Reclaiming Self-Trust in Wild Places

Reclaiming Self-Trust in Wild Places

A few months ago, I sat on a slope of loose rock next to a shrubby juniper. From my perch on top of the Redwall Limestone layer, the ground hollows out below me, forming a side canyon in a distinct U shape, a small nook in the greater landscape of the Grand Canyon. The Redwall is a notoriously steep cliff-forming rock that creates vicious grades in any trail that cuts down it. This trail is no exception.

I look down that side canyon, scanning the landscape below me. The canyon is quiet and still, devoid of any other human life. It's serene.

I can see the trail on the plateau 400 feet below at the base of the Redwall layer, but I struggle to make out where the path sneaks its way through the rock to get there. Everywhere I look, there seems to be nothing but steep drop-offs. It seems to be all loose gravel and sheer faces, impossible to down climb in any sensible manner.

Without any success finding the trail, I begin to accept that the day's exploration may end here. As I slide my foot underneath me to stand, a few small rocks skitter loose. The sound of their tumble echoes dramatically on the limestone walls as they drop down the steep cliff face below.

About four years before I sat in that side canyon, I was on the couch in my therapist's office. I told her the story of an interpersonal conflict I was in the midst of, the details of which are now long lost to my memory. I explained how someone's actions made me feel hurt, but no sooner do the words come out of my mouth did I start to backtrack. I rattled off well-practiced reasons that I was probably mistaken for feeling bothered. Sure, I'm upset, but it's probably because I was being too emotional, or I'm asking for too much, or I misunderstood, or...

She interjects, kind but firm: "you really don't trust your own experience, do you?"

I stop in my tracks, not really sure what to say. The moment was like a flake of rock sheering from a cliff. Years later, the words never stopped echoing off the walls of my mind.

I tried to think of an answer--some way to bypass and justify the obvious truth.

No, I guess I don't.

I had never thought of myself as having low self-esteem in the sense of believing I was worthless. Similarly, I felt I had a passable level of self-confidence in many social situations. And yet I was denying my own experiences, thoughts, and feelings. It didn't add up. What had happened to my self-trust?

First, I want to take a moment to define our terms. To me, self-trust, self-confidence, and self-esteem all have different connotations, though they're certainly deeply intertwined concepts.

Self-esteem has to do with one's perceived worth and value at a very high level. It's a broad concept that doesn't refer to behaviors directly, but instead internal beliefs about who you are as a person. Self-confidence, then, is more behavioral, relating to the way in which you approach your interactions with others. Plenty of people can perform self-confidence while actually having low self-esteem, a sort of overcompensatory, "fake it til you make it" approach.

Finally, self-trust, exists somewhere adjacent to both of these concepts. Like self-esteem, self-trust is an internally-oriented idea. Instead of how you approach your interactions with others, it's how you interact with yourself. It's how your internal narrative reacts to your own thoughts, feelings, and experiences after the moment they appear in your mind.

As I thought back, years of concerted erosion of my self-trust quickly became obvious. Our society has a long history of dismissal toward girls' and women's experiences, such as the famous example of labeling displays of normal emotion as "hysteria". Even still, messages on regressive gender roles still exist aplenty, reinforcing the notion that women are too emotional and ask for too much. Women are reminded to be accommodating and to shrink ourselves, thus diminishing our perspectives. Many individuals and groups are more than willing to exploit this vulnerability in the female experience.

For my part, I was raised in a fundamentalist faith system that had erosion of self-trust baked into much of its doctrine. If you were having doubts about your faith, any number of garden variety "sinful" thoughts, or even symptoms of mental illness like depression, it was the influence of evil, Satanic forces. Some went so far as to posit that these things were a result of demonic possession, even more explicitly driving home the notion that your own internal experiences were not only evil and not to be trusted, they literally were not you. When you internalize the belief that intrusive thoughts or difficult feelings are deeply evil, of course you begin to dissociate your sense of self from them.

Adding spiritual authority figures to the mix, the prospects of a healthy sense of self get considerably worse. These authority figures are the gatekeepers of morality, since they are seen as the experts on interpretation of religious doctrine. By extension, their version of morality also dictates more serious judgments like whether that person is a "true" Christian and if they are or aren't going to hell.

So if a spiritual authority figure tells you that your reaction to something is immoral, it behooves you to listen, lest you risk stark moral ridicule. This kind of high-stakes environment is a fast track to the habit of relinquishing one's own narrative to someone else.

In my teen years, a particularly formative romantic relationship doubled down on this pattern. As the young man in question progressively devolved into clinical psychosis over the years we dated, he desperately grasped for control as his own reality crumbled by exerting controlling over me. My interpretation of situations didn't matter--he always knew what was really going on and was quick to set me straight. In a sense, the relationship structure wasn't anything particularly new. I already knew the rules of the game. I'd had plenty of years to master my role of deferring to someone else's version of reality, and I slid into it without question.

Even after escaping the funhouse mirror realities of fundamentalism and a manipulative relationship, I carried vestiges of that same posture into adulthood--no surprise there. As a full-fledged adult, sure, I shed the fear that I would go to hell for disagreeing with someone important. And of course it didn't take me long to learn that the government wasn't listening to my conversations through car speakers. But what took far longer to realize was the ways those years of conditioning led me to short-circuit my experiences of grief and hurt or to believe every conflict was my fault for being too difficult.

The fantasies of others I was recruited into in my earlier life was like a stream running above ground--plain, self evident, easy for myself and others to point out. But after that, the stream trickled underground, out of sight. I had to dig for it before I saw that it was still there below, destabilizing the ground I walked on.

As I left my spot next to the juniper tree, preparing to return the way I came, something caught my eye. From that vantage point, I could see a subtle cut in the wall--the trail! Sure enough, there was a small rock cairn signaling the way.

To be fair, calling it a "trail" might be a little generous. While the path was fairly clear in places, for the most part it was more a series of shelves of rock loosely hewn into the rock wall, interspersed with loose, gravely moments. Far from easy walking, the trail required constant attention to stay on route, plus the occasional strategically placed hand to get myself past obstacles.

Even so, I quickly settled into a rhythm negotiating the rugged terrain. And something funny happened. I was completely alone in this unpopulated and challenging area, but still fully in my element. I was simply playing in one of my favorite places--the trails of the Grand Canyon. My instincts were strong and sure, I felt at ease.

I trusted myself.

It would be difficult to overstate the healing power of natural spaces across a wide range of issues. In that moment I saw clearly the pathways the wilderness had created that were quietly restructuring my internal narratives around belief in my own experiences and capabilities.

I've spent the last several years gradually growing my knowledge and capabilities in the outdoors. While time in talk therapy had its place, those outdoor experiences did something distinct but complementary: taking a nascent sense of self-trust and creating a place for me to feel it in my bones. Connecting cognitive and more primal experiences of self-trust conferred a distinct sense of integration into this process of growth and repair.

Self-trust wasn't just an intellectual exercise, but something embodied, bringing me closer to both myself and the wilderness.