Marble Jar People

In all the things I struggle with, and my friends, there are a few, I find trust to be the hardest. It’s a tough thing to break down and for me, is one of the scariest things to step into.

Trusting you or you trusting me, means I am stepping in. I am willing to expose some part of myself I usually keep hidden and I am hoping that you are going to be careful with what I give you; treat it kindly and with grace.

Of course, we are thoroughly imperfect humans and throughout every day, I know I make mistakes with the vulnerability that is entrusted to me. I do not always honour the feelings that come with vulnerability, or recognize the bravery of another human to expose part of themselves. Others do this to me, and I think it is commonly understood that this hurts, sometimes a hell of a lot.

Trying to navigate trust in relationships can feel to me like trying to find a port in a storm. I have felt so often like I don’t have enough landmarks, like my gut is not reliable, and as if I feel pressure to trust when I feel fear.

I read some of Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly not long ago. If you haven’t come across her work, look her up. She is wise, like guru sage kind of wise. Her ideas are not profoundly complicated but they are deeply profound, and they push me to live more bravely, to show up more fully and to practice vulnerability. A deeply uncomfortable, but transformative process.

There is a part in Daring Greatly where Brene talks about marble jars. It grows out of a story with her daughter, Ellen, whose teacher has a marble jar in her classroom. When the students do something good, a marble goes in. When they do something not so good, a marble comes out. When the jar is full, there is some kind of reward. A simple, behaviour modification technique for children right?

It is in fact so much more. Brene creates this link between the marble jar in her daughter’s classroom and trust in relationships.

In this story she tells, the marble jar represents trust, the level of trust between you and any another human being. When you first meet them, the jar is empty because you have not had any experience to tell you whether you can trust them or not. But as you get to know them, they do little things that show you that yes, you can, in fact, trust them, so you put a few marbles in the jar. Sometimes they break that trust, in small or big ways, and marbles come out of the jar. The level of trust in the relationship goes up and down depending on what’s happening between the two people.

If the marble jar is full, this can be a sign that the relationship is safe. I can be my most vulnerable and exposed self, knowing that experience has shown me that this person “has earned the right to hear my story” (Brene’s words, not mine). If the marble jar is empty, this is a sign to me to be cautious.

I have for a long time, struggled with trust. I don’t like putting my heart in someone else’s hands. We’ve all had experiences where someone has taken what you have exposed and not been careful enough with it and for fuck’s sake, it hurts. So we wall up, we hold back, we make sweeping generalizations about people based on our experiences with a few and trust is the first thing we get rid of.

But this marble jar people stuff, it means that I have to approach each relationship individually. It means that I have to put aside my past experience, what I think I know about people, and I have to enter in. At the very least, I have to put the marble jar on the table and see what happens. In fact, this is really my only job. All I have to do is remain consistently open to building trust, remain optimistic that trust can be established or re-established. That’s it.

The marble jar lets me sit in this space in between trust and not trusting – it’s not an all or nothing game. I can pull back a little if the level of trust is getting low. Perhaps a small confidence has been broken, which makes me cautious in my next story telling with this person. But I don’t have to pull back completely. Maybe in a bit of time, I venture out again, share a bit and emphasize how important it is to me to keep this story quiet. I get a chance to see if this person can hold that trust and when they do, I can put those lost marbles back in the jar.

Even if the marble jar is completely empty and at that time, there is no trust between me and this person, I can stay open. If I am open enough to leave the jar on the table, eventually they will probably do something that makes me put a marble back in. And slowly, we will rebuild to a place of safety and trust again. It is more of a dance, a pushing toward and a pulling back, instead of being either all in or self-protectively, all out.

There are exceptions however. There are people who are hurting so much themselves that they will not understand the value of the marble jar and they will so thoroughly break our trust that they shatter the marble jar in the process. These are extreme examples, but sadly enough, they do happen and some of us may or may not know them from our own experiences. When this happens, there is no rush to get a new jar on the table. It takes time to find the openness to start from scratch again and we may decide that this person is not capable of rebuilding trust with us and we need to move away.

However, I think that most often, outside of these extreme cases, we can keep the jar on the table. We can take the steps back to keep ourselves feeling safe and secure for a time, but we can remain open to what we or that person may offer to rebuild.

But what then are the marbles? What are the things that build or break trust? They are not profound, earth-shattering moments. They are little things, common things and for every person, they are different.

For me, I put a marble in the jar when someone checks in with me to see how I’m doing; it shows me they are thinking about me and makes me feel cared for and valued. I give away marbles when people keep a confidence I have asked them to keep. I put in a few when people remember special memories, anniversaries or moments. I give away marbles for moments of connection through touch, through words, through simple actions. My husband cooking dinner, my friends remembering to call. That’s it; they are not deep moments of vulnerability or heart-breaking exposure that build trust. They are the little things, the things we do every day, sometimes without even thinking about them that build up trust and connection between us. Each time someone does these things, I put a marble in their jar. Each time I do something that is meaningful for them, they put one in mine. Through these little actions, we build up a bank that says to each of us, “this one…. s/he’s okay, step into this”.

What I love most about the marble jar is it takes the pressure off. It means I am no longer under the expectation to trust as I think or observe that other’s trust. I can use the marble jar as a guide. Where am I with this person right now? Am I stepping in or stepping back? Am I being open enough to make sure the jar is at least on the table? What marbles am I putting into their jar so that they feel safe and comfortable with me?

And then we dance. We step in, we step away, we step in. We expose ourselves and find safety, we expose ourselves and maybe find some kind of hurt. But we keep dancing and we keep moving toward each other, finding our way into each other’s hearts and keeping our own safe at the same time.

I have a little marble jar on my desk these days. It serves as a reminder to me to stay open, to approach each relationship individually and to give myself the freedom to dance, stepping sometimes closer and sometimes further away, with those I am learning to love.

Marble Jars


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