We all know a few people who take up all the energy in a room. They need constant praise and can’t handle criticism. Then there are people who do just the opposite: They yield to the needs of others and shy away from the spotlight. You probably recognize the former as narcissists, but the latter? What is the opposite of a narcissist? In some circles, they're known as echoists, and they finally might be starting to get the attention they deserve. This is how to tell if you might be one of them.
What is echoism?
First, it's worth noting that echoism, unlike narcissism, is not an officially recognized condition or disorder. While the term has been used informally—mostly among psychologists—for the better part of a decade, it was popularized most recently in the 2016 book Rethinking Narcissism by Craig Malkin, a clinical psychologist and lecturer at Harvard Medical School. As Malkin put it, “Echoism is a fear of feeling special or standing out in any way, even positively. It’s a fear of seeming narcissistic in any way."
When Malkin was working on his book, he says, he revisited the Greek myth of Narcissus and Echo, the origin of the term narcissism. Narcissus was cursed to fall in love with his own reflection. Echo, cursed to repeat back the words of others, fell in unrequited love with Narcissus and pined away for him until she died.
“I started thinking about the myth of Narcissus and Echo and what it tells us about relationships,” Malkin says. He pondered his own childhood as a sensitive child with a mother who was often critical and pulled for attention, he says. “As I was thinking about the way I echoed her needs and feelings, I had this ‘aha’ moment that very often people who maintain a relationship to someone who is extremely narcissistic do end up sort of losing their voice,” he says. “They end up burying their needs and feelings and focusing on someone else.” He realized that, like Echo, people who struggle with echoism tend to give up their voice and echo the needs and feelings of others.
Are echoists the opposite of narcissists?
Narcissism and echoism can be thought of as opposite ends of a spectrum. On the extreme end of narcissism is narcissistic personality disorder—people who need constant admiration. This narcissist can’t get enough praise and wants to be adored and flattered. However, a little bit of narcissism is okay; it’s normal to feel special once in a while, Malkin says. “If you think of narcissism as the drive to feel special, a little bit puts you in the center of the spectrum,” he says. “That’s where people who are happy and healthy can maintain big dreams, give and receive in relationships, and be warm and empathetic. They can be very ambitious, but they would never hurt anybody to get there.”
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On the other end of the spectrum are echoists, who give up their own needs and feelings in an attempt to maintain relationships with others. Echoists are afraid of special attention, uncomfortable with compliments, and try to take up as little space as possible, Malkin says. Echoists may feel that when they are sad, lonely, or scared, they can’t turn to the most important person or people in their lives to help them through those feelings and understand them with mutual caring and love, he says. “Echoism, when it becomes extreme, is an attempt to cope with that,” he says. If you feel that you can’t turn to loved ones for mutual caring and comfort, you may bury your own needs and feelings and favor theirs in an attempt to maintain the relationship.
What is the origin of echoism?
Echoists tend to be more sensitive and emotionally vulnerable than others, and these traits are biologically wired into their personality, Malkin’s research suggests. “These are people who tell us they feel things more intensely,” he says. “They may be more emotionally attuned. They were the most warm-hearted of people we tested compared to anyone else on the spectrum.”
When people with these traits develop close relationships with narcissists, they tend to yield to the narcissist’s needs. Like Malkin’s experience, echoism can sometimes begin in childhood. “If you have a very narcissistic parent who pretty much needs to take up all the space and all the room in order to feel like a person at all, a temperamentally sensitive person is going to give up that space in order to have any kind of connection to that parent,” he says. For example, if your parent flew into rages over tiny things, maybe you learned to anticipate what would set them off and avoid it. Maybe you worried about asking your parents for too much attention.
Another possibility: Maybe your parents repeatedly told you that you should never get a big ego or think too much of yourself. “That makes people feel afraid of normal experiences of feeling special,” he says. The same scenarios could apply to romantic partners. In fact, if you developed echoism in childhood, you might apply it to your adult relationships. “I think people who are raised in a way that tips them toward echoism are more likely to be drawn into relationships with narcissistic friends and partners,” Malkin says.
How do I know whether echoism affects me?
Malkin says that echoists tend to agree with statements like: It’s hard for me to enjoy compliments. I don’t like to talk about myself. When people ask me about my preferences, I’m often at a loss. I’m afraid of being a burden.
“Most people who struggle with echoism kind of hate their own needs,” he says. “They’re not comfortable with them because their experience growing up was that if they focused too much on themselves, they lost connection with people they cared about.” This quiz on Malkin’s website can help you figure out where you fall on the spectrum between narcissism and echoism.
How to cope with echoism
Echoists can get stuck in bad relationships when they feel undeserving, under-entitled, or blame themselves when things go wrong. They can become increasingly anxious and depressed and end up seeing the world, and themselves, in a dimmer light, Malkin says. Therapy may help.
“In therapy, I help people learn to be really clear about when they are having feelings, such as sadness or loneliness, and to voice what they’re feeling,” he says. “That’s what helps us create close, mutually caring, supportive, securely attached relationships where each person can ask for things.”
It’s important to get in touch with normal feelings and develop new coping patterns. “The typical coping pattern of someone who copes with echoism is that anytime something goes wrong, their go-to question is: What did I do?” he says. “That’s the opposite of narcissism. Narcissists say: Look what you did. Echoists ask: What did I do? And they see themselves as the problem that needs to be fixed in order to have a better experience in the relationship.”
Instead of blaming yourself or assuming that you’re just too sensitive, ask yourself: What might be missing in the relationship? Is there something missing that is making me feel disappointed or sad? In a loving, caring, mutually connected relationship, you can tell someone when you felt hurt or lonely. “Being able to have a vulnerable way to share those feelings instead of blaming yourself—that’s what helps people overcome echoism,” Malkin says. He often tells clients that self-blame is an action, not a feeling. It’s something people to do to bury feelings.
Of course, when you start to use your voice, a narcissist might react poorly and might not want to hear about your needs and feelings, Malkin says. “This is where I caution everybody: If your partner is abusive, if they call you names, if they’re constantly tearing you down, that’s verbal abuse, or if there is physical abuse, this isn’t about overcoming echoism. This is about getting out of an unsafe relationship,” he says. He doesn’t recommend keeping in contact with anyone who is abusive, including a parent.
Perhaps your partner is just sort of arrogant and aloof, hard to feel close to. “They might pull away or say, well everybody has their problems don’t they? or something very dismissive,” Malkin says. “It’s at that point where supportive friends, people who provide more supportive relationships, become really important in helping that person stay the course. If they want to overcome echoism, they also have to figure out: Can I do it in this relationship? Will this person allow me to have a voice? Sometimes the answer is no.”
With a parent—one who isn't abusive—Malkin recommends using an empathy prompt. Share what makes your relationship special, and then open up about the impact something has had on you. For example: You’re my father, and you’re one of the most important people in my life. Your opinion means the world to me, which is why I’m devastated when I share my opinion and you just tell me everything that’s wrong with it. I feel like I’m worthless in the eyes of one of the people that matters most to me.
“Most parents who have any capacity for empathy will melt when they hear something like that,” Malkin says. “If you don’t see any kind of softening, that’s a sign that you’re going to need distance.” Consider making what Malkin calls a connection contract. Tell your parent, for example, that you would like to see them, but if they yell at you, put you down, or make fun of your partner, you won’t be able to stay, and you’ll have to try again later. “I call that a connection contract because you’re basically laying down the terms and conditions for you sticking around,” he says. “You can do it on the phone; you don’t have to do it in person. That way you can test out their reaction. If their reaction is horrible, then you know there’s no point in even going.”
Another tactic: Reinforce helpful behavior when it does occur. “Say you have a parent who asks you how you’re doing and actually listens,” he says. “If there are moments like that, you want to catch them.” Say something like: I love it when we talk like this. I feel so close to you and really appreciate how you’re listening. “We can’t change other people, but when we give them something positive, they increase the frequency of what they’re doing, whether they recognize that it’s happening or not,” Malkin says.
In romantic relationships, addressing echoism could help you feel not only happier, but also more sexually satisfied. “Often people with echoism struggle with allowing themselves to be in contact with what they really need and that includes the need for excitement, things that help them feel sexually excited,” he says. “They feel under-entitled in a lot of ways.” They may have trouble expressing what turns them on or off, and they become reliant on what Malkin calls insecure passion. A therapist can help you develop a more secure sense of love and learn how to ask for what you need.
“Any learned habit can be unlearned,” he says. “It’s a matter of putting the old coping to the side and allowing yourself to experience what it blocks.” Addressing echoism could help you deepen your relationships and discover new things. “I didn’t even know about Echo until I went back to the original myth,” Malkin says. “I thought that was so appropriate for understanding this kind of problem because people who struggle with echoism, not only do they not have a voice, they are easily missed as a result. People miss aspects of them. People miss them.”
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This page was updated to improve clarity on the topic on April 27, 2022.