If you’re anything like me, you may have been burned far too many times because you trusted people who were untrustworthy and felt blindsided when you realized your discernment failed to pick up on the red flags. In my internal family system, those parts in me are young, naive, gullible, sweet, and open-hearted but boundaryless. They wear rose colored glasses, give people the benefit of the doubt, and hand people a full jar of trust, before they’ve proven themselves to be trustworthy. Then those parts feel confused, betrayed, and shocked when they get hurt by people who should not have been given so much trust.
Sometimes our young naive parts need help learning how to exercise better discernment, so we can save putting our trust in people who cannot be safely trusted. In this week’s Patreon bonus episode, Rachel Bernstein, founder of Indoctrination podcast breaks down the warning signs we might look out for. I highly recommend listening to the whole thing, but with all due credit to Rachel, I wanted to share my notes with you all here.
If you have trust issues because you’ve been confused about who to trust or you’ve trusted people you shouldn’t, I thought these very clear warning signs might help educate all of us about when we should be wary about getting too close to someone. And if this is relevant for you, I’m so sorry it is. Betrayal trauma is a crushingly painful trauma, and my heart goes out to any of us who have suffered in this way.
When you’re with someone you can trust, you can relax. You can let your guard down and not be waiting for the other shoe to drop. You can pursue creative projects, focus on self care and healthy relationships, get other things done, enjoy better health, and avoid getting drained emotionally. Trustworthy people in your life are a priceless gift, and you deserve to choose to surround yourself with people you can trust and boundary against untrustworthy individuals.
Keep in mind that people who have been betrayed in the past might become understandably paranoid and hypervigilant and falsely accusing and distrusting people who are actually trustworthy. So we have to check ourselves if we think we spot red flags and make sure they’re really red flags, rather than paranoid parts that are trying their damnedest to keep us safe. If you keep distrusting someone who is actually trustworthy, or you test them incessantly, without ever giving them a chance to pass the tests, you’re likely to push someone trustworthy away, since falsely accusing people of being guilty when they’re innocent is abusive and exhausting. Healthy, trustworthy people won’t tend to stick around if you won’t ever stop the testing process, relax, and just mostly trust them.
Rachel didn’t say this, but just to be fair, I’ll add a note from my Internal Family Systems background, which is to say that most people will have some parts you can trust- and other parts that you can’t. Nobody is 100% trustworthy or 100% untrustworthy. I know that makes discernment confusing, but it’s important to keep in mind. You might find that you can 100% trust someone to keep an appointment and show up on time, but you can’t trust them at all to tell you the whole truth if they think you might not like the truth. None of us are 100% trustworthy when we “blend” with parts, rather than Self-leading them. And no humans are perfect, so 100% of us blend with parts sometimes! Getting to know someone intimately, and getting to know yourself and your own parts intimately, will help you figure out which parts of yourself and which parts of others can be trusted- and which parts can’t.
So the goal is not to 100% trust someone or to be 100% trustworthy, but to discern whether someone is trustworthy enough. Make sense? With that disclaimer, I think these warning signs are super helpful.
RED FLAGS TO WATCH FOR:
- Pay attention to any failure to keep promises they’ve sworn they’ll keep, uphold boundaries they’ve agreed to respect, or follow through completely with tasks they’ve agreed to handle. If you’re getting to know someone new, make sure you name these, express your feelings, and appropriately protest the boundary breaches, broken promises, and unfinished tasks. Consider keeping a list of broken promises, breached boundaries, and tasks that didn’t get completed so you have a track record you can refer back to when you’re trying to decide if someone new can be trusted. If their words don’t match their actions, beware.
- Notice how they handle when you question them or call them out on a broken promise, crossed boundary, or incompletely handled task. If they admit their mistake, owning up to and accepting responsibility for the mistake, hold themselves accountable quickly, and then complete the task, restore the boundary, or uphold the promise in a timely fashion, they may have just forgotten what they promised, made an honest, innocent human mistake, and now they’ve redeemed themselves and restored trustworthiness, without making you pay for calling them out about what they’ve done. But if they’re blaming you for calling them out, accusing you of being controlling or demanding when you’re just pointing out their broken promise, breached boundary, dishonesty, or uncompleted task, if they belittle you, treat you with contempt, punish you with passive aggressive silence or stonewalling, or demean you for expecting them to follow through on their word, if they accuse you of being entitled, critical, difficult, or not easy going enough when they’re the one who is not following through on their word, or if they try to shut you up with a pithy, placating apology without following through on whatever they promised, that’s a big glaring flashing red light warning sign screaming “DON’T TRUST THIS PERSON!” These are behaviors manipulators use to try to confuse you and stop you from calling them out on their untrustworthy behaviors. These behaviors are used to disempower, confuse, disorient, silence, and shut you down- when they’re the one whose actions are not congruent with their words. It’s smoke and mirrors meant to stop you from making sense of things. If you’re confused, distracted, and on the defensive, they’re hoping you might get so disoriented that you’ll lose your focus, and you won’t keep pressing them and holding them accountable for the untrustworthy behaviors. Trustworthy people should be able to handle being put on the spot if they don’t follow through on something they’ve promised or they do something they’ve promised never to do.
- Watch out for anyone who can never admit they’ve made a mistake and will never apologize. Someone mature, responsible, and trustworthy will feel bad when they make a mistake, and they won’t get defensive about it, blame you, deny that they’ve done something wrong, or gaslight your reality. Trustworthy people will say “My bad” and honestly feel awful if they’ve hurt you, and they’ll be very motivated to repair what they did wrong with a lot of humility. If someone considers it a weakness to admit to a mistake or apologize, you’d be wise to not trust them. Admitting to your mistakes is a mark of honor, integrity, and strength, not weakness.
- Make sure that if they do apologize, it’s not an apology/accusation. A trustworthy person will never say “I’m sorry, but it’s because of what you did (or failed to do) that I did this.” Or “If you hadn’t made me so mad last week, I wouldn’t have forgotten to do this thing I promised to do.” A trustworthy person will never blame someone else for their mistake. They will make “I” statements, like “I made a mistake. I blew it. I’m sincerely sorry”- with no disclaimer.
- If someone says “If I need to apologize, then you need to apologize too. We need to apologize together”- you’re likely dealing with someone untrustworthy. If you express clearly and directly how someone else has hurt you, pay attention to how they respond to your “Ouch.” You should not have to apologize or placate the person who has done something boundary violating or hurtful in order to appease them. Don’t accept the deflection if you haven’t done anything wrong.
- Be wary of manipulators who come across as very caring and kind but are not caring, kind or empathic when you really need them. Be especially cautious if they’re pumping their own tires and telling lots of stories about all the loving, caretaking things they’ve done to help, save, or rescue other people- and they’re going on and on about how infinitely grateful those people are. But when you’re the one who needs care, they show little empathy and do not take care of you. They’re showing you how grandiose their inflated self image is, but it’s an inaccurate reflection of who they really are. No matter how much you’re suffering, they’ll still make it all about themselves and their own needs, and they’ll be cold, detached, and cruel while they neglect your needs and leave you vulnerable and abandoned. When you really need this person to go out of their way, inconvenience themselves, and extend themselves to support you, they’ll turn on you and leave you high and dry, which is so confusing, when you hear all the stories about how much they care for everyone BUT you. If you can’t imagine this person rearranging their schedule so they can drive you to a chemotherapy appointment or letting people down at work so they can come to a funeral with you or disappointing someone else so they can really be there for you when you’re in distress, you’re probably with someone you shouldn’t trust for any kind of long term relationship.
- When someone does not let you have time for yourself, but they expect a lot of time separate from you so they can do whatever they want for themselves, that’s a red flag. In controlling relationships, one person often looks well tended and rested, while the other person looks bedraggled and exhausted- because one person is getting all their needs met and catered to- and the other is run ragged from caretaking the other, without receiving enough care for themselves. If your need for self care is labeled as selfish, be careful.
- If someone keeps promising that it’s going to be different the next time, but it never is, stop trusting that person. If they promise to change or say they feel terrible and they swear it’s never going to happen again- but they keep doing the same hurtful thing, that’s a huge warning sign. All those fake promises are just intended to manipulate you into sticking around, when it might be time to go.
- Don’t be distracted by someone who draws you back after you’ve decided to leave with excessive love bombing and a few minutes of good behavior. Anyone can hold it together long enough to “Hoover” you back, but if they go right back to their old untrustworthy behaviors soon after promising they’ve changed, hold your ground. Real change is different than manipulative promises of change. You can usually tell the difference between someone who is truly transformed and someone who’s just putting on a show within a matter of days.
- If you’re feeling disoriented, confused, exhausted from attempted sense-making, and you suspect that someone else is being deceptive but you can’t quite figure out what’s real- that’s a red flag. That’s gaslighting, and it’s extremely abusive. Even if you can’t quite put your finger on what’s wrong, your spidey sense that things aren’t adding up should be trusted more than someone who is expecting you to trust them when you can’t make sense of what they’re telling you or doing. If the pieces don’t add up, or the stories don’t make sense, or what they’re telling you is almost too outrageous to believe, you might not be getting the whole truth. If you feel alone, if the other person’s excuses are not matching, if you’re getting contradictory information that doesn’t make sense, if you’re starting to question or doubt your reality, and if you feel like you might be the one going crazy, that’s a very, very worrisome warning sign. If someone is willing to distort the truth or make you question your sanity just in order to get away with something they don’t want you to know or hold them accountable for, watch out for this kind of real cruelty.
- If you’re too scared to ask someone an honest question because you’re terrified they’ll blow up, that’s a red flag. You should be able to ask someone who is trustworthy reasonable questions without having them go through the roof. If you are asking for clarity when you’re confused or you’re wanting a clear explanation of what’s actually going on, or if they get so angry with you for trying to pin them down and find out what really happened, or if they evade the question and just rage instead- and especially if you get too frightened to ever bring it up again- don’t trust that person. They’re just trying to manipulate you into burying your doubt so they can dominate you and get away with everything, without you questioning them- because you’ve learned how unsafe it is to challenge someone or ask for clarifications, explanations, and honest answers that can be backed up with real facts and real proof.
- If you feel drained and exhausted because you’re constantly trying to accept the person’s confusing excuses, or if you wind up with new health symptoms after trying to accommodate things that really don’t feel okay, you’re probably with someone untrustworthy. You may not figure this out until you’re looking back at the relationship retrospectively, but if you get out of a relationship with an untrustworthy person and you suddenly get a boost of energy or your health symptom goes away, you were probably trying to tolerate an intolerable person who wasn’t trustworthy. In relationships like this, you’re expected to take care of the other person without adequate reciprocity, and that will wind up draining you and potentially making you sick (which is what my next book is about!)
- Someone is not trustworthy if there are two sets of rules, double standards, lack of equality, and the rules only apply to you. If you have to answer for where you were but they don’t have to do the same, if you have to explain your expenditures but they don’t show you their books, if you have to pay all their bills but they don’t have to pay any of yours, if you have to show them your texts but they don’t have to show you theirs, then it’s hard to feel like there’s any kind of mutual openness, respect, and shared dignity. If they expect full transparency from you but won’t offer the same transparency in return, just know that they have something to hide. If you feel over and over like you’re on the witness stand and you have to defend yourself against all kinds of false accusations, but then when you accuse them of something legitimate, they keep accusing you of things you didn’t do- just know they’re not listening to your defenses. They’re just trying to exhaust you so you’ll shut up and they can put you down or ignore you. Rachel said, “When the truth doesn’t matter, that’s when someone is not trustworthy. But when you often feel like you have to plead your case- and it doesn’t matter what you say- and you’re doing a lot of justification and a lot of talking [to defend yourself], then it goes back to that idea of being exhausted. One of the most frustrating feelings in life is to not be believed. and if you feel like you’re a trustworthy person but you’re not being believed, you’re going to run after someone and try to explain to someone why you didn’t do this thing that they were accusing you of. And they’re not going to want to hear you- because they don’t care about the truth.”
- When someone is not trustworthy, you can tell, because there’s a lot of drama. They created drama as a distraction, so you don’t notice all the ways they’re betraying you. You’ll often get triangulated with a third party so they can collude with someone against you and make you feel like somehow you’re not trusted by two people who are ganging up against you. Remember that the whole point of the drama is to keep you distracted. Ignore the distractions and don’t lose your focus. That’s the whole point- to keep you off guard so they can carry on with their untrustworthy behaviors- and get away with it. If you can stay centered amidst the drama, you’ll thwart their efforts to get you off their trail. Keep your eye on the ball of what’s really happening right in front of you.
- When you’re with someone you really can’t trust emotionally, someone who really doesn’t have your back, someone who is maybe more competitive and needs to win, pause and ask yourself why you’re in this relationship. A relationship should never be a platform that serves one person’s ego and pushes the other person down- just so the “one up” person can win at all costs, no matter the emotional toll on the other person.
- When someone is untrustworthy, they will often swear they are trustworthy while accusing you of being untrustworthy- when you’re not untrustworthy. They do this just to deflect off their untrustworthiness and put you on the defensive. Maya Angelou said, “Be careful when a naked man offers you his shirt.” They may pretend to be some kind of expert to put you off guard, as if they know more and you just aren’t smart enough to see how trustworthy they are and how untrustworthy you actually are. If they are the naked person trying to give you their shirt, but they’re insisting on schooling you in how to be trustworthy, be careful. Perhaps, thou dost protest too much. If they’re never the student, learning from others and being humble about what they don’t know, if they never take advice from others or go “one down” in a learning situation to someone in a position of authority who might have something to teach them, if they only use the teaching role to position themselves as superior, if they think they’re too good or too smart to ever learn something new or be in therapy or a student, you probably can’t trust this person.
- If you have to constantly validate someone as good, smart, wise, or otherwise special and superior in order to avoid having to deal with their bad mood all day- red flag. If you have to say things just to placate them, just to keep them calm, that is an unhealthy situation.
- Watch out for “future faking.” If you find that someone is making big promises to help you realize your greatest longings- the wedding, the baby you’ve wanted to have, the big financial payout, or whatever it is they’ve promised to help you achieve- but those promises keep getting pushed back and delayed and you get one excuse after another for why those dreams aren’t being realized, that’s a concerning sign that someone may be manipulating your hopeful parts to keep you engaged, when they have no intention of ever realizing those promises. If there’s hell to pay when you bring up the promises they’re not following through on, just realize that’s a deceptive manipulator’s way of stringing you along and keeping you attached and invested in the potential of the future, when they have no intention of following through. That person is not being honest with you, and you should not trust them. It’s better to cut your losses sooner, rather than getting strung along indefinitely. The “sunk cost fallacy” can keep us hooked- but it’s just like pulling a slot machine. We keep thinking the payout is right around the corner, but with untrustworthy people, the payout is not ever going to come.
- After they’ve hurt you, an untrustworthy person will blame you for what they’ve done to hurt you, play the victim or martyr mode, and expect you to make them feel better and console them, reminding them that they’re good and valuable and not bad people. They’ve got it backwards. An untrustworthy person will need you to take care of them after they’ve hurt you, instead of them taking care of you. They will hurt you and then say that you’re being abusive by letting them know how hurt you are- or they’ll play the victim and claim that they’re being persecuted by your accusations, when they’re the one who hurt you, and you are innocent. They’ll make you feel like you need to take care of them because they allegedly feel so bad about how much they’ve hurt you, and you won’t even realize you’re caretaking them, when they should be caretaking you.
- Someone untrustworthy will hurt you and then, instead of validating your legitimate upset, they’ll make fun of you or get sarcastic and abusive towards you for being upset. “Oh, those crocodile tears. You’re just manipulating me!” Or if you get mad, “Why are you so out of control mad mad mad?” Or they’ll tone police you and accuse of having the wrong tone or using the wrong words, and then it’s your fault because your reaction to their bad behavior isn’t acceptable enough or enlightened enough or mature enough or spiritual enough. They twist it around and make you the abusive one or the. manipulative one, and suddenly the finger is pointed at you, not themselves. There’s no evidence that their mistreatment of you is acceptable to themselves. Rachel said, “Remember this- that sometimes you’re going to get labelled as the difficult one by people who are just frustrated that they can’t control you.” They will come up with all kinds of ways to disparage your character. Anything to avoid pointing the finger back at themselves and feeling the appropriate bad feelings they should feel when they’re being untrustworthy. Once they realize they can’t control you and manipulate you- and get away with it- the gloves come off. So they turn on you, rather than learning something from you about how not to treat someone if you want to be a person of integrity. It’s a super manipulative red flag if a manipulator erupts when someone innocent is just mad mad mad because they’re not letting the manipulator off the hook when they’re trying to get away with manipulating you Rachel said, “If someone questions you about why you’re not able to be manipulated, you don’t actually have to answer that question.” You should not have to justify your behavior when you’re protesting someone else’s untrustworthy, manipulative behavior.
- Be suspicious of anyone who says “Look no further. I have all the answers here.” André Gide said, “Trust those who seek the truth, but doubt those who say they’ve already found it.”
- Notice when someone lacks loyalty, and given the chance to have your back and demonstrate fealty- or throw you under the bus- they’ll sacrifice you to save their own skin. Be wary of anyone who quickly throws you under the bus and betrays you, then if you defend yourself, they keep questioning you and being two-faced. Be careful of this dicey situation. It’s intended to make others distrust you in case you speak up or protest the abuse. Your reputation is going to be at stake in a relationship like that. Notice how many times someone has done something behind your back- and then confused you or lied about it or misled you.
- Notice if you catch people in lies, half truths, withholds, or ways someone might “spin” the story to favor their reputation and mislead you or make themselves look more impressive than they really are. Lies are lies are lies. It doesn’t matter how you dress them up. Even if it’s a little white lie, if the intention is to mislead you, this person cannot be trusted. Again, hold people accountable, but also keep a list of all the lies, half truths, misleading statements, withheld truths, and other trust breaches. If you tend to be kind, forgiving, generous, caregiving, empathic, and accommodating, you might wind up drowning in lies and still letting someone off the hook with endless hall passes. Don’t. You’re dealing with an untrustworthy person. It helps to not forget. It helps to remind ourselves how many times our trust has been betrayed. It keeps us honest in the relationship and gives us a realistic lens on whether we really want to stay close to someone who has a loose relationship with the truth.
- Be mindful of relationships where you’re doing all the giving, and it’s not reciprocated. Also notice if you’re never quite getting it right when you’re trying to help someone else and support them with your time, effort, gifts, money, or caregiving. If you’re never fully appreciated for your generous giving, you probably can’t trust that person.
- Look out for the obvious “tells.” If you share that you’re upset by something someone did to you, and then they get angry and hostile, or they just walk away while you’re still talking, just realize they’re doing this because they just don’t care. Notice if they might even get off on the power of not validating you when you have a right to be upset.
- Pay attention if whenever you ask for anything- an apology, some cherishing, a request to getting a need met or having a boundary upheld- that you’re made to feel guilty, you’re accused of being demanding or controlling, or you’re made to feel bad about your legitimate, reasonable request. Don’t lose your perspective. You’re not being difficult if you’re protesting abuse. You’re not being difficult if you’re just asking to get your needs met or your boundaries protected. But if someone sees your needs as a burden they don’t want to shoulder, if even your most basic requests are going to be perceived as an imposition or something to rebel against, beware.
- If someone dictates who you can have in your life and who you’re allowed to talk to, and if they require you to give up someone you love or discard someone important to you to prove your loyalty to them, don’t trust that person. Untrustworthy people are going to coerce you into cutting out of your life anyone who might protect you from a dangerous manipulator who intends to cause you great harm. Anyone who might call out the abuser will become a target for an untrustworthy person. What that means is that your world will get very very small if you stay with this untrustworthy person.
- Notice if someone gets aggressive when you ask for what you need or call them on something they’ve done that hurts you. If you call them out on their untrustworthy behavior- and they blow their lid- be wary. That just means they’re not into the truth. They just want to get away with lying, and they cannot handle having their feet held to the fire. So they’re going to make you pay for even trying to seek the truth.
- If they accuse you of doing the very things they do- when you’re not doing those things- that’s a boomerang, a deflection. Don’t let it hit you. It’s a manipulation. If they are untrustworthy, do they call you untrustworthy, when it’s not true? Do they call you hostile when they’re the one blowing up? Do they call you defensive when they’re defending themselves and blaming you?
- Are you expected to continuously forgive this person, even though the behaviors aren’t changing? Are you expected to give all the hall passes- but you don’t get the same generosity in return? Are you expected to just forget- and if you don’t, they blame you for holding grudges or just not letting it go and forgiving? That just means they’re never going to change.
- Are they unhappy when you succeed? If they’re not happy for you, beware. If you’re with an untrustworthy person, they will be jealous when you succeed and want it for themselves. They are not able to be the wind beneath your wings, who are excited for your wins. Do they hate you for having good things happen? Do they want those good things for themselves, but they lie about their jealousy, pretending they’re just trying to protect you? Do they have to always one up you and they can’t let you shine without them? Do they interrupt your ambitions, your opportunities, and try to hijack the attention for themselves, while shutting you down and making sure you don’t sparkle or realize your dreams or get attention for yourself? Don’t trust someone like that.
- Do they treat you like a king/queen in front of others but then cut you down when you’re alone? Is the way you’re treated in front of others vastly different than how you’re treated when nobody is watching? Don’t trust that person if they’re not consistent.
I hope those helped! I know they were really clarifying for me. If you loved this, please consider supporting Rachel Bernstein at her Patreon account.
For more support around understanding what trust actually requires, read The Anatomy of Trust. And if you know anyone who might benefit from this post, please share it.
Trying to be close to untrustworthy people can be harmful for your health. Psychiatrist and author of CURED Jeff Rediger and I will be discussing the link between narcissistic abuse and chronic or terminal disease at our weekend Zoom workshop The Mysteries of Spontaneous Healing. Join us here.