Do You Trust Yourself?

IMG_0638My sons and I often walk along the creek behind our house. It’s a time for us to slow down, recalibrate, and allow the wisdom of nature to infuse us with her knowledge. Our time in nature is an essential component to our sons’ education, not only in terms of learning about the natural world but their spiritual and emotional growth as well.

One day at the end of summer as we were walking my older son found two beautiful rocks. One had a shimmery quartz section in the center and the other was shaped like a heart. He often finds interesting rocks down at the creek, which gives us an opportunity to talk about geology and the earth. But today he wasn’t interested in the scientific aspects of these rocks. From the moment he found them, they seemed to find a special place in his heart. He held them closely for the duration of our walk, mentioning several times how beautiful they were. And when it came time to return to the house he found himself in a quandary.

“What should I do with the rocks, Mommy?” he asked.

“Whatever you want, sweetheart. You found them so you get to decide,” I responded.

“I don’t know. Should I keep them or leave them here?”

“It’s really up to you, love,” and I turned away slightly.

My kids ask me these kinds of questions every day. While they may seem like trivial decisions to adults, to a child they’re not trivial at all. In fact, these are the decisions that, when a child is allowed and encouraged to answer for himself, form the foundation of the self-trust that is a cornerstone of informing a healthy decision-making process as an adult. This is why I refuse to offer an answer.

“Trust yourself,” I say to him. “Whatever you decide is fine. You can’t make a wrong decision. Just listen to your heart and trust your choice.”

At that point, he usually closes his eyes and takes a minute to listen for the answer. On that particular day, after taking a moment to meditate, he said, “The rocks told me that they want to stay at the creek” and he left them on the banks. By making his own decision, one pebble of self-trust was added to his already healthy foundation. We returned to the house and he never thought about it again.

Most of my clients struggle with consequences of shattered self-trust. Whether it’s major decisions like whether or not to marry their loving partner or minor decisions like which apples to buy at the grocery store or what to order at a restaurant, they find themselves frozen like a deer in the headlights when it comes time to decide. They describe standing in the salad dressing aisle for ten minutes (or longer) deliberating on which bottle to choose. They find themselves bolting upright in the middle of the night in a panic about making a mistake by committing to the partner who peacefully sleeps beside them.

The underlying fear is of making the “wrong” choice, a mistake that they’ll regret, or of missing out. We’re so deeply conditioned, both by parents and our education system, to believe that there’s a right choice and wrong choice that when it comes time to make even minor decisions in life (like choosing apples), we’re scared of messing up. It’s like we believe that there’s a multiple choice test for every decision and if we fill in the wrong circle we’ll fail or conversely, if we answer “correctly”, the holy grail will be revealed.

Sometimes self-trust is destroyed in subtle ways as parents transmit the message that they know what’s best for their child. Other times the self-trust is overtly annihilated as a child by well-meaning parents who insist on playing the devil’s advocate. When a child says, “I want to eat an orange,” and the parent says, “But an apple would be so much better right now,” a piece of a child’s innate self-trust is broken. Of course there are times when a parent needs to be a parent and offer their opinion around more serious matters, like if a child wants to quit a class that he’s loved for years. At that time, the work is to engage in curious inquiry about what’s fueling the desire leave and hopefully discover if there’s any underlying reasons that can be addressed. However, even with sports or musical instruments, if the child is truly ready to move on without any extenuating circumstances, I believe that it’s loving parenting to trust the child’s innate sense of what’s most loving for him or her.

When the self-trust has been damaged early in life, it’s easy for a child – and later an adult – to hand over his or her authority to teachers, counselor, friends, professors, financial advisors, spiritual advisors (priests, ministers, rabbis), doctors and even therapists, until you wake up one day and realize that you’ve successfully abdicated responsibility in every aspect of your life. You’ve bit the hook that says that everyone knows better than you, that everyone else is the expert and it’s so much easier to trust others than it is to educate yourself and take full responsibility for your life.

Building or destroying healthy self-trust begins at birth. Babies know when they’re hungry, tired, and need to be changed. They know when they need to be held (which is almost constantly) and when they don’t want to spend time with an adult other than their parents. Our culture does a fantastic job of encouraging parents to distrust their own and their baby’s innate knowledge. We tell parents to “get babies on a schedule”, which means only feeding them every three hours and making sure they nap three times a day at the exact same time. It would be so nice if babies could be trained like robots, each one squeezed into the same societally prescribed box of desired behavior. But they’re not. Each and every one of them is born with a unique internal blueprint of neurological and spiritual wiring which informs their needs and rhythm. When we try to force them into the box by demanding our schedule instead of theirs, falling prey to the convincing argument that “children need predictability” or that, if we allow them to lead we’ll be giving them too much control, we squash their natural self-trust from the beginning.

It’s important to say that some babies and children do just fine on a schedule. They tend to be easy-going kids who can go-with-the-flow. They’re not typically the highly sensitive ones who, as adults, find themselves struggling with paralyzing self-doubt and pervasive anxiety. They’re not the ones who, as adults, find their way to my work.

But for the highly sensitive baby and child, formulas or schedules almost always come at a great cost. These children need a highly attuned parenting style that seeks to follow the babies inborn rhythm, sensitivities, preferences and aversions. They need a parent who turns the tables back on their child when they ask questions like my four-year old is asking in this very moment:

“Mommy, should I do a magic show now or when we go downstairs and Daddy wakes up?”

“Whatever you want, Asher.”

“I don’t know, though. Which one? Tell me!”

“I don’t know, either. Whatever you choose is fine.” I maintain my position that I don’t hold the key to his answers, and that he’s fully capable of deciding, even if it takes a few minutes. Because, of course, it doesn’t matter at all what he chooses to do in this case.

He throws a little fit, insisting that he really doesn’t know. And I continue to write, sending him the message that he’s fully capable of making this choice. He tries to enlist his big brother to make the decision for him, but I intercept by saying to Everest, “Let him answer for himself. Encourage him to trust himself.”

Finally, Asher says, “I can’t wait that long with a wand up my sleeve.” The magic show begins, and so does our day.


Note: This post was written pre-flood. We’re not walking by the creek these days, but we’re certainly learning about the land and ourselves in other ways, and we look forward to our creek walks again soon. 

44 comments to Do You Trust Yourself?

  • J McGrath

    A concern, however, is that too much attention paid to their “sensitivities, preferences and aversions” may create children, who eventually do not function well in the real world. I’ve begun to see this in my own practice with many on the cusp of young adulthood.

  • Katherine

    Thank you so much for this today! I just finished your Open Heart course and it has flooded me with so much peace and knowledge that I can help myself!
    This article reminds me of how I was raised by very loving parents that insisted they knew what was right and wrong for me. As a long time suffer of anxiety I always feel as if I am not making the “right” decisions. I am with the most wonderful partner and in those moments of clarity I know there is no wrong answer to the love we share. I am slowly beginning to realize that self trust is the kindest gift you can give yourself. Many blessings to you Sheryl!

  • Canuck64

    Hi Sheryl, This article could not have come at a better time for me as this self-trust thing is the exact hurdle I am facing right now. I know for a fact that my lack of self trust comes from high anxiety parents and a particular incident from my early teen years.
    But I have to say that because I have such low self-trust I am very confused about what’s my up and down. How do I know that what I came to learn to be false-beliefs through your work is not the desire of my soul that is unique to me? (that others can’t understand because it is unique to me)

    I know that I can stand firm in what I believe as long as it’s only one person that contradicts me. If two or more people believe something against my own belief I automatically begin to question it. This rings true for what I learned through your work too. Everyone on the forum, my therapists believed that I was going about things wrong so I started to think “well they must be right.” But now I don’t know if that’s just another incident of me not trusting myself.

  • ColoradoGirl

    What a beautiful reminder! This is hands down one of my biggest weaknesses. Somehow I believe that everyone else holds the answers that I am simply unable to come to on my own. I’ve even been abdicating my decision making power about our wedding over to my Mother and Sister because I’m afraid of making a ‘mistake.’ Should we do this bridesmaid dress or that one, should we combine our save the date with our Christmas card or leave them separate. It all seems so silly when I say it out loud. Time to learn how to stand firmly on my own two feet.

    • Me myself and I

      ColoradoGirl, when you say “Somehow I believe that everyone else holds the answers that I am simply unable to come to on my own.”

      I believe the exact same thing and since I’ve begun to recognize this form of thinking as a cognitive distortion (a.k.a.-my wounded self trying to keep me from trusting myself), I choose to not get hooked and work through the thought as “It’s ok, I can trust myself and not everyone has to agree. It’s what’s best for me.”

    • “Time to learn how to stand firmly on my own two feet.”

      Yes! The true definition of adulthood.

  • Lily

    Today’s article REALLY spoke to me. I hadn’t thought of the anxiety in that exact way before. “Shattered self-trust.” I actually own a sweatshirt that says “Trust yourself” but as someone who struggles making even the tiniest of decisions, I’m pretty sure I don’t! Do you suggest any exercises to help develop decision-making muscles? Just today I was looking at the menu online for the restaurant I’m going to for lunch and have been debating between two or three options all day. I often end up going with the “I’ll just see what comes out of my mouth in that moment” method. And of course it’s fine and the worst that can happen is I don’t like my lunch that much. What gets me is that I waste any energy thinking about it at all!!

    • Repairing shattered self-trust isn’t easy (I’ll likely write another article about how to repair broken self-trust), but it starts with transforming the belief that there’s a “right” answer to an awareness that choices are just choices. Like you said, you’ll either like your lunch or not, but does it really matter? The reason why people spend so much energy trying to make the “right” choice is that they’re more invested in trying to control the outcome than in being loving. The underlying belief, as I said in the article, is that if you choose “correctly” you’ll somehow feel validated or rewarded. So the work starts there, in letting go of that belief system and focusing instead on what’s loving.

  • Me myself and I

    I think you answered the question for yourself Canuck.

    You say “Everyone on the forum, my therapists believed that I was going about things wrong so I started to think ‘well they must be right.’ But now I don’t know if that’s just another incident of me not trusting myself.”

    If you believe you don’t trust yourself, then it’s up to you to change that.

    It doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks. All the forums do is provide validation and comfort.

    But the decision to choose to trust yourself, which is one of the scariest things in my opinion, is exactly that–a choice. And that’s the hurtle we all struggle with when it comes to self trust.

    Honestly, making a decision is not about right or wrong, it’s just about knowing you are doing the best you can with what you have.

    I’ve noticed that by going on the forums less frequently, it made it a lot easier for me to talk to myself and work through things. Trusting yourself does not happen overnight. I still doubt, I still overanalyze and have anxiety, and I still try to “check myself” by examining my feelings and wondering “what i’m feeling?” and “Why i’m feeling it”. All this overanalyzing stuff just makes me more anxious. Sometimes just breathing in and talking myself through something helps me stay out of the trap of getting hooked. Then when I’m in a still place, and actually let myself feel things, I feel like I’m trusting myself more.

  • Megan

    Thank you, Sheryl!

    I have been following you for about a year and really enjoy this. In a long-term relationship with a loving boyfriend, you’ve allowed me to open my heart more and work on realizing fact from anxiety…. Sheesh it’s hard to decipher between anxiety and intuition sometimes but your words have given me strength. Something that came to mind reason this was “The Paradox of Choice” book and TEDTalk. So many choices in today’s world that it breeds regret and unhappiness. Best to focus on a “good enough choice”. Which sounds unromantic and lazy… But is actually the best choice for us.

    Thanks again for your light and love.


  • dontworrybehappy

    I love it. I love this blog. I love Sheryl Paul. I am just like your sons. Torturing myself when I have a choice to make, asking other people what I should do. It makes me want to grow. It is wise to remind ourselves that there is no right or wrong choices. There is only choices. I love the way your talk to your sons. I will try to keep this lesson in mind for my future kids or my students.

  • dontworrybehappy

    P.S: I hope you and your family are recovering from the flood. Love

  • KD

    I absolutely love this post, Sheryl. It makes me really grateful for my parents, who were tremendous with this. “You don’t want to take ballet anymore? OK!” “You want to travel abroad? Sure thing, if that’s what you want.” I think my shortcomings in this department come from my desire to want to control the outcome of things – to minimize mistakes, to fit in, to be well-liked. I’m learning to trust myself again by letting go of all of that.

    Interestingly, my partner, the non-anxious one, struggles tremendously with decision-making. It’ll take him double the time to get dressed, to pick out salsa, buy a tie, to order something online. How do you recommend I relate to him when he’s insistent on my opinion for his choices?

    • I suggest you respond the way I respond with my kids with something like, “I completely trust that you can make a great choice” or “Whatever you think, sweetheart.”

      Yes, you were blessed with wonderful parents in many ways, KD. It’s more likely that you learned to abdicate self-trust because your perfectionism (natural to your personality type) dovetailed with the paradigm in our education system, which teaches kids to trust others (peers, teachers) more than themselves.

  • lalalove

    I can’t wait to have babies and apply all that I have learned from you and your writings about raising your kiddos! Will there be A Conscious Parent book?? hehe. Reading how you parent your boys also helps me learn how to re-parent myself , which I’m guessing is part of your point 🙂

  • “Reading how you parent your boys also helps me learn how to re-parent myself , which I’m guessing is part of your point.”

    You got it, ever-wise Lala : ).

  • Sharan

    Really appreciate this today. On a minor level I couldn’t decide what kind of bagels I wanted today! I used to be so confident in my decisions. Something else I noticed… I spoke with my mum about my relationship and she told me that my dad said “Maybe she (me) shouldn’t be so close to him (partner), you know…just in case it doesn’t work”. I was devastated to hear this, very hurt and anxious, and felt like I wasn’t trusted to make the “right” choice. After reading your article I realise that this has happened all of my life. It’s really difficult to trust your decisions when you have grown up with anxious parents who don’t trust their own. Thankfully I was able to be assertive and ask for support from them. It’s a beautifully written post…Thank you for helping me to see this.

  • This is absolutely key, Sharan: “It’s really difficult to trust your decisions when you have grown up with anxious parents who don’t trust their own.” So much of what we learn as children comes from the role-modeling of our parents. Good for you for speaking up!

  • Chelsea

    Sheryl, I know this isn’t Much on the topic you wrote about above but was wondering if I could get some insight. Is it normal to go back an forth between feeling connected and loving with your partner to some days just not feeling it. Also is it a normal thing to one moment you want to be intimate with your partner and loving and the next it’s like you don’t want to be kissed or touched. This really hurts me when I have moments like that an was just hoping for some insight. Thanks

  • Annie

    This couldn’t have come at a better time Sheryl! This is something that I have been struggling with for a long time. I feel like I don’t trust myself to make good decisions, so I rely heavily on other people to make the decisions for me. The problem is, those decisions aren’t always the best, and often times leave me feeling unhappy because I made choices that ultimately were to please other people and not myself. My mom is a pretty anxious person who doesn’t seem very confident when makes decisions, so I think this is partially where I got it from. I want so badly to be more confident and decisive and own my decisions so that when people ask me about choices I am making for the future I can confidently say what I want without waiting or seeking other people’s approval. Do you have any suggestions or tools to help in learning how to trust yourself?

  • Liz

    I just love reading these articles. I seem to unwind my truth in each one as little bits of my self can be found in so many. The was the anxious bride. I through a lot of reflection AND FINDING THE COMFORT of knowing so other brides shared my anxiety made me feel like I wasn’t alone in my fears and doubts. Gasp! I was normal.

    Reading this article again rings true to me. I am that girl in the salad dressing aisle taking forever to make choice. How much time have I wasted in analysis paralysis ?!?!?!? There is actually immense relief to read there is no wrong choice. And that thre are Multiple correct choices!!! its a very freeing concept. Ij am going to retread this one for sure. Thank you!

  • Jen

    Sheryl, you continue to teach me so much with your articles. And even though I’ve willingly subscribed to your news feed and *want* to read what you write because I know it’s good for me, I usually find myself reluctant to go on and read it when a new article has been posted over night. Because whatever it is you’re talking about that time it always makes me think and re-think things, it *works* in me, and I don’t enjoy that feeling. I’m so afraid of realising some great truth and then having to change my life because of it. (And of course I don’t like change, as few of your clients do, I presume.) Isn’t that crazy?

    But I end up reading your articles anyway each time because deep down I know they’re good for me. They help me. They get me on the way that is fundamentally *my* way. And I realise again and again and again that your articles never force me to make any change I’m not ready for. Instead they gently make me ready to go about that change in my own time. And for that I’m ever so grateful to you. Thank you, Sheryl.

  • So beautiful, Sheryl! I so look forward to your articles every week. I agree with Lalalove- would love to see a book from you on conscious parenting! I know it’s a very touchy subject, but I truly admire your parenting style and will definitely look to you when that time comes for me!

  • Louise

    What a beautiful article! I am currently saving up for one of your courses and can’t wait to be able to start it. I was in tears just reading some of these blog posts (in a good way 🙂 ), thank you so much!

  • Angela

    My beautiful Sheryl.. Yes I can totally relate to what your son is learning for the best interest for himself.. I was your son but instead not like ur amazing and helpful parenting.. my mum always insisted in doing things for me.. And I feel bad to stay I still need approval from my mum and partner.. I am now learning to make my own choices and decisions and trust myself because I am a responsible adult who has confidence most of the time.
    I acknowledge it and I wanna improve my life.
    Your sons are so lucky to have a wise woman like you Sheryl.

  • Rae

    When I first started driving, I would sometimes work myself into a tizzy if I had to drive someplace new. Something about not knowing exactly where I was going with the potential to get lost was unsettling. My mom would say “there is no such thing as getting lost. Even if you take a wrong turn, you can always turn around. You are always going to end up someplace.” Maturity and experience helped me relax.

    This post brought this up for me because it speaks to my internal roadmap: trust. When I lack self-trust to take care of myself, make sound decisions, and face challenges without falling apart, I try to control everything so that I can have a certain future. Trust means giving up that compulsion to control, while accepting that any choice is going to have some good and some bad and I will still get to where I’m going either way. I love what my mom said about ending up someplace. Just like an unfamiliar road I take when driving isn’t going to lead me off the planet into outer space, a decision I make that may not take me where I thought doesn’t mean I will be lost forever. I will still be someplace.

    I have been challenging myself to look at being lost from a different lens. The un-loving definition of being lost leads me to believe that I’ll lose the solid ground beneath my feet unless I know exactly where I’m going and follow the right map to get there. Yet what map is right? It keeps me caged in for sure. The loving definition understands that being lost is nothing more than shedding my attachment to how things should be. Less pressure. Less judgment. More freedom. Ironically, it is only when I let go that I feel more settled.

  • Kim

    Good advice you gave me–dont tell your mom until after you make your decision. Oh, and one more–stop calling her Mommy. 🙂

  • Vijay Kumar

    Yes Sheryl Paul beautiful article on self trust. After 40 years just now I found on my intuition ,confidence. And self trust due to the way my dad brought up…full of doubt,fear and complete procrastinating life style . I am aware not to blame and that’s way he choose his path and life style . Thanks ,love & Regards. Vijay

  • Sarah

    Interestingly, this article came in handy on Saturday. My husband and I took our nieces to the Science Center and out for gelato. On the way there my seven year old niece mentioned she’d never had a smoothie. I told her the gelato place had smoothies and ice cream so she could choose whichever. She said, “Which do you think I should get?” I told her it was her choice. She said, “No, I want you to tell me!” So I told her I didn’t think there was a wrong choice between ice cream and smoothies, and she should just trust what she wanted. She chose pumpkin gelato and loved it:) I was thankful to have this article so fresh in my mind! I’ve thought a lot this week about how I do the same thing, agonizing over food choices, or getting too caught up in a certain way of thinking regarding parenting and wondering exactly what I should think. I’ve told myself several times, “there’s no wrong way…you can trust yourself.” Very helpful and refreshing. Thanks!

  • Macy

    Hi Sheryl, first off, thank you for your work there aren’t many place you can find this type of information. I had a quick question ( if anyone else would like to comment feel free), What are the red flags in a relationship? Besides the obvious ones like abuse or conflict of values. I hear a lot about them in your article and would like to know more clearly what they consist of.

    • Addiction, abuse, broken trust, misalignment of core values (one wants kids and the other doesn’t, irreconcilable religious differences). Worth noting that most people have some form of addiction and all addictions can be healed if the addict has a deep desire to do so.

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