The Cuckoo Behavior of the Narcissist

Reed warbler raising the young of a common cuckoo. Per Harald Olsen

“Reed warbler raising the young of a common cuckoo.”
Photo Credit: Harald Olsen ¹

The analogy I use with clients when describing the effects of being in relationship with a narcissist are the fascinating, yet destructive breeding habits of the European common cuckoo. This bird is a brood parasite, which means it lays its eggs in the nests of other birds.

“Cuckoos have various strategies for getting their egg into a host nest. Female cuckoos have secretive and fast laying behaviors, but in some cases, males have been shown to lure host adults away from their nests so that the female can lay her egg in the nest. At the appropriate moment, the female cuckoo flies down to the host’s nest, pushes one egg out of the nest, lays an egg and flies off. The whole process takes about 10 seconds.

Female parasitic cuckoos sometimes specialize and lay eggs that closely resemble the eggs of their chosen host. It has also been shown in a study of the European cuckoos that females will lay their egg in the nest of a host that has eggs that look similar to its own. Some adult parasitic cuckoos completely destroy the host’s clutch if they reject the cuckoo egg. In this case, raising the cuckoo chick is less of a cost than the alternative—total clutch destruction.

One hypothesis for the inheritance of egg appearance mimicry is that this trait is inherited from the female only, suggesting that it is carried on the sex-determining W chromosome.

The cuckoo egg hatches earlier than the host’s, and the cuckoo chick grows faster; in most cases the chick evicts the eggs or young of the host species. The chick has no time to learn this behavior, so it must be an instinct passed on genetically. The chick encourages the host to keep pace with its high growth rate with its rapid begging call and the chick’s open mouth which serves as a sign stimulus.”²

As you can see from the above photo, the cuckoo chick egg hatches first and grows extremely large very quickly, even bigger than the reed warbler parents! The baby cuckoo chick will suffocate and eventually kill the eggs in the nest. The reed warbler parents are deceived into believing the cuckoo chick is their own and therefore they exhaust themselves taking care of it.

The cuckoo chick’s insatiable appetite takes all the attention, time, and energy of the reed warbler parents who must feed it constantly. Sadly, the reed warbler’s eggs never hatch and come to life.

 

The Cuckoo in Your Nest

Having a family member who has narcissistic tendencies creates a similar dynamic in your life to that of the cuckoo bird’s behavior. It is a subtle, deceptive process. The narcissist will leave you emotionally exhausted as they too have an insatiable appetite for admiration and attention and are never fully satisfied. They convince you into believing they are worthy of your time and attention. They need you.

It might feel good at first to feel important and special; however, after time you start to feel resentful because ultimately it is always about them. The guilt becomes intense if you try to set boundaries and make room for yourself in the relationship to be seen and heard. However, the relationship is not mutual; it is lopsided. You are the one doing all the work.

And eventually, like the reed warbler’s eggs, your own purpose never manifests. It gets smothered by the cuckoo chick in your life. All of your time was wasted on something that it was never meant to be given to in the first place.

 

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Here are some insights into Narcissistic Personality Disorder according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) based on diagnostic criteria and features (in no particular order):

 

  • Has a grandiose sense of self-importance and expects to be recognized as superior
  • Has a sense of entitlement (i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations)
  • Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
  • Requires excessive admiration
  • Takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
  • Expects to be catered to and are puzzled or furious when this does not happen
  • Expects to be given whatever they want or feel they need, no matter what it might mean to others
  • Are very sensitive to “injury” from criticism or defeat
  • Are often impatient with others who talk about their own problems and concerns
  • Are oblivious to the hurt their remarks may inflict
  • Those who relate to these individuals typically find an emotional coldness and lack of reciprocal interest
  • Tend to form friendships or romantic relationships only if the other person seems likely to advance their purpose or otherwise enhance their self-esteem
  • Lacks empathy (i.e., is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others)
  • Interpersonal relations are typically impaired due to problems derived from entitlement, the need for admiration, and the relative disregard for the sensitivities of others³

The purpose here is not to officially diagnose but to open your eyes and bring you insight into the destructive patterns of narcissists. There is a spectrum and not all symptoms may apply. This person could be a friend, spouse, sibling, parent, colleague, boss, significant other, or extended family member who perhaps does not fit the diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder but you can still relate to some of the characteristics.

Based on my experience with clients, I often know they are dealing with a narcissist when they share the following statements in our sessions:

“I’ve told my mother repeatedly how she hurt me and she never acknowledges my pain. I wait. Then after time passes, it’s as if the conversation never happened. She leaves me messages about how much she misses me. Yet, it still feels like it’s about her even though she misses me! I end up feeling guilty.”

“I share how I am hurt by something she said or did, but I walk away from the conversation feeling CRAZY! I end up questioning myself and doubting my own feelings after a conversation with her.”

“He just doesn’t get it. I never feel understood and fully known by him.”

“Maybe it is my fault.”

“When sharing my feelings with my father, it never feels like a two-way dialogue. And when I do share, my thoughts are dismissed, criticized, or ignored.”

“She tells me what I should or shouldn’t feel. Are my feelings wrong?”

“My boyfriend seems to have a way of always switching the focus back to himself.”

“I guess I shouldn’t have said anything to begin with and from now on I’ll just keep my thoughts to myself. It hurts him too much.”

“My mother constantly berates me: ‘After all I’ve done for you, you still don’t appreciate me.’ I was simply trying to say that my feelings were hurt.”

“They would be lost or too hurt without me in their life.”

“I shouldn’t feel this angry at them.”

“I’m worn out. I am mentally and emotionally exhausted!”

“What I do for them is never good enough.”

The sad truth in the majority of these relationships is that the narcissist does not know they are causing such pain and confusion. Narcissistic clients are unaware of how their actions affect others and they are the most difficult clinical population to treat. A narcissist does not know they are a narcissist. They create an alternate persona based upon early wounds. The most dangerous aspect of their personality is their ability to believe their own lies.

Narcissists can be extremely charismatic, fun, and lovely people. They often have a very high emotional intelligence and can even offer great advice and take your advice in certain areas of their life. The reason people feel so crazy when dealing with a narcissist in their life is because the narcissist does not manifest their narcissistic tendencies all the time. They can go for long periods of time without any of their behaviors manifesting. It is when you trigger them by pushing one of their hidden buttons that you are blindsided and shocked by their behavior and how they silently have been keeping a record of your wrongs.

 

Coping With a Narcissist

Rather than trying to convince the narcissist of their dysfunctional and hurtful behavior, it is best to begin by focusing on your own needs and pain in order to begin the process of healing. Besides, haven’t you exhausted yourself enough at this point by focusing on them?

Put the focus back on yourself: What do YOU need? How do YOU feel? And then validate your emotions and have compassion on yourself. Secondly, set boundaries and start saying “no.” Share your feelings and thoughts with them despite their reaction, realizing it is not about them anymore because they never “get it.” Your needs matter.

Furthermore, as you begin to set boundaries and have a voice, you may feel guilty and selfish initially. However, take that as a sign that you are on the right path. Part of the healing process is to overcome those lies you have been told repeatedly by the narcissist. The familiar pattern has been to lose yourself under their control, guilt, and manipulation because they are operating out of their own unresolved pain and dysfunction.

Due to their extreme woundedness, narcissists filter every interaction with you through a lens of rejection. They operate in a victim mentality, which is why they twist everything to be about them and their emotions rather than empathizing and honoring yours. Because of their perceived rejection issues, they develop a strong sense of entitlement, which means they feel they deserve to treat you a certain way. It is their right because you have wronged them, in their perspective.

It is important to note that you can forgive them, but forgiveness does not always equate to a relationship, especially when the other person does not show a repentant heart and is not unwilling to acknowledge or take responsibility for their actions.

Above all, you have to stay true to your needs and believe they are worthy of being met—no matter what reaction you receive from them.

A person who loves you unconditionally will give you the space, permission, and freedom to be yourself. They will understand your deepest hurts, validate you, show compassion, and take ownership of their role in the relationship. You will feel safe and known in their presence.

 

Self-Inflicted Cuckoos

The cuckoo in your nest does not have to be a person. It could be something in your own life that is exhausting you and preventing your true purpose from hatching and coming to life. Perhaps it is more of an internal battle with your own pride, control, and fear rather than an external issue in a relationship with another person.

It could also be an area of your life that begins as a passion and then becomes an obsession. For example, a project, a ministry, or a hobby can become a distraction and consume much of your thought life and emotional energy. These things usually appear good on the outside, but you eventually realize something is missing.

Addictive behaviors such as eating disorders, alcoholism, pornography, workaholism, and perfectionism are also self-inflicted cuckoos. Addictions take control of your life and dictate to you what you need and when you need them as they grow bigger and bigger (just like the cuckoo). You lose yourself and become a slave to external drives.

Remember, the process is subtle at first and you are deceived into thinking things are okay. Not until later do you become exhausted and your true purpose never manifests in its fullness or at all. Everything is based on a lie.

 

Help Is Near

If you find yourself in a difficult and exhausting relationship with a narcissist-type person and feel you have difficulty finding a voice, I would encourage you to seek help from a professional counselor to assist you on the road of freedom.

The good news is that there is hope. It is never too late to be proactive and take the necessary steps to restore balance, health, forgiveness, and peace of mind. And more importantly, take back what has been stolen from your nest that has never been allowed to hatch.

 

 

 

1 Cuckoo, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Cuckoo&oldid=692439720 (last visited Dec. 5, 2015).

2 Ibid.

3 American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Arlington, VA, American Psychiatric Association, 2013. 

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The Paradox of Grief

Lonely woman watching sunset alone in winter

“Deep calls to deep at the sound of Your waterfalls;
All Your breakers and Your waves have rolled over me”. (Psalm 42:7)

Growing up, my grandmother (Ga-Ga) lived directly across the street from my house.  She was my safe place throughout my childhood and early teenage years before she passed away when I was 16 years old. They say nobody is perfect, but she was.  I still have a hand written note she left on my dresser one morning that read, “You are the very best of everything”. When my home life became unsafe I would seek refuge at her house and stayed the night quite often. We had our familiar routine and I cherished every minute we spent together. After bath time I would change into one of her nightgowns instead of the pajamas I packed because they smelled like her. I would act silly and prance around the house; she never cared what mood I was in. I could always be myself. It was just me, no parents or siblings to interfere during our special times.

I would lie next to her each night after I had my sugar cookies and milk and she would run her fingers through my hair for hours until I fell asleep. For years she sat in the same spot on her sofa every afternoon watching TV while I was outside rollerblading, skateboarding, riding my bike, and playing with friends. It gave me such comfort and security knowing she was right across the street.

She was diagnosed with liver cancer and her health deteriorated rapidly. One particular afternoon as I was preparing to leave for cheerleading practice, I stopped by to see her and had a daunting feeling it would be the last time. As I looked at her in her hospice bed while standing in the doorway, I debated staying and not going to practice, to tell her I much I loved her and to sit beside her. I left instead. She died that evening, only 3 months after her diagnosis. I bottled up my pain while others were grieving around me. I was numb. I sat with my family at her funeral and wondered why I couldn’t even shed a tear.

Something died inside me.

Unbeknownst to myself, that day I left for cheerleading practice, I flipped the switch to “off”. The switch being my emotions:

Grief.

Pain.

Fear.

Anger.

It was easier to live in denial and bury my pain. Soon after, intense guilt crept in and for years I was haunted by the memory of my last goodbye to her. I replaced the sadness over Ga-Ga’s death with a deep wound and void that I spent all of my teenage years trying to fill which brought tremendous pain to myself and others.

I was not able to put a voice to my grief. Therefore, it did not go away.

A Divine Connection

“Sorrow may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.” (Psalm 30:5)

My night season lasted many, many years.

The Psalms reveal a powerful truth about joy and sadness; there is a connection.

“Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy.” (Psalm 126:5)

I never allowed myself to cry so I never reaped joy. I did not notice it right away, for almost a decade, but the sadness did not leave; it was buried and slowly eroded my joy over time. Essentially, I lost myself. Reason being, when a person shuts down painful emotions, the positive emotions such as joy are also shut down. I thwarted my own process of healing and I never knew God as comforter. I had mastered the art of cutting off my feelings from earlier wounds I experienced as a young child.

The Consequences of Unresolved Grief

Unresolved grief becomes the undercurrent of much pain in our lives and also our addictions. Grief is not an isolated emotion, it carries with it pain, guilt, fear, anger, and doubt. Suppressed pain does not disappear; it only grows deeper. Grief is pain and pain must be felt. I never felt the pain emotionally so it manifested physically and also created deep emotional wounds that made me vulnerable to experiencing more pain. Just because I did not feel the pain did not mean it was not present and very much alive inside me.

I have witnessed countless ways my patients avoid grief, but the emotional pain eventually manifests in their bodies as unexplained medical symptoms or chronic fatigue, migraines, muscle tension, and insomnia as well as anxiety and depression. Additionally, they live in fear of being hurt again which drives them to take back control and self-protect by closing their hearts altogether. This defense mechanism prevents them from experiencing truly rewarding and intimate relationships with others. It is also important to note that some people experience pain more deeply than others because the loss of a person or thing became their identity or reason for living. That is a sign that additional healing must take place.

Confusing Grief

Sometimes we are unexpectedly hit with grief upon making positive decisions such as ending an unhealthy relationship, leaving a job that no longer brought fulfillment, or moving to a new place we are excited about. Confusion sets in because we are sad about something seemingly progressive and optimistic. We might think to ourselves: Did I make a mistake? If this is something I wanted to do, why am I so sad? We might even begin to doubt ourselves and even God: Am I crazy? Did I not hear God correctly?

We grieve when we lose, even if the loss is a good thing.

“In the midst of victory, there is a loss” (Chuck Pierce)

There is a process connected with grief because losing someone or something is not an occasion or an event. And it does not just happen once. It whispers to us in unexpected ways and moments that take us off guard. Allow those waves of sorrow to wash over you and be certain that joy is near and will lift you back up again.

You will experience the victory of your new season once you process the loss of the previous season.

Grief and Abuse

“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit”. (Psalm 34:18)

Way before our present grief experience, we learn very early on as children to cut off our emotional pain and anger when abuse takes place. This is a survival and coping mechanism. When you are told that pain is your fault, it is not safe to feel it. That is what abuse does to a person; it causes shame. You learn how to analyze your abuser instead of feeling your pain in order to prevent the abuse from happening again, even though the abuser is unpredictable. This is why grieving our present losses is so important; it can connect us to past unresolved pain and shame.

In my case, nearly a decade after Ga-Ga’s passing; I found her purse unexpectedly in my mother’s closet. It had remained untouched since the last time she used it. The purse still smelled like her. I made the life changing decision to open it and pull out each and every item. I was surprised by the amount of tears that poured out with each memory. I allowed the waves of sorrow to wash over me. The toothpicks, her red lipstick, her juicy fruit gum, the lollipops from the bank, perfume, her prescription bottle, and her grocery lists.  It was as if someone flipped the switch to “on” after having been off for so long.  Much to my surprise, I felt relief. I experienced God’s presence comforting me like a warm blanket. I felt Ga-Ga’s smile. It wasn’t too late after all. In fact, I was right on time. The intense pain of years of unresolved grief flooded back to me and God used that moment to bring healing. The good news was although my joy was missing for years, I had a redemptive and powerful God who was able to restore back my joy, and now allow me to help others on their journey of grieving.

Grief is Part of Your Story

Throughout my clinical career, I have learned a powerful and validating truth about grief after meeting with countless patients who come to me with presenting symptoms of depression and anxiety, a feeling of being stuck, and finding no relief from medication. Because of my own early struggles with grieving, rather than narrowing in on my patient’s specific symptoms and looking for ways to resolve their depression, I now put my patient’s clinical symptoms to the side and ask them to share with me the story of their loss. The loss might be of a family member, relationship, job, a home, a dream of marriage or children or a career that never happened for them, or an ongoing relationship with a significant other who has left emotionally while still physically present.

Healing occurs when my patients feel they have permission to not expend any more emotional energy and thought life trying to figure out why they are still grieving or why they are not strong enough to move on. As I mentioned earlier in this post, choosing to grieve in the first place is the most powerful step. Grief is cyclical and the pain can manifest itself in different ways that can bring confusion if you do not realize there is no right or wrong way to grieve. Grief is about giving yourself permission to experience the loss in the moment you feel it and not to rationalize it away, try to be strong, or beat yourself up: “I should be over this by now” or “What’s wrong with me?”  It has taken me quite some time to realize, softly and simply, those moments are not a time for self-diagnosis; there is nothing wrong with them. They can surrender their sadness and feel truly known in that moment.

The loss of my grandmother is part of my story, to preserve and to embrace, not a shameful event to hide in the past. It is part of who I am and it always will be.

I can see her now in my mind’s eye with her glasses hanging around her neck, her bright red lipstick, and her beautiful smile. There was such warmth to her. Her presence brought peace and assurance that everything was okay.  As I share this story now, my heart still aches to recall it. I never knew anyone to die and it never occurred to me that someday she would no longer be a vital part of my everyday life.

The greatest gift a person can give you is to know without uncertainty that you are loved, special, and taken care of no matter what. And to have a place that you can call home where you are safe and a relationship where you can be yourself without fear of judgement. Ga-Ga modeled for me the heart of Jesus and what a relationship with Him can be like. I do not have my Ga-Ga anymore, but I do have and will always have her memory and an experience of Jesus as my shelter, strong tower, and very present help in time of need (Psalm 46:1).

The Key to Joy

The paradox of grief is that it brings joy. It restores our hearts and brings healing to our souls. Grieving is necessary; it is good and cleansing. The lie we believe is that grief will leave us in despair so we fear it rather than embrace it. Grief can feel unwelcomed, unexpected, and inconvenient. However, I invite you to allow the waves of sadness to roll over you as they come and make the choice to grieve.

I challenge you to give yourself permission to release your emotions of unresolved grief and have the courage to face it, because I know from experience that joy will be always be waiting for you on the other side. Be at peace trusting that you do not have to figure all this out on your own; you can let it be and choose to trust God and others with your heart.

These realities can either frighten you or free you. I invite you to surrender your feelings of fear, dread, and doubt and replace them with hope and a promise that joy will come.

Your life is a masterpiece.

Grief is just a piece.

Put in place precisely by God.

 

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