Learning to be trustworthy I: Learning to be honest

Updated: Feb 2

I don’t trust you. You can’t be trusted.


Such accusations hit us hard. They strike right at our sense of who we are. We often react with anger. As a therapist, the fear of such an accusation gets ramped up; trust seems right in the heart of our vocation, and rightly so.*


But what does it mean to be trustworthy? How do we learn how to become more trustworthy? And will we ever be truly trustworthy? I’ll consider these as a human and as a therapist.

In this blog, I’ll consider learning to be honest as a therapist. In part 2, I’ll explore learning to be reliable and competent. And in part 3, I will reflect on all these learnings and how they also mean I need to learn to be untrustworthy.


Being trustworthy means honesty


Charles Feltman in The Thin Book of Trust** helpfully identifies different conditions of trust. The first is honesty. Perhaps the most challenging part of this is emotionally honesty, because this entails vulnerability.

In being vulnerable, we make it far safer for another person to trust us; or, as Feltman defines trust, others will find it safer to risk making what is valuable to them vulnerable to us. If we don’t think its safe enough to take the risk, why should they with us?



In considering and seeking emotional honesty as a therapist, I’m confronted with many difficulties. Do I express to my clients what’s going on in me or should I let them remain in their story? Should I just aim not to deceive a client into believing I am feeling or thinking something I am not? And what if I have feelings or thoughts I don’t particularly like about my clients? What if I find it a struggle to care about them, or am finding myself judging, disagreeing or indifferent towards them?


These are the questions that probably go on in clients’ heads too and I can immediately feel the panic around what kind of therapist that all makes me.


The truth is, of course I will sometimes harbour secret resentment, blame, judgement, jealousy, anxiety etc. towards my clients. I will find myself pushing them away in an inability to empathise or have compassion. Further, I will not always recognise this when it happens - and it may well ‘come out sideways’ in not being quite so present, reverting to stereotypes, or in inappropriate challenge.

These are all inevitable because I am a human brought up in all the ways of denying, othering and not accepting parts of my own experience, and so the parts of others’ experience. Does this mean I am untrustworthy? Yes, in part. And yet, there seems something far more untrustworthy if I do nothing about it.


Herein lies the necessity and nature of therapist training: not so much as learning skills or theory, but as learning to be with ourselves as we find ourselves in each moment, however surprising and embarrassing we can be. It’s in recognising, acknowledging and moving through the sense of myself as a skilled helper of the needy (and therefore I must be good!) - that might have attracted me to therapy - and entering the messy reality of being a wounded person trying their best to be with other wounded people and trusting that that is somehow healing.



What I discovered in this process is that the more I can accept and be with myself as a wounded, untrustworthy person, the more I can care for and empathise with others however they express themselves and however I find them. When I find myself unable to be accepting and compassionate with someone else, I can recognise that this is more to do with me than them. And then I can use the experience to learn to be with yet another cast out part of myself, until I can be with the client where they are at again.

In this process of learning to be with all the ways I am untrustworthy, it then becomes far easier to express to others what is going on for me moment by moment - even the more ugly stuff - and they, I suspect, find me all the more trustworthy for it.




* Trust is often seen at the heart of therapy. For example, it has been found to be vital for therapy to be effective and it is embedded into Ethical Frameworks (e.g. BACP Ethical Framework for the Counselling Professions).

** Also discussed with Brene Brown in her Daring To Lead podcast: https://brenebrown.com/podcast/trust-building-maintaining-and-restoring-it/


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