How to Build Trust in Friendships (Even if You Struggle)

“I feel like I can’t trust friends. I’ve had friends who broke my trust, and now I am afraid to get close to people even when I want to. I don’t know how to rebuild trust in friendships, but I don’t want to be alone!”

When we’ve been hurt, our self-protection instinct kicks in. It doesn’t matter if the person who hurt us was a parent, romantic partner, friend, or bully. The problem starts when our self-protection instinct starts to hurt us: it can keep us isolated and prevents us from developing healthy relationships.

If you’re trying to build trust with a romantic partner, you might like to go to this article on how to build trust in romantic relationships.


How to build trust in friendships

Decide to risk putting your trust in others

Unfortunately, we can’t avoid pain in life. While we can get better at choosing healthy people to surround ourselves with, the truth is that people often hurt each other unintentionally. Whenever two people have different needs, there is a conflict. People move away, and friendships end for several reasons.

If we think about the possible heartbreak whenever we meet someone new, we will want to lock ourselves in a room and never go out. Of course, then we will miss out on a lot of possible growth and joy.

It can help to challenge your unhelpful thoughts when you get anxious about trusting others. For example, if you catch yourself thinking, “No one will ever be there for me when I need them,” ask yourself:

  • Do I know for a fact that this is true?
  • What is the evidence against this thought?
  • What would I say to a friend who was thinking this way?
  • Is this a helpful thought to have? It might be protecting me from pain, but what are the downsides?
  • Can I think of a more realistic way of framing this situation?

In this case, you might replace your original thought with something like this:

“There are billions of people on this planet, so I can’t know that no one will ever be there for me. And although I’ve been let down a lot, I have met a few trustworthy people. I’d tell a friend in this situation that it can take time to build strong friendships, but it’s definitely possible. Thinking this way keeps me safe, but it also stops me from having fun with other people. Releasing this thought would make me more relaxed around others.”

Remind yourself that trust takes time

Sometimes we try to hurry relationships along by sharing too much, too soon. Balanced conversations and gradual self-disclosure build trust in relationships. Think of it as a project you’re working on with your new friend. But instead of building a house, you’re building a friendship.

Before sharing your most significant traumas, share small things with new friends. See how they react. If you feel heard and understood, slowly increase the stakes and disclose more sensitive information.

Give your friends space to share their own life with you. Try to give them feedback that you accept them how they are. Let them know that you value their presence in your life.

Read this guide on how to keep a conversation going and this article on how to stop oversharing for more tips.

Don’t make promises that you can’t keep

If you want someone to trust you, they need to know that your promises are solid. If you say you will be there, you will be there.

Therefore, it’s important not to over-commit yourself when building trust in friendship. Saying “no” is difficult—but it’s not as difficult as repairing broken trust. Keep your promises, and don’t make promises you won’t be able to keep.

Be dependable

Be the type of friend you would want for yourself: one that shows up on time, returns calls, and doesn’t say bad things about friends behind their backs.

Listen to your friends when they speak. If you forgot to answer a message, apologize. Keep their secrets. Show people that they can trust you.

Reasons why you may have trust issues with friends

Having an insecure attachment style

Attachment theory describes the way we form emotional bonds with others.

People with a secure attachment style tend to feel comfortable in close relationships. However, some people have an insecure attachment style. This can make it hard for them to trust others. For example, people with an avoidant attachment style find closeness difficult or suffocating.

A study on attachment styles and friendship in 330 college students found that securely attached students had fewer conflicts and were better at overcoming problems in their relationships.

The students with avoidant attachment styles reported higher levels of conflict and lower levels of companionship.[1] Other studies have also found that people with a secure attachment style find relationships easier and more satisfying.[2]

This guide from Healthline goes into more detail about attachment. It contains links to quizzes that will help you figure out your attachment style and explains what you can do to change it if necessary. For most people, this means working with a therapist to learn new ways of relating to other people.

Having experienced bullying or been taken advantage of

If you were bullied or taken advantage of by friends, classmates, or even siblings, you might fear that you’ll be hurt again. You may have adopted a belief that people can’t be trusted. This belief that people are unsafe can show up as social anxiety.

Even if your rational brain knows that not everyone is like that, your body may be getting in the way. Our fear reaction happens in a matter of nanoseconds. When we feel fear, we freeze, stress hormones flood our system, and our learning abilities are disrupted.[3]

It can take time to teach your body that interacting with others can be a positive experience. You may want to work with a therapist who specializes in trauma.

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Not recognizing red flags

Many of us didn’t have healthy models of relationships growing up. Perhaps we grew up in an unstable home or didn’t have friends when we were young.

As a result, we don’t always know what is expected in a relationship. We don’t learn how to recognize healthy people when we meet them. We don’t know when to trust people or who we should avoid.

For example, we may believe that being around people who are constantly yelling, complaining, or putting us down is normal. Deep down, we may not believe that we can attract good friends who will care about us.

Learn how to recognize signs of a toxic friendship so you don’t get hurt over and over again.

Not trusting yourself

This may sound counterintuitive because it might seem like it’s potential friends you can’t trust. You’re afraid that if you let them in, they will hurt you. But the truth is that when we trust ourselves, we know that we will be OK no matter what happens.

If a friendship ends, we don’t take it as a sign that all people are untrustworthy or that we will never have close friendships. We realize that the friendship didn’t work out for reasons that have nothing to do with our value as a human being. We keep a sense of proportion when it comes to relationship problems because we know that we are there for ourselves.

Not fully accepting yourself

If you believe that you are an unworthy person, you may have difficulty letting people see the real you. Deep down, you believe that if they get to know you, they will abandon you.

Knowing that you are a lovable person who deserves good things can help you trust people and let them in. If you know that you have just as much to give in relationships and that people will gain value from knowing you, you will want to form deep, close friendships.

If you want to focus on building self-love, check out our recommendations of the best books on self-worth and acceptance.

Learning to trust yourself

Check in with yourself during the day

Are you tired? Hungry? Bored? Try getting into the habit of asking yourself, “What can I do to meet my needs right now?”

You may decide to get up and stretch or get a glass of water. The solutions are often quite simple. Getting in the habit of taking care of your smaller daily needs will help you build a relationship with yourself. Slowly, you begin to trust yourself to take care of your own needs.

Be proud of your accomplishments

Remember that everyone has a different path. If you are always comparing yourself to others, you may feel that you have nothing to be proud of. After all, your peers seem to be doing so much more.

We’re all on a different journey. The only person you should be comparing yourself to is the past you. Give yourself credit for the progress you are making.

Read our article with tips on what to do when you feel inferior to others.

How to rebuild trust when it has been broken

Be honest about your feelings

If you find yourself losing trust in a friend, ask yourself what is happening. Have they done something specific that hurt you? Are you being honest with them?

Sometimes we say that things are fine even when we don’t really feel that way.

Let’s say we make plans with a friend, but an hour or so before we get ready, they say they aren’t feeling well.

“It’s fine,” we say. And we say it’s fine when it happens for the second and third time, too.

We expect our friends to know how we’re feeling, but how can they if we don’t say what we feel? In the example above, our friend may have thought we made a tentative plan. They didn’t consider we were planning our time accordingly. It doesn’t mean that they disrespect us, as we may assume—we may just have had different expectations.

Understand why it happened

Do you find yourself experiencing trust issues with friends often? In all of our relationships, there is one common denominator: us.

We often feel that we are clear in our communication, but that turns out not to be the case. Or we may find that everyone doesn’t share our standards for friendships. Our culture, background, and personal history shapes our expectations of relationships.

Consider a simple example. Some people hate talking on the phone and prefer to text, while others hate texting and will prefer to work things out over a short phone conversation.

Try to understand your expectations in relationships and communicate them. When conflicts arise, try to work out what happened and how they can be worked through and prevented.

Don’t be defensive

If you are the one who hurt your friend (and eventually, we all mess up), don’t get defensive when they bring it up. Listen to their feelings and don’t try to cut them off by justifying your actions or counter-attacking (e.g., “Yes, I did it, but you…”).

It can be difficult to accept criticism. Take breaks from difficult conversations if you need to, but make sure to return to them so that your friends feel heard.

Learn how to give and accept a full apology

A genuine apology includes the following components:

  1. Acknowledgment. For example, “I realize I’ve been late for our last three lunch dates.”
  2. Empathizing. Show you understand how your behavior made the other person feel. For example, “I can see why you felt disrespected.”
  3. Analyzing. Explain why you behaved the way you did. For example, “I’m not very good at scheduling, and I’ve been extra stressed lately.” Note that an explanation isn’t the same as a defense. No matter how solid your explanation, you still need to say “Sorry.”
  4. Planning for the future. Come up with a solution to prevent a similar issue from occurring again and tell them what you’re going to do. For example, “I’ve started using a new diary app, so I’ll be on time in the future.”

If you don’t know how to say that you’re sorry, read this guide on how to apologize.

When someone apologizes to you, try to accept it. You don’t have to forgive people—some things are unforgivable—but try to extend to others the same grace you’d like in return.

Cut contact with the people you can’t trust

If you have friends who are not loyal to you and don’t make you feel good about yourself, you may need to cut contact with them.

Ending relationships is always difficult, but so is having friends who you can’t trust. Once you free up the time and energy you spend on one-sided relationships, you will be more open to friendships that suit you better.

Common questions

Why is trust important in a friendship?

Trust is the foundation of a healthy relationship. When we trust someone, we know we can be who we are with them. We know that we can count on their promises and that the person will be by our side and support us when we need them.

How do you develop trust?

The best way to develop trust is to do it gradually. Don’t expect too much too soon. Be open about yourself and your feelings. Be honest with others and yourself.

How do you earn someone’s trust?

For someone to trust us, we need to keep our promises to them. They need to know that their secrets are safe with us. It’s crucial to give them a sense that they can share their feelings without being laughed at or judged.

How do you show trust?

We show others that we trust them by sharing our lives with them. Telling someone about our history, fears, and dreams sends the message that we believe they are trustworthy.

What are the traits of a true friend?

A true friend is someone that makes you feel comfortable. They accept you for who you are without trying to change you. They will let you know if they disagree with you but won’t pick a fight with you for no reason.

For a more in-depth look at signs that someone is a good friend, read our article on what makes a true friend.

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Viktor is a Counselor specialized in interpersonal communication and relationships. He manages SocialSelf’s scientific review board. Follow on Twitter or read more.

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