Monday, July 7, 2014

"How am I suppose to trust anyone when I can't trust like 50% of the thoughts in my head?"

That was said to me recently by a friend, and not as a rhetorical question. I told them I needed to think about that before I could try to answer it with any amount of intelligence. This friend lives with a mental illness, like me, though not the same one. It's not really relevant to the general public what it is, just know that it's there and it can have serious effects on their thinking and emotions.

I was reminded of various things as I tried to think the question through. When I was younger, like young teen years, I didn't trust anyone. There's various reasons for that, some of it probably related to then undiagnosed depression, but that's what it boiled down to. But I wanted to trust people. I wanted someone in my life that was trustworthy so I could be close to them. Eventually, I decided that if I wanted someone trustworthy, I needed to start by being trustworthy myself. So, I set out to become a trustworthy person. I vowed to myself not to lie (barring extreme, life-threatening situations), even if it would cause me pain, or hurt someone's feelings. This doesn't mean I'm lacking in tact. I know how to keep my mouth shut, and I don't mind telling only half the truth, so long as I don't out and out lie about it. I can be evasive. For the most part, I've stuck to this principal, even more than 20 years later. I think my idea was that if I could be the trustworthy person I wanted others to be, than others would be more likely to be trustworthy in their relations with me, and that trustworthy people would find me. For the most part, it appears to have worked. I have trustworthy people in my life now, but perhaps that was just a matter of time. I don't know.

So, a question about trust reminded me of my own trust issues. Big surprise. But it doesn't seem to entirely relate. Sure, I can recommend to my friend -and anyone else- that they be the trustworthy person they want others to be (though not necessarily to take vows against lying). And I do recommend that. But that's not so easy when you have an illness that fucks with your thoughts and emotions, making it difficult to trust even yourself, and may be not be entirely helpful.

Of course, I was also reminded of some of the difficulties my own illness, depression, has caused me. In the worst of my times, I had a hard time believing that there could ever be a happy future for me. I had friends, people who cared for me, people I trusted. But my illness made it very difficult for me to see any possibility of a positive future. It would blind me to the positive things in my life, and rob me of my energy and motivation. It made suicide seem like a reasonable choice. Eventually, it was a matter of I would either die, or something had to improve. Intellectually, I was able to see the possibility of hope, and for a while, that intellectual decision had to be enough. To realize that intellectual hope, I had to take my meds and take my treatment seriously (i.e., therapy). Eventually, the intellectual hope I clung to started becoming emotional hope, something I could actually feel. I got past that particular bout of depression, and into the future.

However, my situation, again, is not entirely the same, or entirely relevant. But I was also reminded of a blogger named JT Eberhard. JT's particular illness is anorexia. Sometimes, his anorexia causes him to hallucinate when he looks in the mirror, and at times, these hallucinations will contribute to him not eating. So, I searched his blog to see if there was anything that could be helpful. The first part of this post seems relevant.
The worst part isn’t admitting that you’re crazy (that was, ironically, very liberating). The worst part is doubting everything else. It’s thinking that if I cannot rightly perceive reality with regard to mirrors, is there anything else my brain is twisting? It makes you paranoid, and it makes you question your ability to interact with the world in an acceptable way.
Sounds similar.
It occurs to me though, that all of our brains are deficient toward accurately seeing the world in one way or another. This is how illusions exist. For instance, take this image of the famous checker square illusion: 
Squares A and B are the exact same color. You can use photoshop or whatever other means you wish to confirm this.  . . . 
Virtually every human being will be unable to perceive reality correctly with regard to the two squares. None of our sensory inputs give us all the correct information, and none of our brains parse that information in a way that gives us a fully accurate view of existence. This is why we have science, critical thinking, and other means to get around the flaws of our cognition 
For people like myself, like John Nash, and the other anorexics, schizophrenics, and such out there, we deal with one more way in which our minds deny us reality, but it doesn’t make us as different from everybody else as one may seem. There’s this perception that there are normal people and those who are crazy. But the line is actually not that distinct, and I suspect every normal person, when presented with an illusion like the one above, can relate to us in not seeing reality accurately. This is what it feels like to hear voices that aren’t there or to see reflections that aren’t real, the only difference is that people can become frightened of you if you are plagued by the latter illusions.
This seems a wise observation to me. To some extent, none of us can trust the thoughts in our head. Wikipedia has a whole list of ways that completely normal brains bias our thinking in ways that can lead to false beliefs, including confirmation bias, illusory correlation, etc.

So, how can we trust other people, and perhaps ourselves? As JT said, "This is why we have science, critical thinking, and other means to get around the flaws of our cognition." Follow the evidence, learn about critical thinking, and practice those skills. Most people are basically decent people, so you can start with an assumption that the person is probably trustworthy, at least to a point (the same principles I'm talking about can apply even if you don't think most people are decent, and you can't bring yourself to start with an assumption of basic trustworthiness). Then, over time, and over the course of your interactions with that person, apply critical thinking to the evidence they provide, and apportion your trust accordingly. Just remember, in order for someone to demonstrate that they're trustworthy, they need to be given the opportunity to prove that they're trustworthy. This means you will need to take some risks, and put yourself out there, perhaps more than you're strictly comfortable, but they're necessary risks. Nonetheless, feel free to start small, and take your time. If the evidence matches your gut instincts most of the time, then you can start to trust your gut more as well.

At the same time, be observing yourself (if you're asking yourself questions like what my friend asked me, you're probably doing this already). A big part of critical thinking is understanding that everyone makes mistakes in cognition. Watch yourself for those, even as you're watching others. But that also means that we should be forgiving of such mistakes.

Even if you practice this for years, and get to a point where you're usually able to make accurate assessments and determine who's likely trustworthy right from the start, even if you've got this down to a science, you're going to be wrong some of the time. That's to be expected. It sucks when you're wrong about someone, when you thought you could trust them, and then it turns out you can't. It sucks when you think someone's a good person, and then it turns out that they're not. The danger here isn't so much in the being wrong, it's in coming to then doubt everything because of that mistake, to overgeneralize that negative event to other events, and assume that all of them will be bad, or that you're always going to be wrong, or that you really can't trust your judgement. Forgive yourself, and try to learn from the mistake. Then move on.

That probably won't be as easy as I make it sound (it isn't for me), but try. That's all we can do. Try.

And hope. What I said earlier about using hope to get through depression can, I think, apply to trust as well. Hope that the person is trustworthy as you put yourself out there. Hope that you can learn to trust your judgement. If you can't actually feel that hope, then just recognize on an intellectual level that some people are trustworthy, and there is a non-zero chance this person will be as well. And other people have developed the skills to trust their judgement, even people with a-typical brains, so there's a chance you can as well. Better to aim for that chance than not, I think. Hopefully (heh), your intellectual hope will eventually be realized.