning to trust yourself is a process
Learning to trust yourself takes time, just as developing trust with others takes time. Self-trust will develop as you practice keeping commitments to yourself, setting boundaries, being authentic, noticing and valuing your feelings, taking better care of yourself, and being kind to yourself. Doing these things isn’t easy, of course! But with intentional practice, you can gradually rebuild trust in yourself.
©2020 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved. Photo courtesy of Canva.com.
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