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9 Things Everyone Should Understand About Echoists

... and their complicated connection to narcissists.

Source: Serdjophoto/Shutterstock

Recently, I've been inundated with requests from journalists to discuss "echoism," a term I introduced in my book, Rethinking Narcissism. Articles on the subject are trending, and a new book, Echoism, even devotes itself to understanding the topic in depth. Echoism support groups, therapists, and workshops are springing up, and demand for information appears to be growing. But what does the word mean?

I've compiled my answers to nine of the most frequently asked questions about echoism.

1. What is echoism? Echoism is a trait that my colleagues and I have begun measuring, and like all traits, it exists to a greater or lesser degree in everyone. People who score well above average in echoism qualify as echoists, and their defining characteristic is a fear of seeming narcissistic in any way.

Of all the people we measured, echoists were the most “warm-hearted,” but they were also afraid of becoming a burden, felt unsettled by attention, especially praise, and agreed with statements like, “When people ask me my preferences, I’m often at a loss.” Where narcissists are addicted to feeling special, echoists are afraid of it.

In the myth of Narcissus, Echo, the nymph who eventually falls madly in love with Narcissus, has been cursed to repeat back the last few words she hears. Like their namesake, echoists definitely struggle to have a voice of their own.

2. Can echoism exist without narcissism? Regardless of how it begins—and there are many childhood causes—echoism, like any trait, persists regardless of whom people spend their time with.

Still, echoists are often drawn to narcissists precisely because they’re so afraid of burdening others or seeming “needy” that to have someone who relishes taking up all the room, as narcissists often do, comes as something of a relief; but it's a high price to pay for a respite from their anxieties.

When narcissists become abusive, echoists sometimes blame themselves for their mistreatment (“I expect too much"; "I’m being overly sensitive"; "I shouldn't have gone back"; etc.). No one deserves to be abused, whether they stay in a relationship or not—abuse is 100 percent the responsibility of the abuser—but echoists can mire themselves in abusive relationships, because they feel responsible for their mistreatment.

3. Are some people more apt to become extreme echoists? Echoists appear to be born with more emotional sensitivity than most of us—they feel deeply—and when that temperament is exposed to a parent who shames or punishes them for having any needs at all, they’re apt to grow up high in echoism.

A client of mine had a narcissistic father who grew enraged whenever people didn’t do exactly what he wanted—a misplaced dish was enough to set him off—and as a result of his lessons (my way or the highway), she wasn’t just afraid to say what she needed or wanted. She didn’t even know what that was. This is typical with extreme echoists—they’re so afraid that expressing their needs will cost them love that they lose touch with their own desires.

4. Are echoists just passive people? Echoists aren’t defined by passivity. In the milder range, they can be quite active in ferreting out and pursuing what others need.

Think of the friend who loves to be there for you, paying rapt attention to your struggles, but you inevitably leave conversations with little knowledge of their inner life. That’s not a coincidence. Echoists can be terrific listeners, but they’re less comfortable opening up to others (their fear of becoming a burden often blocks their ability to share).

We anticipated that more women than men would score high in echoism, if only because women are often socialized to be more attuned to needs and feelings than men are. But that didn’t turn out to be the case; the numbers were about equal for each gender. This data is preliminary, though. It may turn out that female echoists outnumber male ones in the end.

Echo's silent longing

5. What are the typical problems of extreme echoism? Echoists never or rarely feel special—and they suffer for it. To many people, this might seem surprising. After all, we rail against the idea of a blowhard who sucks all the air out of the room and chases applause—they're easy to condemn—but it’s as if we just accept it as modesty or independence when people shrink from praise or care-taking.

It’s clear from the research that feeling a little special helps people persist in the face of failure, dream big, and maybe even live longer. And the absence of that capacity appears to be just as big of a problem.

As a child, I struggled to celebrate my achievements. I found reasons to dismiss praise—the test was easy, the teacher likes me—and blamed myself whenever someone hurt me. I was far more comfortable providing care than receiving it.

It was only many years later, when I was writing Rethinking Narcissism and rereading the myth of Narcissus, that I had an aha moment. Like the love-struck nymph in the myth, echoists, like myself, can echo the needs and feelings of others, but we’re at a loss when it comes to “voicing” our own desires. We play Echo to Narcissus, shrinking from the special attention that narcissists thrive on.

I scribbled the term echoism on a piece of paper and shivered with recognition. The myth contained both sides of narcissism—the dangers of an addiction to feeling special and the inability to enjoy feeling special at all. Everyone forgets about Echo in the myth, and that made the term seem all the more apt.

6. Is echoism on the rise? We’re just beginning to research this trait, but given the interest in our preliminary results, it’s likely that echoism will continue to resonate with many people’s experience. Maybe that just means more people are recognizing the traits in themselves. It's too early to conclude that echoism is increasing.

7. Is echoism a diagnosis? Echoism is a trait, not a disorder, and it’s best thought of as a survival strategy: “If I want to be safe and loved, I need to make sure I ask as little from people as possible (and give as much as I can).” Echoists learn, growing up, that they can’t turn to people when they're sad or scared or lonely and trust that people will soothe them (a problem called attachment insecurity), so they bury their needs in the hopes that they’ll be accepted and loved, because they demand so little.

But anyone can shift away from echoism by learning how to share normal disappointments. That is, in healthy relationships, we can assert our needs in kind ways when they aren’t met, share when we feel lonely, ask for comfort when needed, and express a preference without worrying that we’ve become a burden. You might need to begin this practice with a therapist, but it’s worth trying to test it out with friends.

Remember: Self-blame is an action, not a feeling. It’s something we do to ourselves—a way of maintaining echoism by burying our disappointment so we don’t seem too “needy or difficult.” When you start blaming yourself after a bad interaction, ask yourself—did I really do something so wrong? Or am I disappointed or angry in some way and afraid to feel it? This is the beginning of becoming aware that you do, indeed, have needs and preferences. You do actually have a voice, you’ve just learned to silence it. And some people may even love to hear it.

8. Do echoists ever get angry? Echoists aren’t simply doormats. They may blame themselves for bad interactions, but they’re singularly driven to avoid feeling like a burden, so they can get angry if you insist on showering them with attention on a birthday, for example. One of my clients complained bitterly about a boss who threw her a party after she’d asked him not to make a fuss. It’s as if the one stand they take, with great determination, is “Don't you dare treat me like I’m special.” This is the friend who insists you never go out of your way to bring soup because she’s sick.

Some extreme echoists are so concerned about becoming a burden that they isolate themselves to limit their interactions, becoming fiercely “counterdependent,” pushing away any and all acts of nurturance with “Don’t treat me like a child; I’ll be fine!” All that force that goes toward fending off care needs to be redirected toward asking for and appreciating it.

9. What kind of parenting leads to echoism? My mother’s tendency to burst into tears or rage when I was unhappy with her made me afraid I’d lose her if I wasn’t careful to attend to her every need. But some echoists develop from echoist parents, who pass on the fear that any special attention—wanting unique clothes, dreaming big, asking for more—is the height of arrogance and selfishness.

One of my clients had a mother whose mantra was “Don’t get a big head.” She grew up feeling ashamed of normal pride, downplaying her every achievement, because her mother shamed her instead of celebrating her accomplishments.

Whenever temperamentally sensitive children are punished for wanting special attention, they’re apt to become echoists. Most often, it’s narcissistic parents who push their children in this direction.

Are you an echoist? Take a brief research-validated test and find out.

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