The Cuckoo Syndrome, Part I: Exposing Unhealthy Relationships and Self-Sabotaging Behavior
Updated: May 31
Nature’s Infamous Imposter and Master Manipulator
The analogy I use with clients when they are feeling stuck and are suffering in silence, unable to break manifests free are the riveting, yet destructive breeding habits of the cuckoo bird.
During a particularly difficult time in my life, I was navigating through a complex relationship with a close family member that left a peculiar wound in my heart. In my quiet time one morning, I was simultaneously researching cuckoo birds after realizing that they aren’t just the wooden figurine that pops out of a clock –they are predatory birds.
Much to my surprise, I experienced the breakthrough I was looking for in my relationship with this person, my aha moment.
I realized I was in a cuckoo- type relationship.
I laminated the photo of the cuckoo bird and brought it into my counseling sessions to explain the uncanny similarities between cuckoo bird behavior and human behavior. My clients encouraged me to write about this revelation so they could share the newfound freedom they were receiving with others.
In a nutshell, here is a description of the cruel and clever life of cuckoo birds:
The cuckoo bird is a brood parasite which means it lays its eggs in the nests of other birds and causes harm to its host. Parasites “habitually take advantage of the generosity of others without making any useful return.”* In this case, a host is a fancy way of saying another bird. For the purpose of this post, the host is you.
A fascinating genetic fact about female parasitic cuckoos is their special and secretive ability to “lay eggs that closely resemble the eggs of their chosen host” to a shocking extent**. The cuckoo bird’s egg looks nearly identical to the host eggs – they mimic the eggs in shape and color so when the host returns to the nest, they do not notice the eggs aren’t their young – they have been tricked!
Similarly, human cuckoos mimic the behaviors and desires of other people to trick them into letting them into their life and forming a relationship with them. They adopt a devious disguise.
The cuckoo chick hatches first and in most cases it immediately and instinctively kills the other host eggs or young in the nest. Once hatched, “while still blind and featherless, will stab the host’s chicks to death with its hooked beak,”or the cuckoo chick will push the host eggs out the nest using its shoulders.***
This is just the beginning, it’s a long hard life for the host parents.
As you can see from the above photo, the cuckoo chick grows extremely large very quickly, even bigger than the reed warbler parents! The cuckoo chick’s insatiable appetite takes all the attention, time, and energy of the reed warbler parents who must feed it constantly. The host parents are deceived into believing the cuckoo chick is their own and therefore they exhaust themselves taking care of it.
Sadly, the reed warbler’s eggs never hatch and come to life.
Cuckoos are in essence nature’s brilliant masterful manipulators. Among all the species of birds, brood parasites – such as cuckoo birds- are cruel and clever. Their goal in life is to deceive other birds into slaving for them.
Are you thinking of a certain relationship and situation right now that creates a similar cycle of suffering in your life?
Like the cuckoo bird, human cuckoos are opportunistic and aim to take advantage of you and monopolize your time and energy by dumping their issues into your life. Some of you might remember the original blog I wrote in 2015, “The Narcissist and the Cuckoo Bird,” since then I have written a book, The Cuckoo Syndrome, which is a collective term that encompasses multiple problems and is not limited to narcissism.
For this reason, The Cuckoo Syndrome is a non-scientific and non-clinical term that allows complicated, psychological concepts such as personality disorders, codependency, trauma, attachment styles, emotional and spiritual abuse, and addictions to name a few—easy to understand and relate to. Most of us don’t know exactly what these terms are and how they show up practically in our everyday lives, and how to translate them into our lives.
What is The Cuckoo Syndrome?
The Cuckoo Syndrome represents the unhealthy relationships, toxic thinking, and self-sabotaging behavior that thwarts our purpose by creating unnecessary suffering through a subtle and deceptive process. At its core, The Cuckoo Syndrome is an imposter that seeks to mimic who you are and what you want. Ultimately, you find yourself lost, wandering through life with a haunting confusion, lingering emptiness, and persistent grief.
The Cuckoo in Your Nest
The Cuckoo Syndrome shows up in two ways, The Relationship Cuckoo and The Self-Inflicted Cuckoo.
Hosting The Relationship Cuckoo means you chronically neglect yourself due to consistently taking care of someone else with little or no reciprocation. The cuckoo relationship in your life can be an unhealthy relationship with a romantic partner, family member, friend, boss or colleague, counselor, or a pastor or ministry leader.
You could also be hosting The Self-Inflicted Cuckoo in your “nest,” your life which means you are engaging in some form of toxic thinking patterns and self-sabotaging behavior.
You can also be dealing with a combination of the two types, what I call The Combination Cuckoo which means most days you are trapped in a vortex of unhealthy relationships, toxic thinking, and self-sabotaging behavior occurring simultaneously. (Curious to see which type of cuckoo you are hosting, take The Cuckoo Syndrome Quiz ©)
After treating thousands of clients for over a decade, I have concluded: We ALL experience The Cuckoo Syndrome at some point.
A Counterfeit Purpose
In the posts following, we are going to dive deeper into how each of these cuckoo- types manifest in your life.
For now, here the most important thing to remember about The Cuckoo Syndrome: It thwarts your God-given purpose because the cuckoo becomes your purpose.
The Cuckoo Syndrome represents an imposter and a counterfeit purpose. Rather than allowing your “eggs,” your unique God-given purpose to hatch and come to life, your purpose is ruined by the cuckoo and you nurture and bring to life another person’s purpose at the cost of your own.
You end up with a nest full of imposter eggs that mimic who you are and what you want which never satisfies the longing of your soul and deepest heart’s desires. You have been slowly deceived into believing your life is meaningful and authentic. All your time, energy, and attention are consumed by something or someone that was not meant to be given to in the first place.
An Invisible Enemy, Until Now
Based upon my clinical experience, I’ve discovered that the apparent cause of our problems is rarely ever the real cause. Clients come to see me after having seen a plethora of counselors who have failed in helping them.
Perhaps a client has multiple affairs even though he loves his wife. Or, a woman explains she can’t stop her crippling perfectionism. Or, a man is successful in his career but is secretly miserable and hates his work. Another client fears people will abandon her if they get too close and fears I will also.
As their counselor, I help them understand that beyond their symptoms, what is holding them back and keeping them stuck is not what they think it is.
Their suffering is visible, but the source of their suffering is almost never apparent. Along the way, a cuckoo has invaded their lives and they are unknowingly its “host”- they cannot see the cuckoo even though it is right in front of them.
Being unable to point your finger on the source of the suffering you experience is one of the most painful experiences a person can encounter day after day. For this reason, The Cuckoo Syndrome represents a self-destructive pattern and compilation of symptoms that hides from awareness until you find a name. Regardless of if you have an unhealthy relationship cuckoo or a self-inflicted cuckoo, The Cuckoo Syndrome is an invisible enemy.
The good news is:
What we can name, we can heal. And now that it has a name, healing can begin.
Hope is Near
Suffering with The Cuckoo Syndrome can feel like there’s no hope. What I cherish most as a counselor is when a new client comes into my office and shares their story. As I listen, I begin to foresee their lost “eggs,” and the unique path we will embark upon together to rediscover their purpose, passions, and dreams so their eggs are no longer breaking under the toxic weight of the cuckoo.
I envision the healing and transformation they will encounter as they confront their fears and face the deepest truths of their life so they can experience freedom. I catch a peek of how they will gather the scattered pieces of their life and come home to themselves. The client is typically experiencing quite the opposite.
They are feeling empty, visionless, and purposeless. As they anxiously sit on the edge of my sofa, there is a hint of desperation in their voice, they are afraid of their pain and don’t know how to cope. They are immersed in hidden lies they are believing that have left them with a haunting confusion. They know that something is wrong, but they can’t quite put their finger on it. They are stuck.
For those experiencing The Cuckoo Syndrome, their silent suffering overwhelms and clouds their ability to see the truth of their situation clearly and creates doubt. They can’t see beyond the cuckoo and have lost their confidence as their sense of self is slowly diminished. They are consumed by the wants, needs, and desires of something or someone else.
Hope is not just a fantasy. The reality is that it is never too late to begin the healing process. The process is not easy, nor is it pain-free, but neither is living with a cuckoo. It will be hard, but it will be the right kind of hard. You will no longer be doing the work of the cuckoo at the cost of neglecting yourself.
There are steps available to guide you from turmoil and confusion to a place where you are not only free but happy.
In the upcoming posts, we will continue to explore The Cuckoo Syndrome in detail by providing you with the necessary information to discover what makes you susceptible and vulnerable to being the target of cuckoos.
You will learn how to navigate complicated relationships by learning practical tools integrating science, psychology, and scripture. You will begin the journey of reclaiming your God-given purpose and take back your eggs that have never been allowed to “hatch.”
*The American Heritage ® Dictionary of the English Language 5th Edition.
**Wikipedia, s.v. “Cuckoo,” accessed December 5, 2015,
***Greenspan, “The Brilliant Ways Parasitic Birds Terrorize Their Victims.”
This blog was originally titled, "The Narcissist and the Cuckoo Bird," and published in 2015 and updated December 2021.