Narcissism ― the personality disorder that’s been a mainstay in pop psychology for decades now ― gets its name from Narcissus, a hunter from Greek mythology who was so handsome, he fell in love with his own image reflected in a pool of water.
But when we talk about the Narcissus myth and narcissism, there’s a character ― and an accompanying psychological term ― we often forget about: Echo and echoism.
In Ovid’s version of the myth of Echo and Narcissus, Echo is portrayed as a talkative nymph who’s cursed by the gods to repeat the last words of others and silenced otherwise. Echo eventually encounters Narcissus and immediately falls in love with him.
Echo’s love for Narcissus is ill-fated: Narcissus rejects Echo and falls in love with his own reflection. Bereft of her own voice, the nymph can only echo the hunter’s words, which included declarations of love — to himself. Narcissus eventually dies by the pool, with Echo standing by futilely. (In some retellings of the myth, Echo turns to stone and dies, too, her voice echoing her sentiments of love for Narcissus.)
Some psychologists have also used the myth to loosely explain another, lesser-known side of narcissism: echoism.
“Echoists’ biggest fear is that people will find them selfish or feel burdened by them.”
– Craig Malkin, Ph.D., lecturer at Harvard Medical School and author of “Rethinking Narcissism”
“An echoist is a person who does not appear to have much desire of their own — only mirroring and reflecting back what the other person, usually a more dominant person, says,” said Audrey Tang, a psychologist and author of “The Leader’s Guide to Resilience.”
Echoism often shows up in people who grew up with narcissistic parents. Like their namesake Echo, echoists subsume themselves in the narcissist in their life and generally struggle to find their own voice and recognize their own needs.
“In a nutshell, when you’re favored by the narcissistic parent, you learn to suppress your own desires, and only reflect back what they expect of you,” Tang told HuffPost.
This way of relating is also common among people who are in long-term romantic relationships with narcissists, Tang said: You grow so used to centering their needs, you forget yours.
Donna Christina Savery, a psychotherapist and author of “Echoism: The Silenced Response to Narcissism,” describes echoism as the “absence of being truly in one’s own life.”
“It’s a tendency toward dependency on narcissistic others ― a curse of not having an own voice and having to be animated and exist for another,” she told HuffPost. “It’s always related to dependency on narcissistic others.”
Unlike narcissistic personality disorder, echoism is not a clinical diagnosis. It’s more of a trait or survival strategy, said Craig Malkin, a lecturer at Harvard Medical School and author of “Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists.”
“Echoism, by definition, is the fear of seeming narcissistic in any way,” he told HuffPost. “Echoists live life by the rule ‘the less room I take up, the better.’ Their needs make them deeply uncomfortable, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that extreme echoists hate their own needs.”
You can have a healthy sense of narcissism, but echoists are devoid of it completely.
“Imagine a line from 0-10, with 10 being pathological narcissism and 5 being healthy narcissism; echoism is at or near 0,” Malkin said. “Echoists’ biggest fear is that people will find them selfish or feel burdened by them.”
What It’s Like To Live Life As An Echoist
Miriam, a 47-year-old writer, was an overly sensitive child, desperate for approval but desperately afraid of receiving special attention. Decades later, she attributes some of those fears to being raised by parents whose behavior bordered on narcissistic.
“I had trouble in school, as I have ADHD, which was not diagnosed at the time,” said Miriam, who asked to use only her first name in this story to protect her privacy. “They were overly harsh and critical of me growing up, while they were easy on my brother.”
“I couldn’t stand up for myself, and in seeking others’ approval, I never honored my needs as I did everything to accommodate others,” she told HuffPost.
Miriam hated conflict, shied away from the spotlight and was loath to say “no” to the requests of others ― all hallmarks of echoism. Married and raising a son with special needs as an adult, Miram eventually learned just how damaging continuously putting herself on the back burner could be.
“I did not know what boundaries were. I broke out of it when I was in the thick of caregiver burnout from special needs parenting,” Miriam said.
“I am still mourning that, as people-pleasing is a killer. I lost so much time from being an echoist.”
– Miriam, a 47-year-old writer who describes herself as an echoist
Eventually, Miram got outside help and found a therapeutic residence for her son, then 13, to stay at. Through YouTube, she found out about echoism.
“I did not break out of my echoism immediately after that, but over time I realized how much time and energy I lost from never living the life I wanted but doing things for everyone else,” she said.
“I am still mourning that, as people-pleasing is a killer. I lost so much time from being an echoist,” she said.
What leads to echoism?
Researchers have found that echoists tend to be more temperamentally sensitive and empathic ― traits that likely develop from a combination of genetics and environment, Malkin said.
Sensitive children often develop echoism because they’re raised by a narcissistic parent who demands excessive attention and takes up most of the room in the relationship.
“Echoists learn that to have a connection with their narcissistic parent, who bristles or collapses in tears at any suggestion they’ve made a mistake, they need to bury their own needs and feelings and never suggest they need more attention or care than they’re getting,” Malkin explained.
Other times, echoists develop the trait because they have an echoist parent who models it for them. “These echoistic parents send the message to their child that to want special attention or express disappointment is the worst thing someone can do,” he said.
Malkin said such parents will issue out guidance like, “Be sure not to get a big head” or “try not to upset your father or mother” ― messages that, for an emotionally sensitive child, “are a recipe for echoism,” he said.
In romantic relationships, echoism can be a defensive mechanism that partners employ to satisfy a narcissistic partner, according to Kerry McAvoy, a psychologist and the host of the podcast “Breaking Free from Narcissistic Abuse.”
“In a desire to be valued and seen, the echoist strives to live for the narcissist, by serving that person’s needs,” she told HuffPost. “Instead of focusing on the echoist’s own self, the other person in the relationship becomes the primary object.”
All that matters in the echoist’s mind is their partner’s wants, desires, thoughts and needs.
“This backfires, though, since narcissists see no one but themselves,” she explained. “The echoist’s effort to be recognized results in increasing invisibility, leaving them feeling emotionally deadened and desperate.”
What To Do If You Think You’re An Echoist
If you recognize some echoistic tendencies in yourself, experts say there are ways to remedy that.
Reject the idea that putting others’ needs first makes you a good person.
Echoism may be the opposite of narcissism, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing, Tang said.
“Echoists may think that doing what others want all the time and never asking for help is being ‘good,’ since it’s what may have earned them praise from the narcissistic parent, Tang said.
But when you sacrifice yourself to please others all of the time, you end up developing harsh resentments, anger and hatred within, said Miriam, the woman who identifies as an echoist.
“You may seem like a doormat people-pleaser on the outside, which you are as an echoist, but it is very different from how you feel within,” she said. “What you feel inside is quite insidious.”
Check your self-blame.
Echoists tend to bury their needs and feelings under self-criticism whenever they’re unhappy in relationships, Malkin said. Their inner monologue sounds like “you’re too needy, too sensitive, too demanding.”
“They’ve often been criticized or attacked with those very words for suggesting they’re unhappy or need more, and now they reflexively heap that same criticism on themselves,” he explained. “A good first step to change your ways is to wonder: Am I attacking myself to avoid expressing disappointment?”
Work on developing your sense of self.
Remind yourself that you are your own person, just as important as others, McAvoy said. This may feel hard to believe, but keep repeating it until it sticks.
“Set time aside for yourself and try one or two new things to discover your preferences and interests,” the psychologist said. “At first, do this for only small blocks of time, and take it slow. Initially, this will feel scary and very strange.”
Homing in on what you want and need out of life will take patience, curiosity and a non-judgmental attitude, but it’s entirely worth it, she said.
Get outside help from a mental health practitioner.
It is easy to advise an echoist to leave a narcissistic partner or cut off a narcissistic parent entirely, but Savery said this can create an intense feeling of absence that’s likely to be filled by another. Usually, though, the unhealthy, well-worn pattern is repeated in these new relationships.
Therapy can help fill this void, enabling a model of healthier relating, Savery said.
“Asking for this is very difficult for echoists, as being the subject of therapy is counter to the usual way of being,” she said. “The time and expense will be difficult to justify as echoists usually have very low self-worth.”
Push yourself out of your comfort zone and connect with a mental health expert ― ideally, one who understands echoism and not just narcissism.
“You can ask if the therapist has done any specific training or study before engaging in the treatment,” Savery said.
Get in touch with healthy anger.
When we’re not getting what we want in a relationship or being treated in nonreciprocal, unfair ways, the natural, wired-in response is anger. But echoists have learned it’s dangerous to feel, let alone show anger, Malkin said.
“To get clear about your needs and protect yourself, you need to be able to at least feel anger, even if you never express it to the person you’re angry at,” he said. “Let yourself be angry for once and you’ll start to find the capacity to stand up for yourself.”