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Unloved Daughters and the Struggle With 'Echoism'

Using a new perspective for self-understanding.

Source: Ethan Haddox/Unsplash
Source: Ethan Haddox/Unsplash

While the word “narcissism” has certainly gone mainstream—Google it, and you’ll be offered up no fewer than 57 million entries—the term “echoism,” popularized by my fellow blogger Dr. Craig Malkin in his book Rethinking Narcissism, is now beginning to get the recognition it deserves. Mind you, echoism isn’t a diagnosis, but a trait, and knowing about it can be valuable on the journey to reclaiming yourself from the effects of a toxic childhood or one in which your emotional needs weren’t met.

The term derives from the same Greek myth as narcissism. The story is a morality tale about the gods, overstepping bonds, unrequited love, and the dangers of self-absorption. A wood nymph named Echo is punished by the Goddess Hera for distracting her from spying on one of her husband Zeus’s paramours; Echo is deprived of her voice, only able to repeat the words said by another. The other thread in the myth is the beautiful Narcissus, who is granted eternal life as long as he doesn’t catch a glimpse of himself; again, there is a glitch, because the gods notice that he’s rather a cad, and he leaves a trail of spurned, dead lovers in his wake. Mind you, all of this was via Ovid and other sources long before chick flicks and Lifetime movies. Yes, as scripted, destiny is cruel: Echo falls in love with Narcissus, who sees his reflection, becomes besotted with his own pretty face, and dies (but he does get to turn into a flower, which is more than Echo gets), and the spurned Echo becomes, yes, an echo.

In Dr. Malkin’s view, if narcissism is seen as a spectrum—with healthy self-regard in the middle—the grandiose, self-absorbed, and empathy-deficient Narcissus is on one end, and the disempowered and voiceless Echo is on the other. While none of us needs convincing that it’s bad to be a narcissist and even worse to be involved with one, it’s really no better to be at the self-effacing end, where the person is incapable of seeing her own needs, much less addressing them. And, yes, being in a relationship with an echoist has its own set of perils.

Seeing the unloved daughter as an echoist

Not every unloved daughter will become an echoist; her behaviors are developed in response to her mother’s treatment of her, and some patterns of maternal behavior are more likely to produce an echoist—someone who doesn’t have enough healthy narcissism or self-regard—than others. Mothers who are high in narcissistic traits, who teach their children that their job is to stay in their mom’s orbit, act as she wants them to act or pay the consequences, and that pleasing someone else is more important than voicing their own needs and wants, provide the perfect environment for raising an echoist. This daughter has learned that the path to success with her mother is remaining voiceless.

Daughters who have mothers that are combative or controlling also learn that to speak out has a high price, and some will detach from their own feelings and thoughts to go along to get along; they have absorbed the lesson that staying under the radar is a safe place to be, and that unconscious assumption follows them into adult life. Mothers high in control with an authoritarian style of parenting often believe that criticizing a child or undermining her achievement prevents her from “getting a swelled head,” being self-centered, prideful, or thinking “too highly of herself”; they also produce echoists. Similarly, shaming a child for “being too sensitive” or crying or showing her feelings muzzles the child emotionally, and echoism becomes a way of protecting herself.

In my book, Daughter Detox, I use the framework of attachment theory to explain the effects of childhood treatment on the unloved daughter. Not being seen, not having your emotional needs met, and not being loved or supported results in an insecure adult style of attachment. There are three types: anxious-preoccupied, fearful-avoidant, and dismissive-avoidant. The first two—anxious-preoccupied and fearful-avoidant—also describe the echoist.

What this perspective adds to understanding

While using attachment theory gives us the clearest picture of the unloving mother’s effect on her daughter’s unconscious behaviors, her deficits in managing emotion, and the mental models which govern her unconscious assumptions about love and relationships, using the full spectrum of narcissism can give us special insight into certain problems that dog so many of these women in adulthood. One such area is that of achievement and setting goals.

Anecdotally at least, the unloved daughter seems either a chronic underachiever or a high achiever; from all the interviews I’ve conducted for both of my books on the subject, and all the conversations I’ve had since, there appears to be little ground in between. The underachiever is usually understood in terms of her lack of self-esteem, lack of self-confidence, and how she’s been taught to avoid failure, but adding the perspective of echoism builds another layer of nuance into the mix. According to Dr. Malkin, the extreme echoist doesn’t want to be noticed; she’s much more comfortable hiding in the shadows where it’s safe, and what better way to do that than to underachieve? Interestingly, while she doesn’t want to draw attention to herself, she is caring and does for others; she’s the friend you have who’s always willing to go the extra mile for others, but who cringes at a compliment. Do you know her?

In my view, echoism sheds even more light on the unloved daughter who’s a high achiever. While on the surface, at least, these women seem to have fully recovered from their childhoods and appear to have overcome being ignored or marginalized, put-down or criticized, they continue to be plagued by self-criticism and doubt. Their feelings of being “less than” absolutely co-exist with accolades and honors, high-paying and prestigious positions, not to mention advanced degrees. Their achievements don’t bring them the kind of satisfaction and sense of well-being they would to someone who has a secure attachment style and who’s in the healthy middle of the narcissism spectrum. They often feel like imposters or frauds, attributing their successes to flukes or luck instead of talent and effort. (For more on that, go here.) Echoism explains all that; despite their standing in the outside world, they’re still echoists at heart, especially if they fear being mistaken for or labeled as a narcissist like their mothers. Alternatively, since the echoist knows better than to ask anyone for anything—her childhood has taught her that needing something is a weakness or dangerous—her achievements may serve as protection, a declaration to the world that she’s fine as is and needs nothing from anyone. Of course, deep down, that’s not true; like Echo, she can’t find a way to give voice to herself.

Whether the echoist is anxious or fearful, she still suffers, even if she can't put why she does into words. Is this you?

Using an understanding of echoism

Please keep in mind that echoism, as Dr. Malkin explains, is a trait, not a diagnosis. It isn’t the same as being introverted; you can be introverted, have stable self-regard, and still dislike being spotlighted center-stage. Using the full narcissism spectrum as a way of understanding both your own behaviors and those of others is a helpful addition to the toolbox the unloved daughter needs on the road to recovery. For more and a quiz to take to see where you fall on the narcissism spectrum, go to Dr. Malkin's post on echoism here.


Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.

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