The fairly recently coined term “echoism” comes from the Greek myth of Echo and Narcissus, which is also where we get the term “narcissism.”
Cursed by the goddess Hera, the nymph Echo can no longer speak for herself, only repeat the last words of what others say to her.
She begins to lose her sense of self along with her voice, so she hides deep in her forest — until a beautiful young man enters the forest and asks, “Is anyone here?”
Excitedly, she calls back, “Here!” and runs out to meet him.
In losing her ability to interact and share her thoughts, however, Echo herself starts to fade. Narcissus rejects her and leaves her to the forest, where her remaining identity and life force continue to trickle away.
Like Echo, people with echoism struggle to express themselves. They worry about coming across as needy and may lack a defined self-identity or clear desires. So, they often seem content to simply support others.
Echoism lies at the far end of the narcissism spectrum. In the middle, you’ll find people with what experts consider healthy levels of narcissism (that’s right — narcissism isn’t always the evil force it’s made out to be). On the other end, you’ll find people who meet criteria for narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
Psychologist Craig Malkin, who discusses echoism in his 2015 book, “Rethinking Narcissism,” describes it as a lack of healthy narcissism.
Most people desire some notice from others and believe they have certain unique traits that make them ever-so-slightly more special than the average person.
There’s nothing at all wrong with feeling a little special and hoping to receive love and affection. These feelings could even help:
Echoism, on the other hand, is when you don’t feel this sense of specialness.
People with high levels of echoism might:
- fear praise
- actively reject attention
- make every effort to avoid burdening others
- focus on meeting the needs of others to avoid considering their own
- believe going along with what others want will help safeguard their affection
- have difficulty creating boundaries or asserting needs
- believe expressing opinions or needs may lead to a loss of love
- take on a lot of self-blame and criticize themselves regularly
- have trouble recognizing likes and dislikes
- avoid coming across as attention-seeking or selfish at all costs
- ask very little of others
- have high empathy
Since people who tend more toward narcissism have a strong need for admiration and recognition, they can often end up in relationships with people with echoism.
This offers the Echo in the relationship a (usually unhealthy) way to provide this attention without being put in the spotlight themselves.
Echoism vs. codependency
People with echoism are often far from passive, especially when singled out for attention they’d rather avoid. They may put plenty of effort into encouraging others to open up and share their struggles.
Yet while they tend to be skilled at listening, they won’t necessarily attempt to guide or take control of someone’s actions, as seen with codependency.
Echoism is seen a coping mechanism — a tool used to survive when you learn your needs and personal goals inconvenience others. The fear of losing positive regard can leave you with a deep-seated need to focus on others so they continue to offer approval.
As with a lot of other coping mechanisms, echoism has strong ties to your experience with your parents or caregivers as a child.
Parents with narcissistic traits
Echoism often emerges as an outcome of narcissistic parenting.
Therapist Donna Savery, author of “Echoism: The Silenced Response to Narcissism,” suggests echoism is one aspect of what she terms the echoistic narcissistic complex.
In her years of work with clients with echoistic traits, she found most of them had a parent with narcissism. She also noticed they tended to pursue relationships with partners who also had narcissism.
The pattern that plays out in these relationships may feel familiar, even safe, to those who’ve long since learned not to discuss their own needs or seek attention.
Parents who have traits of echoism may discourage their children from wanting too much for themselves.
It’s perfectly reasonable for parents to caution their children against arrogance and excessive boasting. Parents who criticize their children for dreaming or taking pride in their accomplishments, however, may end up promoting the development of echoism.
Parents who have a hard time with emotional regulation
If your parent struggled to regulate their emotions, you might have learned to support them through their distress, even at a young age, by calming them down or building up their sense of self-worth. Meeting their needs left you with little space to voice your own, so you eventually lost touch with what you once wanted for yourself.
You might have worried asking for things would further upset your parent. As a result, you did everything you could to avoid burdening them — even if this meant your basic needs went unmet.
Experts don’t consider echoism a mental health condition or personality disorder, unlike NPD. Yet echoism can have a significant impact on your mental health, emotional well-being, and ability to build and maintain healthy relationships.
It’s also worth noting that not receiving positive attention can contribute to loneliness, isolation, and depression.
Not feeling at all special or unique may also:
- detract from your sense of self
- prevent you from developing and achieving goals
- lead to a life without purpose
Here are some tips to start working through traits of echoism.
Identify how echoism shows up in your life
Noting how echoism shows up in your behavior can help you begin addressing it.
Do you feel terrified of pushing people away by asking for help? Perhaps you avoid attention to the point where it’s difficult to share opinions even at work or school, places where you’re expected to express yourself.
Or maybe you reject offers of support, even when you need it, because you don’t want to alienate the people in your life by asking too much.
Also consider the traits others praise. Maybe loved ones regularly comment on how helpful you are or thank you for always taking time to listen to their problems.
You might also notice some patterns in failed relationships. If you regularly refuse attention and kind gestures, people who care about you may feel confused, even hurt, and eventually pull away.
Step back from self-blame
When things turn out badly, do you shoulder the blame?
If so, some of these phrases might sound familiar:
- “I shouldn’t have asked for help.”
- “If I tell them how I’m feeling, I’ll just make them feel worse.”
- “I’m only upset because I’m too sensitive.”
- “We wouldn’t have argued if I hadn’t complained about how I felt. I shouldn’t have said anything.”
Blaming yourself is just another way to avoid expressing your needs. Deep down, you may feel as if you shouldn’t even have desires of your own, much less express them. When you can’t help doing so, you end up finding fault with yourself to avoid feeling sad or regretful that your needs continue to go unmet.
Instead of looking for your mistakes, try to pinpoint your true feelings, whether those involve anger, disappointment, or fear. It may take some time before you feel comfortable sharing them with others, but that’s OK.
You might think:
- “It’s my fault they don’t like me anymore.”
When you really mean:
- “I feel frustrated because I want my friends to care about how I’m doing, but I’m afraid talking about my problems will make me seem too needy.”
Build and strengthen supportive relationships
If you’ve had a few relationships with people who tend toward the higher end of the narcissism spectrum, you probably haven’t had much room to explore your identity or personal opinions.
Putting energy into friendships with people who encourage you to share feelings and needs and express yourself as a unique individual could help you break the habit of denying yourself.
Try some creative expression
You might find it difficult to suddenly open up after years of hiding your feelings as much as possible. That’s completely understandable. Expressing yourself in more private ways first can help increase your comfort level with your own needs.
A journal, for example, can be a great way to connect with your emotions. You might also try using it in the moment to jot down reactions that feel too overwhelming to say aloud. This gives you the chance to explore them more thoroughly later.
Artistic outlets, such as painting, poetry, or music, can also help you express difficult or complicated emotions.
Talk to a therapist
Since echoism typically relates to long-standing patterns of behavior, it’s often challenging to address without professional support.
Finding a therapist who specializes in supporting people with echoist traits may prove somewhat difficult, but therapists who treat narcissism and other personality disorders will typically have some knowledge of this concept.
A therapist who understands NPD can also offer support with healing from narcissistic abuse.
By communicating your experiences honestly, you can assist your therapist in providing the most helpful treatment for you. Take care to mention any patterns or feelings you’ve noticed, including:
- difficulty expressing needs
- anger when people try to do things for you
- depression, anxiety, or loneliness
- fear of presenting yourself as special or worthy of praise
- relationship conflict
In therapy, you can begin working on healthy skills to combat these tendencies, including boundary-setting and assertive communication.
An echo is a formless thing. Quite unlike you, it has no shape, body, or needs of its own.
Every person deserves the opportunity to express basic and emotional needs and seek support from others without fearing rejection. It may take time before this feels natural or comfortable to you, but with practice and professional support, it can happen.