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By Shahida Arabi
The term “wolf in sheep’s clothing” has biblical origins and is used to describe someone who pretends to be outwardly innocent and harmless. However, within, they are predatory “wolves,” ready to devour their prey. Who they present themselves to be is far different from who they truly are. Many wolves in sheep’s clothing disguise themselves as upstanding citizens and pillars of their community, all while they commit heinous crimes behind closed doors.
I’ve come across many convincing predators in my lifetime, but perhaps none are more skilled and dangerous than the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing. This term’s origins goes as far back as the bible: “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves” (Matthew 7:15). It is used to describe those who appear to be harmless but are actually sneaky, conniving saboteurs looking to fulfill their own selfish agenda at the expense of everyone else’s rights.
This term is quite fitting for the toxic manipulators, covert narcissists or sociopaths who dress themselves as innocent, charitable people while committing unspeakable acts of violence behind closed doors. These predators can come across as agreeable, kind, successful, giving, even shy, insecure and introverted; they can also have a deeply seductive charisma that draws people into their toxicity. Yet their glowing public image is no match for their nefarious private deeds. These wolves lurk anywhere and everywhere, waiting to ensnare their victims into their twisted web.
Another word for the wolf in sheep’s clothing is “the covert aggressor.” Dr. George Simon, the author of In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding And Dealing With Manipulative People, notes:
“If you’re dealing with a person who rarely gives you a straight answer to a straight question, is always making excuses for doing hurtful things, tries to make you feel guilty, or uses any of the other tactics to throw you on the defensive and get their way, you can assume you’re dealing with a person who — no matter what else he may be — is covertly aggressive.”
There is no limit to where these covert manipulators and aggressors can be found. They may be drawn to careers that distinguish them as givers rather than takers, but ultimately, their own self-interest takes precedent over the welfare of any of the people they purport to help.
They could be the head therapist of a counseling center; they may be the pastors at your church, the leaders of altruistic companies, passionate advocates of the local charity. They could be the seemingly benevolent social worker, the compassionate teacher, the seemingly selfless counselor.
According to Dr. Martha Stout, author of The Sociopath Next Door, covert manipulators rely on our empathic nature to get us to fall for them. They prey on our sympathy and our compassion, our willingness to give toxic people the benefit of the doubt. That is why wolves in sheep’s clothing get away with their behavior, time and time again.
Yet there is one thing that can distinguish them early on.
Aside from their use of pity to make you feel sorry for them and their inability to correct their toxic behavior or own up to it, there is one thing I’ve noticed that consistently exposes wolves in sheep’s clothing and differentiates them from those who are genuine. This can help distinguish them even in the early onset of any sort of relationship or interaction with them.
Initially when a wolf in sheep’s clothing tries to “groom” you into making you their victim, they may act humble, generous, soft-spoken. They are heavy-handed with their compliments, their praise and their laser-focused attention (also known as love-bombing). They are seemingly empathic. Yet their true self is always eventually revealed once you get closer to them and actually realize they lack the emotional equipment to follow through with their promises or perceived character.
If you observe a manipulator closely, they always display micro-signals of contempt when they are speaking. No matter how hard they try to disguise these beneath their façade, their disgust for the human race and the silly “morals” of lesser mortals seeps through every pore of their skin, every shift in their tone, every twitch in their gestures. It seeps through their proposed principles and exposes their real feelings. It finds its way into their rhetoric and the ways in which they talk about the world, the way they speak about others, and eventually, the ways in which they’ll come to speak about you.
Whenever you’re in the presence of a ravenous wolf, you will at some point notice a look of disdain, or a haughty tone of voice when they talk about people they consider “beneath” them. It’s the air of perceived superiority that distinguishes them – and they can’t keep the mask on for long, either.
They may suddenly speak rudely about a friend who they once praised (who you later find out they are envious of); they may abruptly devolve into a scathing manifesto about the waiter who ‘failed’ to give them the right order; they may suddenly start to attack an ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend who left them with a shocking hostility that seems altogether out of place with their sweet nature.
You may witness them giving the cold shoulder or cruel, undeserving reprimands to the people who have been nothing but kind and loyal to them. And undoubtedly, you will be placed next in their queue of unsuspecting victims.
When the person who once soothed you with sweet nothings, grand gestures and loving support morphs into a person who is speaking with excessive hatred or disdain for people they don’t know, or people who they do know all too well, watch out. You’re probably in the presence of someone who will one day look down upon you, too.
Contempt is also prominent throughout the abuse cycle with a covert wolf. In the devaluation phase of any relationship with a narcissist, this type of perpetrator who once made you feel like you were the only one in the room – suddenly swoops you off the pedestal and makes you beg for their approval.
They do this by dishing out intense contempt and dislike targeted towards you periodically throughout the relationship.
Where once they couldn’t get enough of your personality, your talents, your attention, now they act as if everything you do makes you beneath them. They once celebrated your achievements; now they act as if you are a burden.
They pin the blame on you for things that were their fault. When you speak out or protest their unfair behavior, they make you out to be the “troublemaker” when you are actually just the truth-teller. They blindside you by making you the scapegoat, the black sheep they must persecute and devalue so no one realizes it is they who are the wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Wolves are out for blood, for live prey, and malignant narcissists are no different. They will treat you appallingly once they’ve gotten you hooked on their praise and presence.
They will treat you are like you are nothing to them, even though they initially pretended you were everything.
To wean yourself off from any sense of self-blame you may be feeling, remember that the way a predatory individual idealized you and any other victim is temporary – it is used as bait.
Once wolves have trapped their prey, they have no mercy in devouring you. This is just their nature and it has nothing to do with what you might have done or who you are. It becomes clear that you were not the woman or man of their dreams as they claimed you were: you were just used as sustenance.
To detach from a wolf? You must develop a sense of “contempt” or disgust for their wrongdoings and the holes in their dubious character. Replace your once idealized fantasy of who they were with the truth, and you will find yourself less likely to fall prey to their schemes.
Once a wolf, always a wolf – but you don’t have to remain their sheep.