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, (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.