Today I was listening to a podcast that briefly said our perception of the world depends on the idea of whether we were surrounded by “wolves” or “sheep” in childhood. This thought set my head spinning and ended in a complete “A-ha!” moment (enough so that I felt the need to document it and share it with the internet world). Wolves and sheep. Wolves being the people we feel victim to— people who wrong us or manipulate us, people who misunderstand us, people we sometimes fear and don’t trust, etc. Sheep are those we see as intrinsically good—no malice is meant by their actions and they behave in ways to reduce the harm they put into the world.
My “A-ha!” moment came as I was applying this idea to my own life. Now bear with me, I am using my history as an example because it is what I am most familiar with and I think a lot of people can relate (for most millennials like myself, this post would be followed by a “#vulnerability”). I had a lot growing up—my parents provided well, I had safety and security, I was physically taken care of in every way with a nice home, clothes, shoes, food, everything I ever physically needed. It wasn’t until I became a therapist and had therapy myself that I recognized I lacked emotional safety at various times throughout my childhood. This is a common theme I see in my clients—we are often told, implicitly or indirectly, that we cannot make mistakes or that we cannot have strong emotions or that we are not good enough or that we are not loveable. But I HAD parents to tell me they loved me and give me hugs, so what does it mean to not have emotional safety?
I think this is where my upbringing in a small town plays a huge role in feeling emotionally unsafe. I was living in a fish bowl and my small town was my audience—knowing who I was with, what I was doing, and engaging in that typical ole’ small town talk on the daily. I’ve seen this so many times with clients, even in big cities, where there is a subset of people (i.e. schools, church groups, mom clubs, etc.). I learned from a very young age that when I did something wrong I better own up to it by telling the world and then minimize it with a joke at my own expense before anyone, family or small town gossips, could do it first. In my mind, if I was mean to myself it would take the sting out of other people getting to the punchline later on. Every time this happened, every time a teacher or family member treated me with a lack of compassion, every time I lacked emotional support and understanding, it reinforced in my head that I was surrounded by wolves. My earliest memory of this was at 8 years old when a neighbor called my parents to tell them I was misbehaving at a basketball game before I even got home (when I asked how they knew, my dad responded “Well, it was on the radio.”—such a true statement for any small town!), and each occurrence throughout my adolescent years, I literally felt like I was surrounded by wolves who wanted to tear me apart.
So how did this affect me, you ask? It made me look at that world defensively and I would often act aggressively (verbally and physically at times) without understanding the impact I had on other people in return. I was emotionally hardened and I didn’t forgive easily. I became a wolf towards others as a defense. In my eyes, I needed to protect myself from all of those wolves because I was full of insecurities. I had nobody to validate my emotions or to sit down with me to really understand where they were coming from.
Now I have a different view. Being a wife, a mother, and a therapist changed all that for me—not immediately, but over time I found healing. I found that most other people around me are sheep. My husband was probably the first person to help me realize this (and he probably doesn’t even know it!). He helps me understand when I am looking at something irrationally and is someone who can see both sides of the story really well. He’s basically the human form of a calculator that really balances out my, sometimes, irrational mind. It sounds funny, but he is a sheep that can see the sheep in people—the goodness, the kind-heartedness, and the positive intentions of other people that says they are not here to hurt me. His perspective has really helped me open up to people I previously viewed as dangerous. For instance, a friendship I always kept at a distance because of my own insecurities, mostly jealousy and self-judgment, has recently grown stronger because of my insights that the other person is not judging me the way I am judging me. This person really is a sheep that I perceived as a wolf.
Being a mother and therapist have opened my eyes, too. I look at my daughter and I see the blank slate we are all given from birth—that every child is worthy of love and belonging and their own feelings (and trust me, my kiddo has A LOT of them, especially in grocery stores or restaurants or anywhere we have an audience really). Therefore, when speaking with my clients, it is important to help them recognize that inherently, they are also worthy of love and belonging and their own feelings. To give my daughter, my clients, and myself the platform, the basis for emotional safety is my goal. With emotional safety we can look at others from a place of empathy and understanding, just as we want for ourselves. It would allow us to look at others as sheep, not as wolves.
But what about the real wolves in our lives—the ones who continue doing us wrong? First, the idea of sheep versus wolves is meant to help us understand our own perceptions better and the impact of our upbringing on our views. Our insights help us to be better people and react in ways that are emotionally healthy for ourselves and those around us. Second, it helps us evaluate the amount of energy we put into upholding such relationships and what healthy boundaries look like in that situation. You have the right to look at that person with empathy to better understand how they got that way, but you also have the right to set up healthy boundaries with those wolves for your best interest. Some wolves may always be wolves, but you can be a sheep and surround yourself with other sheep.
I challenge you to look at your own life. Were you surrounded by wolves or sheep growing up? How does that affect you today? How can you alter your perception to see the sheep around you?
Side story: I want to make note of a memorable time I was treated with kindness, my recognition of someone acting as a “sheep” toward me. My senior year of high school I began to recognize I didn’t excel at most things—athletics, math, science, technology—pretty much any skill I could go to college for and earn a livable wage with. However, I had one semester of a psychology course that I was so interested in, my excitement was seeping out of my pores! Now, when I think of describing myself, intelligent is not typically the first adjective that comes to mind since I was never #1 in any class, but that is what was rewarded on Honors Night in my small town. The same three people earned rewards for every class that night. BUT that night I earned the medal of honor for my first psychology class and I attribute that to that high school teacher, Mr. Dunklau, who saw my excitement, gave me that award, and changed my life forever. That night I began considering a Psychology major for undergrad, I changed my major from “undecided,” and I set off my career as a therapist that has given me so much self-understanding and success in private practice. I will be forever grateful for that act of kindness. In my history of wolves, I encountered a sheep from time to time.
I've noticed a few common thoughts and perceptions among clients about what it means to see a therapist, many of whom are skeptical of seeking counseling or trusting another with their personal stories. It is not my goal to speak for all therapists, but speak a little truth to the myths I have encountered about therapists in my five years of practice.
1. A therapist’s life is always perfect.
address our own life events or problematic relationships. Nobody is perfect, everyone makes mistakes—therapists aren’t exempt and everyone could use an objective view sometimes.
2. Therapists always know what to say.
Sometimes it seems like there are a hundred times a day where I cannot find the words to say—after a client shares their traumatic history or a recent flashback, when I am questioning how much a client can handle emotionally, or heck, when I have to make stupid small talk about the Nebraska weather before hunkering down into the “real” talk. In those moments my most powerful tool is empathic listening. Hearing their full stories and validating that what they have experienced is real and their emotions are worthy.
Many of you who know me personally know that I am a talker. I always have been—I can go a million miles a minute since the age of 3. But that also leads me to put my foot in my mouth, sometimes multiple times a day! What can I say, it’s a gift I’ve been blessed with. Luckily, I have also been blessed with clients who are understanding and forgiving when I speak out of place at times. Many therapists can tap into their vulnerabilities, where if we own our flaws (mine being my impulsive mouth) and ask for forgiveness, our clients will usually give us a little grace so trust can be regained. It also shows our clients how to be vulnerable and repair their mishaps themselves.
3. Therapists always have the answers.
Easy answer: we don’t. We may know tools or techniques that have worked for other clients in similar situations, but we know each person’s experience is unique. What works for one person may not work for another, so my practice as a therapist is mostly “trial and error.” We try something and wait to see if it works or reduces my clients’ distress. If it doesn’t, we go back to the drawing board and try again for another solution.
Also, we all hate know-it-alls. Most therapists do their best to relate to their clients rather than talk down to them. Sure, we may know how to best help you, but sometimes if our clients work with us collaboratively to figure out their own solutions, they work better. They can own it and that can make all the difference in the outcome of therapy.
4. Therapists always have to be serious.
delving into deep emotions in session, but we all need to let off a little steam before heading back into the real world.
5. Therapists want your money.
insights, and having a person to help them solve the puzzle of life with. Most therapists I know have a deep, intrinsic desire to help others. Professionally, I would rather work for free with a thousand clients who want to be there and who are accepting of help than to work with someone who resented having to spend their time with me. Most therapists I know have pro-bono clients or have passed up a co-pay when a client is struggling financially because we want to help. Plain and simple. However, I’m sure you can appreciate that we all have bills and our time/expertise is worth something, preferably money over gum or homemade goods (both of which I have been offered and declined for payment). Just kidding, I definitely accepted the food along with payment, and to this day it is still the best peanut brittle I have ever eaten.
6. Therapists are judging you.
Our careers are built on compassion. We aim to understand your history and your trauma with an open mind and heart. We understand that you are not the only person involved in your trauma history and we feel for you. Can we get caught up in first impressions sometimes? Sure, we’re human. But we do our best to look past that because it is our job and our desire to help others on an emotional level. I have been able to relate to clients who are vastly different than me on almost every level—politically, spiritually, emotionally, lifestyle, etc.—and many times these clients have challenged me to grow emotionally and become more open myself.
7. Therapists can always help.
everything negative they thought they knew about themselves. Maybe. We can only work so hard for our clients and maintain our own sanity at the same time. We have to be met in the middle by our clients; there has to be a want, a desire to change in some capacity. There has to be a want, a desire to maintain this relationship and learn to trust in some capacity.
8. Therapists are therapists 24/7.
Every day when I leave my office, I imagine leaving my clients there too. I get in my car and take a deep breath before driving home because my husband needs a wife, my daughter needs a mom, and my friends need a friend in return. I take off my “therapist hat” and leave it in my office because my job can be emotionally exhausting at times and I need a break. My neighbors don’t see me as a therapist (I swear too much for that), my family doesn’t see me as a therapist (I talk too much for that), and my husband doesn’t see me as a therapist (I bet he’d rather find one who hasn’t birthed his children and doesn’t nag him about the trash, if he were to ever need one). Just like any other person needs a break from their job, therapists do to. That is probably why chefs often make themselves quick meals after a late shift, landscapers rarely put their lawn first, and elementary teachers like to unwind with an entire bottle of wine surrounded by adults on Friday nights (from what my teacher friends have told me!).
So, there you have it. A little insight into what being a therapist is actually like. I hope this is helpful for those of you considering counseling or are questioning the process. Drop me a line or a comment if I missed anything or if there is another myth to set straight! It’s late on a Wednesday and I’ve been distracted by this Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon episode so I am sure I missed something!