One of the best instructors I had in grad school was the first person to say the phrase “when you see hoofprints look for horses, when you don’t find horses, look for zebras.” The importance of this did not strike me until I was deeper into practicing as a psychologist.

I have a lot of people come into my office at various stages of explaining what is happening with them. Some people will say “I don’t know” straight away, whereas others have created a complex narrative. But we can have a tendency in our search for explanations to latch onto things that we read online or heard about on a TV show that have very little probability of being accurate. That is looking for zebras before horses.

Sometimes the zebra explanations can be comforting because we can put a name to something, or they can be a way of going into denial about what else may be happening. A medical example would be having a cough, and being convinced you have lung cancer before you consider, or rule out, having a cold.

Horses are a lot less fun to consider because they are usually more common and have the tendency to make us face basic truths that may be impacting our lives. The best thing about horses is that they also lead us to what will actually help us.

A routine example in my practice is an adult coming in, convinced he has ADHD. He had no problems with attention as a child, and excelled throughout most of his life in a detail oriented field. The part that was missing was that he had not been sleeping well for a month, had stopped going to the gym, was drinking much more caffeine to compensate, and his 10yr relationship was on the verge of collapse. The hoofprint was the attention problem. The zebra is ADHD. The horse is stress and anxiety related to his relationship.

So next time you are looking for an explanation for what is happening, start simple and look for the horses first.

Will Meek is a licensed psychologist in Washington state and writes regularly on his blog at Vancouver WA Counseling Psychology.