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Trust, Trauma, and Marbles

You may be deceived if you trust too much, but you will live in torment if you don’t trust enough. – Frank Crane

In my work with trauma survivors, one of the most common themes that impacts the lives of individuals is distorted trust beliefs. Generally, I hear beliefs such as “I don’t trust anyone”, but some individuals end up trusting too much. Their boundaries regarding trust are non-existent or severely compromised, at best.

Our beliefs about trust begin at birth. When we are in utero, all of our needs are met. We are never hungry, hot, cold, uncomfortable, or scared. Once we are born, it is the responsibility of our primary caregivers to meet our needs. Think about a baby in a crib who is hungry and wet. If the baby’s cries are met with a soft, soothing voice and the baby is held, changed, fed, and nurtured, then the baby learns to trust that its needs will be met. On the contrary, when a baby is left hungry, wet, and crying with no one to meet its needs, eventually the baby learns that it cannot trust others. Every interaction, every experience in our lives, beginning at birth, influences our beliefs about trust.

For trauma survivors, traumatic experiences either confirm or alter existing beliefs about trust. It can be extraordinarily difficult for survivors to contemplate or risk trusting again because for them, trust equals death. For survivors who open their boundaries and end up getting hurt over and over, trust (or what they think is trust) is equated with pain and confusion.

In order to help clients understand the concept of trust and how to have healthy trust boundaries, I like to use the analogy used by Dr. Brene Brown in The Power of Vulnerability (HIGHLY RECOMMEND – available at or  I used to draw a 0-10 line scale on paper for clients to explain how to develop trust, but I prefer the marble jar analogy.

Trust is like a marble jar. Imagine a large, empty glass jar. Every positive interaction and experience you have with someone is like putting a marble into a jar. If I have a conversation with my partner and he is caring and supportive, he has placed a marble in the jar. Positive experiences add marbles to the jar, one at a time. Each experience does not fill the jar. Trust in others is not a one-time event.  “I’m sorry” does not restore trust. Likewise, if I have an argument with my partner, he doesn’t empty the jar. There may even be times when my partner grabs a handful of marbles! If my partner cheats or lies, that event may remove more than one marble, but may not empty the jar. For example, it may seem like a cheating partner may have emptied the jar. I am not minimizing the pain of infidelity. But seeing trust as multifaceted rather than an all or nothing concept can help to maintain healthy trust boundaries. Perhaps infidelity removes many marbles, but I may still trust that my partner is a trustworthy father, is trustworthy with money, and is trustworthy when it comes to work.

For some individuals, they allow others to begin a relationship with a full marble jar and leave it unattended. When the marbles are taken from the jar, they are injured when others continually demonstrated a lack of trustworthiness. Trust must be earned, one marble at a time. But we must take the lid off the jar and allow others to add marbles where appropriate.

One key to helping trauma survivors develop healthy trust boundaries is to assist them with identifying the connection between the traumatic event(s) and the development of their trust beliefs. The other key is explaining trust concepts in ways that will enable them to learn the skills they need to develop healthy, trusting relationships. The marble jar analogy is a great way to grasp the concept of trust.


Kristin Stonesifer, LCSW

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