Step 1: Testing the System

"As soon as you trust yourself," wrote Goethe, "you will know how to live." To discern between people who might save your life and those who might ruin it, you must be reliable, honest—in a word, trustworthy—toward yourself. And we do this far less often than most people realize.

I'm about to reveal one of my favorite life coaching tricks, which I've used on literally thousands of people. In the middle of a speech or coaching session, I'll suddenly say, "Are you comfortable?" Most people look startled, squint at me as though I'm a few chocolates short of a full box, then assure me that yes, they're comfortable.

"Really?" I'll say, earnestly.

Yes, they insist, getting a bit annoyed, they're totally comfortable.

Then I ask this: "So, if you were alone in your bedroom right now, would you be sitting in the position you're in at this moment?"

It takes them all of 0.03 seconds to answer, "No." But it takes them much longer to come up with the answer to my next question:

"Why not?"

Some people will just sit there blinking, as if I've asked them to explain why they didn't invent spaghetti. It takes them much consternated thinking to come up with the answer—which is, of course, that the positions in which people sit in public settings are generally much less loose than the positions they adopt when unobserved, in a room designed for rest and relaxation.

In short, they're a bit uncomfortable.

Now, the problem here isn't the discomfort itself—people can handle a world of hurt if necessary. The problem is that they aren't conscious of their own discomfort, even though it's obvious. They lie to my face in clear daylight, believing they're telling the truth even though they know (and I know...and they know that I know) they're lying.

Do you find that last sentence confusing? Welcome to denial, which, oh, honey, it's true, ain't just a river in Egypt.

Denial exists because human infants, though equipped with trust-o-meters, are built to trust, blindly and absolutely, any older person who wanders past. Life would be brief, incredibly complicated, and unbearably frightening for any baby who didn't invest automatic confidence in her caregivers, who suspected adults of deception whenever they said, "Drink this; it's good for you" or "Those people are evil" or "Grandma will take care of you." We all have faith in the people we encounter during our early youth. If they deserve this, our trust-o-meters are programmed to function accurately, and we're well on our way to a life of wise discernment.

Sadly, however, few child-rearers deserve the unmitigated trust babies invest in them. Some adults, purposely or (far more often) accidentally, give children unhealthy drinks, from tainted water to Jack Daniels. Others, out of malice or (far more often) ignorance, create unwarranted fear and prejudice. Sometimes Grandma is a psychopath or (far more often) a short-tempered neurotic whose idea of childcare involves strapping the kiddies into her Cadillac so she can cruise the red light district searching through binoculars for her ex-boyfriend's car.

If something along those lines happened to you, you've been conditioned to attach the definition "trustworthy" to people who are, in fact, untrustworthy. If your parents let you sip their whiskey as an expression of affection, you may be wired to swear by alcoholics. If you were raised by white supremacists, you may rely on lunatic skinheads. If your beloved Grandma was a stalker, obsessive jealousy may inspire your confidence. You'll be extremely uncomfortable the whole time, but you won't recognize the discomfort.

This is why denial is so baffling: You have no idea you're in it. Rather than thinking, "I am now displaying unwarranted trust," you just Confused. Maybe a little crazy. Maybe a lot crazy. Something seems wrong, and over time, it feels wronger and wronger. Those of us with badly calibrated trust-o-meters usually think the wrongness must be in us, that if we can somehow think or work or love better, our painful relationships with the alcoholic racist stalkers in our lives will somehow become perfect.

For those of us who want to know if we have defective trust-o-meters, the evidence is blessedly obvious: Our relationships and life situations don't work. We're lying to ourselves, pretending we're at ease when we know we aren't, so, in the converse of Goethe's dictum, we don't have a clue how to live. We're often rudely awakened, bitterly disappointed, shockingly betrayed. If this happens to you once, perhaps it's bad luck. If it happens repeatedly, there are bugs in your system. To check, take the Trust Test. If your score indicates that your trust-o-meter functions well, you can stop reading now. But if the quiz reveals a problem, it's time to recalibrate.

Next: The Scientific Method