Trust is the new love

Clinical psychologist Chris Skellett says trust is the new love and we are floundering for lack...
Clinical psychologist Chris Skellett says trust is the new love and we are floundering for lack of it. PHOTO: LINDA ROBERTSON
Trust is the biggest issue we face today, Chris Skellet claims. Bruce Munro talks to the popular clinical psychologist about living in a world plagued by mistrust, how it affects us and why rebuilding trust is worth it.

It was frustrating. It was disappointing. It was just last week.

Chris Skellett had offered to help a neighbour put up a fence.

The Dunedin-based clinical psychologist had set aside time during his holiday. He had turned up at the appointed hour, ready to go.

Skellett, the neighbour and some friends, who were also there to help, chatted while they waited for the arrival of the builder who was going to bore the post holes.

Nothing could happen without those post holes.

And that is what did happen. Nothing.

"We were all saying, you can't trust tradesmen,'' Skellett says.

"I would like to live in a world where you can trust tradesmen to turn up on time.''

It was a small incident. But it sounded just one note in an opus on trust and mistrust which, once you recognise the tune, can be heard on all sides and at all times, he says. From booking tradies to marital promises and international treaties, trust, and the lack of it, is the background theme tune to our time.

Skellett has more than 35 years' experience as a clinical psychologist working with individuals and groups. He is so convinced of the vital role trust plays that he calls it "the single most important issue facing the world today''.

Mistrust seems to drive all political and diplomatic agendas these days, he says.

"The UK mistrusts Europe, Trump mistrusts Mexico, and no-one trusts the rich.

"Every news story seems to describe a situation where trust has gone missing. From unprompted street violence to sexual abuse, from internet scams to financial fraud, from trust in the Church to trust in the media - everywhere you look there is a pervasive underlying mistrust.

"And it used to be so different. These days, to trust is to be seen as naive.''

International research agrees with Skellett.

The Edelman Trust Barometer is a measure of trust worldwide. Based on an annual survey of 33,000 people in 28 countries, it shows low levels of global trust. In 2019, the percentage of people who trust the government, media, business and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) is 48%, 47%, 56% and 57% respecitvely.

Mistrust reaches into every corner of our lives. Skellett says many of his conversations invariably end up with a reference to trust or the lack of it.

"As they leave they will say something like 'Oh well, I'd better go and see if my car's still where I left it', `I'd better check if the kids have done their homework', or 'I need to phone my partner and see if they've remembered that we're going out tonight'.

"They will then sheepishly add, 'Now there's a trust issue for you', before they slip away.''

Trust, he says, lies all around us in our everyday assumptions of stability and supportive friends and family.

"But when the ladder slips or a friend discloses a confidence, we are thrown into a world of mistrust.

"We can all look back on some major setbacks in our life that required us to reconsider our personal approach to trust.''

For New Zealanders, the most recent and wholesale assault on trust was the March 15 shootings in the two Christchurch mosques, which killed 50 people and injured dozens of others.

"As part of the recovery, we will inevitably have to address the need to rebuild a sense of trust into our communities,'' Skellett says.

"We had previously assumed trust. Now we assume mistrust. We were complacent and felt safe. Now, we are suspicious and feel vulnerable.''

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hugs a mosque-goer at the Kilbirnie Mosque in Wellington, two days...
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hugs a mosque-goer at the Kilbirnie Mosque in Wellington, two days after the March 15 shootings in Christchurch. Photo: Getty Images

HE believes trust is so foundational to wellbeing, he has written a book about it, When Trust Goes Missing: A Clinical Guide.

"This book was a slow burn for me,'' he says.

"Eighteen years ago, I gave a brief paper to a psychology conference in Christchurch about trust and how each and every client can be seen to carry an issue of trust, from depressed clients who don't trust themselves to make a decision, to abuse victims who don't trust people, to anxious or traumatised clients who don't trust the world to be predictable and safe.

"I continued to collect clinical anecdotes and develop my ideas over the subsequent years. I found that when you start looking for that word 'trust', it pops up everywhere.''

Trust is the new love, he claims.

"In the '60s, we celebrated and embraced love as the key to a more positive world. Now, it is trust that is missing in our lives.

"Now ... as we grapple with terrorism, internet fraud, corruption and fake news, we seem to have collectively lost trust in the world around us.

"The imperative for us now is to ... reclaim a world where we can once again assume trust in each other and assume that the world is generally safe.''

What is trust? We all think we know what the word means. But being clear about what trust is, and what it is not, sets the stage for everything that can flow from it.

Trust is an assumption, Skellett explains.

Getting our heads around that succinct definition is crucial.

"For psychologists, that's a great `aha' moment.''

That is because most psychological problems are underpinned by what he calls a "maladaptive assumption'', often a false or irrational belief.

Someone's foundational belief about themselves might be, for example, "I'm no good'', he says.

The person, of course, is not useless. But on top of that unexpressed assumption they pile other negative, automatic thoughts. Thoughts such as "I won't be able to do that'', "I'm never going to fix this'' or "It will never get better for me''.

The good news is that underlying assumptions can be changed.

"Assumptions are simply thoughts that we choose to believe.''

So, once a person has that "aha'' moment, realising trust is an assumption, it becomes something they can choose to do, something over which they can gain control.

"[That] empowers us to manage it.''

Trust fills the gap between hope, optimism, and what actually happens.

"When we trust, we are predicting what might happen. We hope for a positive and affirming outcome.''

But doesn't mistrust actually protect us in an unsafe and untrustworthy world?

He agrees trust is a gamble. And, yes, mistrust does have obvious survival value.

"We ignore primitive gut feelings and an intuitive sense of mistrust at our peril. If something doesn't feel right, then it probably isn't right.

"Don't hop into that car with a stranger. Don't invest in that unbelievable investment fund.''

The problem these days is the challenges are so complex, our gut feelings are no longer adequate guidelines.

What Skellett recommends is ``cautious trust'' based on past experience and the received wisdom of others.

We have seen a recent example of cautious trust being played out in international affairs.

Early this month, Skellett was fascinated to hear New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the Chinese President Xi Jinping announce that trust sat at the core of the two countries' trading relationship.

"Of course, it sits at the core of any diplomatic initiative or business deal, but it's rarely stated so openly,'' he says.

At the same time, however, there is some mistrust of China's commitment to human rights and its geo-political aspirations.

"When someone says, 'Trust us', you can't. They can't tell you. You have to make your own considered decision about it.

"There is a healthy mistrust of them. That's the whole thing ... trying to balance a healthy scepticism with a more optimistic trust.

''We've all got a choice of whether we want to live in a world of trusting connections or a world of mistrust and suspicion.''

Trust, it would appear, is definitely the better option.

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

POLITICAL scientists Robert Putnam, of Harvard University, and Eric Uslaner, of the University of Maryland, are among many whose research is demonstrating the benefits of trust.

Putnam and Uslaner have shown that trust leads to co-operation and more cohesive society. People who trust each other are more likely to do things to help others and believe everyone should be treated with respect.

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, authors of The Spirit Level, say a number of studies have also shown a strong link between trust and health - that people with high levels of trust live longer.

Skellett breaks the world of trust into three kingdoms, what he calls the "three domains of trust''.

Trust in Self, to be competent and decisive. Trust in Others, to be honest and to act in our mutual best interests. Trust in the World, to be predictable and safe.

When we talk about trust, it is often about trusting other people, Trust in Others.

Trust in the World is "quite primal'', he says.

"It's where feelings of anxiety and fear help keep us safe, but inhibit our sense of adventure.''

Trust in Self is the core domain.

"This requires us to use positive self-talk and to behave with integrity - to live our lives with trust as a core value and to be trustworthy ourselves.''

Building our capacity to trust in each of these three domains is vital to wellbeing, Skellett says.

"Trust is like oxygen. It's all around us and we take it for granted.

"But when it goes missing, suddenly we are struggling to make sense of the world, and our lives become diminished. We live a life of suspicion, scepticism and mistrust. We cannot relax and we cannot truly love.

"We know that love is the key to a harmonious relationship, but trust is the real glue that binds it. Without genuine trust, we have no platform for our life.''

Trust in others and trust in the world has been damaged by the Christchurch mosque shootings, Skellett says.

"The major impact of any terrorist act is to destabilise the world through fracturing our prior sense of predictability and safety. It was the major long term consequence of 9/11 [and] of the London bombings.''

Where New Zealanders had previously assumed trust, we are now obliged to assume mistrust.

"The strange young man who has recently moved in down the road is now not just an oddball, he's become a potential lone wolf.

"The distant crack that we hear across town is not just a car backfiring, it's the start of a mass shooting. When trust goes missing, we all become traumatised.''

Like all victims of trauma, he says, Kiwis must now learn not to catastrophise and must find a more affirming personal perspective on the event.

"This is easily said, but at the end of the day we all write a personal narrative to describe our experiences and the opportunity to rescript them more positively will always be there.''

He advocates taking practical steps to reinstall a sense of trust within our communities.

We can learn to "trade'' more in trust and "offer unconditional kindness and trust to those around us, especially strangers''.

People can become "ambassadors of trust'', sharing "those wonderful stories [of] when trust opened doors to connection with others''.

And individuals can recommit to a life based on trust; "to be trustworthy yourself, and to look for small opportunities to assume trust in others''.

Mistrust causes people to flounder. Right now, New Zealand is floundering, Skellett says.

"At times like this we must look to trust each other more than ever before. When we are threatened, we must stand closer than ever.

"It is a little known but self-evident truth that, while mistrust divides, trust unites.''

When trust goes missing, whether at a global, national or personal level, each person has to find their own way forward.

Skellett says it can often be helpful to talk to a therapist or friend, reflect on the issue and then come up with a constructive, personal plan.

The first step is invariably to accept what has happened, not to judge, and to begin rebuilding a life that assumes trust once more, he says.

"Be realistic and curious about the journey as we go, not anxious and bitter.''

Rebuilding trust in self requires a focus on positive self-talk.

Rebuilding trust in others requires an initial "trust conversation'', involving forgiveness and understanding.

Rebuilding trust in the world is a more pragmatic graduated, trial-and-error process.

It is well worth the effort, he says.

"Trust connects us, it empowers us, and it extends us. It's essential to living life well.

"If we truly embrace trust in our lives, we will flourish.''

The book

When Trust Goes Missing: A Clinical Guide, by Chris Skellett, RRP $14.95, is self-published and can be ordered online through



Paranoia was arguably the genesis of intelligence. The ones who didn't get eaten survived, even if there were plenty of false positives. Like most of academic psychology, talking about 'trust' generalizes and also abstracts a human action from its context. And the specific deed and its context are critical.

Paranoia is suspicion, a pathology if directed at strangers. Social cohesion has been deconstructed within the environment and by individual self interest displacing community. It is foolish to be unconditionally trusting, but betrayal is still socially unacceptable.