What happens when you do fall into the orbit of a Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing (WSC)? Well, keep in mind, there are many trajectories. No “one size fits all”. But let me try and describe some common patterns. We touched on some of this in Part 1, but it’s worth expanding on the details, and really seeing how they might line up with your own personal experiences. I’ll think you’ll recognize at least some of these patterns….
The fantasy part:
At first, this new person is FANTASTIC!!!!! Exciting, charming, attentive, and like I said in the previous essay (Part 1), fits right into your fantasies of the Perfect Person. Which isn’t too surprising, because they probably believe they are the perfect person too. At least, they believe that on the surface. AND they have an automatic, highly refined skillset for zeroing in on exactly what YOU are looking for, and then morphing themselves into appearing that way.
One of the things that many, many, many people yearn for, is to be connected to emotionally stable, sincere other people — people who you can “be Real” with, who don’t flinch from difficult topics, who are good listeners, people who are easy to open up to. Who doesn’t want to feel like they’ve met some special person who REALLY understands and accepts them?
So, having conversations with WSCs is usually FANTASTIC! They are focused on you, intense, GREAT listeners, nonverbally skilled — the whole nine yards. This feels great.
But the reason they are this way is because they thrive on manipulation. While you’re opening up to them and telling them your secrets, they are cataloguing your past, remembering your examples, keeping track of your triggers, and especially, writing down in their inner book of “How to Fuck with You”, every mistake and vulnerability and bad relationship you tell them about. You don’t realize this at first, because they are expressing sympathy — “oh that must have been so hard”, “you were so brave to get through that”, “you are a real survivor, you know”, “I can’t believe that person was so awful to you, omg!!” Etc. So while you feel “supported”, the truth is, they are stockpiling ammunition for the siege-war on your sanity that is to come.
The other effect that all this fake “trust building” does, is to elevate your perceptions of them even higher, to establish that THEY are your true ally, and to position themselves as “your person”, the one you’ll open up to, the one who “really gets you”, and the one who you’ll trust in your moments of weakness.
The result of this is not only increased emotional dependence on them, but DECREASED emotional dependence on your other sources of support — your friends and your family. Because let’s face it, your friendships and family relationships, even when they’re good, are rarely “perfect”. They rarely fill all your waking hours. And they don’t generally also involve sex, fantasies, sharing-dreams-of-your-future-together, etc.
(Obviously, if the WSC is a spiritual leader, and not someone you’re in a relationship with, some of these details will be different. But the pattern’s the same. And in truth, a lot of Spiritual Predators also have poor boundaries and will sexually overstep them with their adoring acolytes. So, it’s not all that different…)
The barbed hooked
At some point in this process, THEY will also likely open up to you. And don’t me wrong, it’s possible that what they tell you is all true. It’s also possible that their story is highly embellished or a flat-out lie. But in any case, the pattern is the same. They will tell you about the hardships they’ve been through. And oooooooooh baby, have they ever been through hardships!! They’ve been abused. They experienced violence. Their last partner totally screwed them over. They suffered as children. They’ve had terrible medical crises. “Just like you,” they’ve been through a lot. It’s AMAZING they turned out to be so strong.
There are two basic varieties to this person, which diverge at this point:
1) The Spiritual Superhero: In the most extreme cases, they even seem like they have magic powers. They’ve cured their own illnesses. They’ve stood up to their own abusers and rapists. They’ve gone into hardcore meditation or yoga or “healing practices”, and they’ve REALLY connected with their ground, opened their chakras, had Kundalini experiences, read the works of the Great Masters of Living, and in countless ways, they have really worked on themselves. (NOTE: If I were a betting man, I’d be laying some sweet coin down on the possibility that this person is super-into the Law of Attraction…)
(Again, this all might be true, or at least partly true! They probably HAVE worked on themselves and had some intense experiences. This just feeds their delusions of grandeur even more though….)
2) The Sufferer: Not all WSC position themselves as superheroes. Some of them are chronic victims. They’re “working on themselves,” but it’s sooooo difficult when the world keeps screwing them over. But, they are the plucky survivors, the people who just keep trying. They’re good people. They just want a simple life. They have common sense, and are doing their best. They “don’t believe they’re better than anyone else”, but man, life HAS been hard, and they want you to know that they REALLY UNDERSTAND where you’re coming from, what you’ve been through. They’ll be your comrade-in-arms, and you can walk forward with them, safely, into the future, supporting each other.
So this is the Hook. Like with fishing, once you take this bait and are exposed to their story of suffering, you’re hooked, and they can start reeling you in. And just like with fishing, the SHITTIEST PART of this whole thing, is that you almost HAVE TO take the bait. Because their story of suffering, and even of overcoming, is TRUE for most people!! It’s true for the TRULY HEALTHY people out there as well!
You can’t just take someone’s story of suffering-and-growth and say — “RED FLAG!!” — and run for the hills. Because then you’re a dick. Most people who have been through a lot really are good, kind, wonderful, courageous, beautiful people. So you simply can’t avoid the bait, or you’re gonna be turning your back on practically everybody.
So, what do you do??
Well, you look for the barb on the hook. There’s a big difference between a genuinely kind, Healthy person and a toxic, WSC person. The Healthy person isn’t telling you their story in order to manipulate you. They’re telling you their story in order to connect with you. They don’t NEED to control you or subjugate you in order to make themselves feel better. So, watch for how they respond to your self-care, your strengths, your boundaries, your successes, your friends, your interests. When YOU assert yourself, are they cool with it? Or, do they make you feel bad in some way? This is like when the fish starts fighting; THAT is when they feel the barb in the hook.
For example, when you need to “pull back” for whatever reason, and you express that to them, the Healthy person is, more or less, going to be okay with that. Let’s say you have a busy few weeks coming up and you can’t spend much time together. No problem. Sure, they might be a little “oh that’s too bad” or whatever, but otherwise, that’s okay, you can go be busy for a while, they’ll be here when you come back. Even if there’s no overt reason why you need to pull back, you just “need some space” or whatever, the healthy person will be cool with that. “No problem, take whatever time you need. If you want to reach out, I’m here.”
The WSC on the other hand, will be uncomfortable with you pulling back. They’ll get “all concerned” about it. They’ll try to get you to open up more and more “so they can help you.” They’ll plant seeds of doubt and make you wonder if you’re being avoidant. They’ll tell you they feel a bit rejected. They might even passively-aggressively say something like “well, there you go again, just like with your mother…” or in some other way take your boundary-setting act and turn it against you, pathologize you, suggest that what you’re doing is unhealthy. They might be “disappointed” in you.
This is part of what’s called “Gas Lighting” and it’s a key characteristic of toxic relationships. Gas-lighting involves the person whittling away at your strengths, your healthy actions, your self-respect, your confidence, your joy, your interests, your wisdom, and basically, everything that is good about you. Gas-lighting is about planting seeds of doubt, questioning you so you’re never sure about your own perceptions anymore, criticizing your actions, ESPECIALLY when those actions are to become more self-reliant.
A healthy person WANTS you to stand on your own two feet, WANTS to celebrate your successes, WANTS your light to shine as brightly and beautifully as it can and they’ll be there cheering you on, proud of you and smiling at your success. The gas-lighter pretends to want that, until it starts to happen, and then they do everything they can to extinguish your light, undermine your self-reliance, and diminish your success. And all the while, they’ll try to make you feel like they are actually your biggest supporter, and the reason you’re failing or doubtful or insecure or whatever, is because man, you really do have problems. You’ve got a long way to go in YOUR personal growth. It sure is good they’ve got your back, eh?
I believe the technical term for this is being “mind fucked”. (Insert scientific citation here…)
You also feel the barbed hook as soon as you turn towards other people, like your other close friends or family, or a mentor or other person you rely on for guidance. The Healthy person will be TOTALLY FINE with that. They’ll actually WANT you to have other friends, to be close with your family, to expose yourself to other sources of wisdom and support etc., because THAT’S HEALTHY FOR YOU. But the WSC will be uncomfortable with that. They’ll ask all sorts of questions about how it went, or what they said, etc., under the guise of “being interested” but in reality because they want to know what sorts of things you said about them. In the right moments, they’ll do what they can to criticize those people, tell you they don’t have your best interests at heart. They’ll try and make you believe that your friends actually don’t like you, or gossip about you, or are using you.
Or they’ll play the sympathy card, and tell you that your friends are against them (against the WSC, that is). Which might actually be true. Your friends might see them for what they really are, and might genuinely be uncomfortable with the WSC. And the WSC knows that, and wants to isolate you from them. They want you in a nice, little tower somewhere, so to speak, supposedly “protecting” you when what they are actually doing is cutting you off from the people who will help you.
WSCs, abusers, cult leaders, tyrannical leaders, toxic ‘friends’ — they want you all to themselves. They want to control your reality as much as they can. And because they know that other people might see through their bullshit and warn you, they do everything they can to convince you that THOSE PEOPLE are the untrustworthy ones. Only you and the WSC, in your nice little soul-mate bubble of trust, are the Good Ones.
If that strategy doesn’t work, and you still insist on going to see your friends, or take on that new project at work, or spend more time with your family, then the WSC’s next line of defense is to NEED you. They’ll suddenly have some crisis that simply overwhelms all other considerations. ALL HANDS ON DECK! IT’S AN EMERGENCY!!!! They’ll get terrible headaches, or sudden arthritis, or they’ll have some huuuuuuuuge crisis at work, or even, as a result of the “deep work they’ve been doing in healing,” they’ll find themselves “overwhelmed by all these terrible memories” that are being dredged up, and “just for a while” they’ll need your support.
(If they’re not the needy type, then their only other real fall-back is guilt and straight-up anger. They might have terrible tempers. And then, of course, some WSCs do “all of the above” — being needy, guilting, anger. One way or the other, they’re gonna fill up your consciousness with THEM, not with you.
So you, being a decent person, will say, okay, I’ll be here for you. And you’ll shelve your friends, family, plans, etc. You’ll make excuses. You’ll ask people to be understanding, because you really have to be there for WSC-person. You’ll explain that they’re going through a really tough time, and “now just isn’t the time; next time, ok?” And your friends and family will smile and nod and express concern and send you positive vibes and thoughts and prayers. And you will stay in your prison.
After that happens enough times, your friends and family will get frustrated and will confront you. OR they’ll start to think that YOU are the one who’s lying, and then avoid you. In either case, the WSC wins. If your friends confront you, the WSC will say “See? They really don’t have your back. I told you they were shitty.” If they turn away after your umpteenth time of bailing on them, the WSC will say “See? They really don’t have your back. I told you they were shitty.”
Gas-Lighting when you Challenge the Gas-Lighting
It’s so difficult to challenge Gas Lighting behaviour, because even your challenge can get co-opted into the gas-lighting. For example, you bring up that you feel they are being unkind to you, or are being too jealous with your friends. And they respond by telling you that of course you feel that way, you’re ALWAYS seeing other people as being against you. Remember when you told them about your roommate in first year and how they were a dick? And your boyfriend in high school? And your sister? And your mom when you were a teenager? Yeah, in relationship after relationship, it’s always YOU who is the one feeling hurt and apparently being victimized, blahblahblah. So now in THIS relationship, you’re doing the same thing! You’re turning ME into some abuser-person who doesn’t care about your feelings! I mean, I can’t believe you would do that! Especially after, Jesus Christ, after all the times I’e been there for you, listened, been so understanding about all those things you told me, and now….now you’re turning this on me? Seriously.? I’m hurt. I don’t even what to say right now. I need some time to think about this.
— and they storm out, “setting a healthy boundary” for themselves, and leaving you to stew in your guilt for being such a fucked up person that YOU mess up all your relationships.
And you sit there, alone, having just been yelled at, feeling all those terrible feelings, and you wonder, is it really you? I mean, maybe you didn’t deserve everything they said….but…I mean, yeah, it was kind of true, wasn’t it? You really are kind of ungrateful. …..
THIS is gaslighting. And now you are on fire, and burning, and being scarred. And it sucks.
Hook, line, and sinker Now, you just get reeled in. And gutted. They own you. If you’re “lucky”, you’ll become the trophy-fish they put on a board and display to the world as a sign of how great they are. If you are “unlucky”, you’ll become their emotional slave, and they will use you, and use you, and use you to prop up their inflated-but-needy ego until you are sucked dry of every ounce of life and spark of joy you have.
And then, it’s hard to say what will happen. The worst-case scenarios are terrible. You’re signed up for a lifetime, possibly, of emotional torment, control, conflict. It will exhaust you, and if it escalates unchecked, or frankly, if you don’t leave, then you’ll start to fall apart. Your work will suffer. Your health with suffer. All those dreams you once had will fade to nothing. You’ll lose your confidence, the bounce in your step, your interest in the things you used to care about. You’ll become afraid to make a mistake. You’ll always apologize. You’ll be depressed. You might even get driven to suicide.
And unless THEY actually plug into healing at some point, they’ll never change, and even if they do “plug in”, there are no guarantees here. The clinical literature shows that people with strong personality-level disorders, have poor treatment outcomes overall.
The tragic irony of it all is that YOU, your loyalty, your love, your presence in their lives, might be the very thing that actually prevents them from getting help. Because as long as they can live in their controlling bubble, where YOU are the fucked one, then THEY never have to fully face themselves. Your suffering becomes their validation. And their need for validation — is endless.
The other worst-case scenario, is that when you are fully sucked dry, broken, and have fallen apart, when your relationship has devolved to constant fighting, when you see YOURSELF turning into a monster, then they might just leave you. There’s more fish in the sea, right?
One thing for sure, you will be shedding the layers of ‘toxification’ for a long time. When a person goes through very difficult relationship experiences, these can continue for years, decades even, so it’s no surprise that when it ends, the effects will last, and linger, for a long time as well.
You will probably fall, for a while. You’ll go through some dark times, feel so disgusting and hopeless that you just want to die. You might even try. If you make the mistake of not-dealing-with-grief very well, then you’ll likely bounce back after the acute crisis has passed, but then hurtle yourself into the next intense relationship or work project or group or whatever, and before you know it, the same processes of insecurity and everything you did wrong before, come back to haunt you, and this next phase blows up eventually and the cycle continues…
If you DO deal with grief better, and you take the time and heal from this, and change your own patterns, and get help and work on yourself, sincerely, then yes, even though you fall for a while, you’ll get back up, and you WILL be an even stronger person for it. You can grow from anything, if you confront the reality of what you’ve gone through, and then really work at whatever there is for you to work at.
So remember this, if you end up laying on the floor sometime, staring at nothing, thinking of dying. This “worst case scenario” is actually a blessing. It’s a terrible blessing, but it’s a blessing. Even if your health is gone, your friends are gone, your money is gone, your job is gone, your self-respect is gone — you can start again. You can be free. You can get help. You can reach out from the bottom, and accept the help that is available, whatever form it takes. Whether it’s that lifelong friend who is still loyal to you, or your siblings who are still there for you even though “it’s been a long time”, whether it’s the abused women’s or men’s shelter, or whether it’s just walking into Emergency at the hospital and saying “I’m fucked, I need help”, there ARE resources out there to help you.
It will seem like an impossible climb back to “normal life”. But you CAN do it. And people WILL help you. And the upside of this kind of experience is, by hitting bottom, you might actually be ready for transformative change. You might finally be ready to really open up to that therapist. To really “do the work.” And when you start, things WILL change.
Lessons to be Learned
For now, the big “take home messages” are, I think, the following:
- If the person seems perfect, check your own fantasies.
- Healthy people want YOU to be a healthy, successful person and are truly comfortable and happy when YOU shine.
- Always, always, always stay connected to your friends, family, or whoever is your “support system”.
- Taking time for yourself is healthy, normal, and part of your own well-being.
- If you find it difficult to get your emotional needs supported, or if you “feel afraid of how they’ll react” if you bring up certain things that are important to you, then chances are, this is not a healthy relationship.
I think the biggest lesson I have taken from, let’s say, “the relationship literature,” is that it’s a good thing to protect yourself, to be choosy, to stand up for yourself, set boundaries, and say “no.” There is no shame in working on yourself, getting stronger, being healthier. And ultimately, if there’s any semi-reliable path to finding a healthier relationship, it has to be through you first working on becoming a healthier person.