Here’s a typical situation at work.
Your boss offers you a promotion. All you have to do is prepare a presentation of the new project you’ve been working on and show it to the top management.
Suddenly, your colleague appears out of nowhere and offers help, assuring you that you will remain in control of the situation. You work on the majority of the presentation, while your colleague helps with minor changes.
On the day of the presentation, however, you have an emergency, which forces you to postpone it. But your colleague reassures that they can present the project instead of you, but will give you full credit for the presentation and work behind it.
And while you’re trying to cope with your emergency, they present the project, and…
Yes, steal all the credit and get the promotion instead of you.
You’ve encountered a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Not just encountered, but became their prey. Even if you approach them to try and regain control, they will snap back at you and say that they contributed to this project, too. And suddenly it’s you who’s at fault, being selfish and trying to steal all the credit.
The Psychology of a Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
‘A wolf in sheep’s clothing’ is a saying that came to us from the Bible, where, in the Gospel of Matthew 7:15, Jesus warns his students about false prophets, whom he calls wolves wearing sheep’s clothing.
The saying, however, was popularized by Aesop’s fable, in which the wolf tries to fool the shepherd by wearing sheep’s clothing and attacks the flock but gets killed.
Today, this saying is used in psychology to characterized different kinds of predatory behavior. There is a wide variety of personalities, whom psychologists call wolves in sheep’s clothing – from emotional abusers to covert-aggressive people.
But there is one word you can use to characterize all such people – they are manipulators.
Their manipulative behavior, in its turn, breeds a whole range of other characteristic traits.
Further Reading: 5 Types of Toxic People and How to Spot and Deal with Them
Distinctive Traits of a Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
- Aggressive apathy. Wolves in sheep’s clothing are the complete opposite of being empathetic. You can’t say that they don’t recognize your emotions or take them into consideration. They do, but they do it for their own benefit. Sometimes they are aware of your feelings so well that they know which string to pull to provoke the behavior they need.
- Obsession with control. Such people are obsessed with power and authority. Once they have their eye on something, they would obsess over getting the situation under their full control. They gain authority, however, not by showing their knowledge or expertise, but by manipulation.
- Destructive behavior. This trait stems from an obsession with control. Wolves in sheep’s clothing would do anything to achieve what they want, even if it comes to causing harm (more often emotional) to their victims. They are not thirsty for blood, but if it comes to that point, they won’t step back.
Is a Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing a Sociopath?
If you take a closer look at these traits, you might notice that they hint at sociopathic behavior.
However, a wolf in sheep’s clothing is not necessarily a sociopath. While both personalities show anti-social behavior by breaking the rules and not feeling guilty for the harm they’ve caused, a wolf in sheep’s clothing is very aware of emotions and feelings of others, while a sociopath doesn’t recognize them whatsoever.
In other words: a sociopath often disregards the emotions completely, while a wolf in sheep’s clothing manipulates them and uses them for their benefit.
Further Reading: How to Deal with Selfish People
How to Detect a Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
Here are some tips on how you can expose a wolf in sheep’s clothing before you fall prey to their manipulations.
All your actions should be aimed at forcing a wolf in sheep’s clothing to show their teeth. Here’s how you can attempt to do it.
1. Talk to Them About a Person You Both Know
The whole concept behind a person being a wolf in sheep’s clothing is to try and fit in. To do it, the most preferred strategy of these people is to be excessively nice.
And while empaths are the most frequent victims of wolves in sheep’s clothing, they won’t be able to distinguish between “nice” and “too nice”.
There is one way, however, how you can bring the wolf’s true intentions to the light.
There should be one person that you and the wolf share acquaintance with. Try and discuss this person with the wolf, but make sure that this person is not around.
What you’ll notice instantly is the instant change of colors. A previously “nice” wolf won’t shy away from showing deceit and contempt towards this person. Even the slightest change in their tone will already show their true colors.
What you will also notice is the way they try to show their superiority in the way they talk about this person.
2. Ask to Tell More About Them
You may be surprised to hear that wolves aren’t eager to talk about themselves. And once you ask them, their story will seem scattered and full of holes.
Here’s how you can do it.
Ask them to tell a story from their life. During their story, ask as many detailed questions as possible. Where the story took place, when it happened, whom it involved, who those people are.
After they finish talking, ask the control question about the details you found out earlier. There is a very high chance that some of those details won’t add up.
3. Test Their Patience
Impatience is one of the most distinctive traits of the wolf in sheep’s clothing. And this behavior starts to show through micro-signals, which can help you prevent the wolf’s upcoming attack.
Let’s say you’re the victim of the situation we described at the beginning of our article, and your colleague is the wolf. What are the micro-signals that could warn you about their predatory behavior?
- The wolf seemingly appears out of nowhere, offering “help”.
- They do their work quickly, often asking you about the progress.
- They never agree to postpone the result.
In all the reactions mentioned above, you can trace the wolf’s impatience. If you recognize these signals at the beginning, you can try and expose the wolf by testing their patience:
- Ask them about their progress in return. Most likely, you will get an inconsistent answer, as the wolf will be afraid to give themselves away.
- Deliberately postpone the results. Soon enough, you will notice that they will grow angry with you, which will expose their true intentions in return.
- Directly ask, what benefit they are looking for. Since wolves are always driven by selfish motives, they are unlikely to give themselves away by being honest. Being upfront with them will catch them off balance.
Be careful, however.
Testing the patience of the wolf in sheep’s clothing can backfire. Remember, if they’re up to something, they won’t shy away from anything to achieve what they have their mind on.
Further Reading: Differentiate Real Friends And Toxic Friends
Just as with any toxic person in your life, once you realize the true motives of a wolf in sheep’s clothing, it’s better not to involve yourself in a confrontation and walk away immediately. This way, you’ll take care of your mental health and avoid a scandal (which a wolf is definitely expecting from you). So, don’t play into their manipulations.
Beware of Reducing Every Person to the Wolf’s Level
Once you’ve fallen victim to a wolf in sheep’s clothing, it’s hard to have trust in people.
The chances of meeting a wolf in sheep’s clothing are very high, and you probably had people like that at least once in your life. These people can seriously harm your trust in other people, but it’s important to remember that not every person on your way is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Trust, but verify. Actions speak louder than words. Keeping this knowledge in your mind will be your best shield against a wolf in sheep’s clothing.