We’ve all found ourselves here at one point or another: We give another person (often an authority figure, but it can be anyone we meet or know) more credit than they later prove to deserve only to feel shocked, blindsided, disappointed, hurt, betrayed or otherwise injured by them. We then think to ourselves, “How did I not see that coming? What am I missing?” and/or “I hate that I keep treating people as more wise / self-aware / generous (fill in the blank) than they actually are (or than I am)! What’s wrong with me that I keep doing this? How can I stop repeating this disturbing pattern?”
A client of mine recently brought this topic back into my awareness with a question right along these lines. What follows is her question and an edited and more comprehensive version of my response to her, used with her permission, and made anonymous and generic so that it can apply to any reader.
I’m realizing that I give some people much more credit than they deserve especially those in authority positions. I overestimate their wisdom and underestimate my own. I’m so trusting in people that they know better or more than I do only to be really let down later. It’s not a childlike naiveté though; it’s a deep trust. How do I stop doing this?
I imagine that part of you wants to just trust in people and not judge them too quickly. However, on the other hand, you’re thinking, "Gosh, I see that I keep giving too much credit to others, and it comes back to bite me later."
Of course, it can always be helpful to learn more about how to accurately assess another person’s character by noticing their subtle behaviors and attitudes that are repeatedly disturbing to you, for example. However, this is not only easy to do and while I think it can be of great benefit to know how to do this, I don't think it's the only factor to consider, nor the most important way to approach this problem.
Instead, I think the best antidote to falling into a trap of repeatedly bestowing more ability, wisdom, or authority onto someone else is to trust in your own inner authority above all.
Paying close attention to your own hesitations is probably the number one most useful aspect of how to change this pattern.
You might notice a voice inside, in essence, saying things such as, “I'm noticing a subtle hesitation inside of me that doesn’t want to go along with this,” or “I'm not sure I believe this person or what they are telling me or not telling me,” or “I know they mean well, but something is not only sitting right in me,” or “Something in me can’t / won’t / doesn’t want to go forward,” or “I’m feeling confused over and over by what they’re telling me.”
Or perhaps these messages come less in the form of a voice and more in the form of bodily sensations such as a knot in your stomach, anxiety or nervousness, tightness in your throat, a racing heart, stiff shoulders, queasiness, a clenched fist, or other body experiences. Noticing the smallest signals of hesitation, doubt, distrust, uncertainty, confusion, or ill feeling in any of these ways is the key to breaking this pattern.
If you notice these hesitations, it doesn't necessarily mean that whomever you're interacting with is a bad person or a lousy or fundamentally untrustworthy teacher or leader.
What’s right for one person may not be right for you. It's about you and your internal feedback.
People are diverse and they have various different experiences around the same person or the same teaching. One person may notice signals right away that turn them off to someone, while another person may never feel that way. This is why it may be less important to learn how to accurately assess a person’s character and more beneficial and reliable to learn how to stay in close contact with yourself: how you feel around them, what resonates for you about them, if anything, and what doesn't. Notice what puts you off even in the smallest way.
I encourage you to trust whatever information you're feeling inside even if these feelings change over time. Just because you decide you mistrust someone now, doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to trust them later. “Trust” need not be a blank check you hand out to another person to act in any way they wish, no matter how much authority they seem to have. In a sense, the only person you need to trust is yourself and your deepest feelings, reactions, and experiences moment by moment.
Trusting one's own inner authority over the authority of another is often particularly difficult for women due to internalized sexism, especially (but not only) if that authority figure is a man.
As women, many of us have been taught by our families of origin as well as patriarchal society that men know better or more than we do, that they are more skilled, wise, or able than we are.
This is worth an entire blog post in and of itself, but for now, suffice it to say, while this dynamic of imbuing others with more credit than they later prove to deserve is experienced by all genders, this dynamic is grossly exaggerated for women-identified folk due to the effects of internalized sexism.
Getting back to this idea of trusting one's inner reactions, I don't want to oversimplify this concept and make it sound like it’s as easy as saying, "If you just trust yourself you'll always be fine."
In short, the scenario I’ve described above is two-fold: First, try to assess the person as accurately as you can in terms of their own behaviors and attitudes. Then, always try to follow your inner feedback and hesitations and notice any red flags that pop up inside of you, however small they are. Sounds pretty straightforward, but it tends to be more complicated than that.
What interferes with this approach? What prevents this from being as simple as it sounds? Two things: your needs and past trauma.
Your needs may interfere with being able to just abide by whatever hesitations you have. For example, perhaps you have a need for love, adoration, guidance, connection, or community, and so forth. There are so many possible needs you could have that would supersede this inner knowing. Though a hesitation may come up inside, it may or may not become conscious because the need is so strong that it supersedes that awareness. Instead you may unconsciously reach for trying to get your need met rather than follow your hesitation.
People in romantic relationships do this all the time, however, this typically is a mutual endeavor meaning both people equally participate in this behavior in regard to the other. On the other hand, in a student/teacher dynamic, the person who is in the “student” role is more likely to imbue wisdom and skill on the person in the “teacher” role at the expense of her own wisdom and skill rather than the other way around.
When we enter into new romantic partnerships, our need for some of the goodies of relationship is so strong that we overlook our concerns about our new partner, sometimes vastly overvaluing their likable qualities and vastly underestimating their less-than-desirable personality traits (while they do the same with us). Of course, this is incredibly common and normal and on the good side, these unconscious projections allow us to fall in love and bond before things get messy and difficult. On the bad side, we can imbue lots of positive qualities on our new partner only to be in denial about what’s about to bite us down the road.
I can recall one potent example from my own life when, many years ago, I had a particularly strong need for physical affection after having been in a previous relationship where there was very little warmth and touch. I craved it. I entered into a relationship with a man who was very affectionate, however, my need for this affection was so strong that I was in heavy denial about all the red flags I noticed about this person in every other capacity. I soon realized that he was actually a terrible person for me to be in a relationship with. However, it still took me quite awhile to finally exit that relationship because he was also very controlling and threatening. My need for affection was so strong that it initially drove me forward regardless of my hesitations and concerns. This is an example of how our needs can interfere with our judgment about a person.
Another factor that can interfere with the ability to judge a person accurately is past trauma.
For example, let’s say, you’re not comfortable with conflict, perhaps because you were brought up in a home that was not okay with your expressing yourself authentically. Your expression was not welcome or allowed. Or perhaps you grew up in a home where conflict was dealt with really poorly in that it wasn’t addressed directly at all, or conversely, that it typically resulted in hostility and violence. You may be particularly traumatized in the very place inside you that would naturally express your true reactions, feelings, and hesitations. However, due to the trauma in that spot, you don't feel safe being authentically yourself, being real. You fear that bringing in your reactions is going to cause a conflict that could be too scary for you or you fear you could be punished or even physically or verbally assaulted, that the conflict could result in loss of love, or that bringing your real feelings in would be simply but undoubtedly forbidden.
In other words, you may have hesitations inside of you about a person but the trauma you’ve experienced stops you from bringing these concerns forward. Instead, you might decide to just live with what is because you don't feel like you can really address the problems that you see happening. And again, that could be conscious or unconscious, but it’s more often unconsciously managed.
In short, these are two reasons why it’s difficult to follow and support our hesitations around giving people too much credit and following them blindly. First, you may have one or more needs that are so strong that you just bypass the red flags in front of you and keep moving forward. Second, you may have some trauma around certain experiences inside that make it very difficult to follow your real feelings and reactions. You might not even know you’re seeing red flags because it's so forbidden inside to even bring it forward in your consciousness.
Getting to know your deeper needs over time helps you know where you might be putting yourself at risk for trusting in someone’s else’s authority over your own. Acknowledging these needs, supporting them vs. shaming them, and finding ways to get these needs met without sacrificing your own authority are all helpful steps to take over time. Exploring your traumas with a delicate, compassionate, and loving attitude can also help you begin to learn how to bring out your true feelings in a way that feels safe. And more than anything, becoming aware of your own feelings, reactions, hesitations, and questions—learning to trust yourself and your internal authority—is the safest bet of all.