When Sarah was 18, she went for an interview at a temp agency, hoping to get some work. She sat hunched over in her chair, heart thumping. “I can remember the woman saying, ‘Is something wrong? Why can’t you look me in the eye?’”
Most would have put this down to first-job jitters. For Sarah, whose name we have withheld at her request for privacy reasons, the reason was more sinister. “I was so used to being invisible, being nothing, it was like I didn’t have an identity,” she tells me.
Sarah survived decades of emotional abuse at the hands of her mother, whom she describes as a malignant narcissist. Although malignant narcissism is not officially recognized in medical literature as it is an experimental diagnostic category, it is thought that malignant narcissists tend to be aggressive, antisocial, and egocentric. It made for an upsetting and traumatic childhood.
“She would say things like I stabbed my sister in the face with a biro or pushed her down the stairs, which I don’t remember,” Sarah, who is a language tutor, says. “Everything was blamed on me. She used to say, ‘You should have been aborted, you’re poison.’ When I had a bath I was only allowed an inch of water.”
As she got older, the abuse took on a sexualized component. “At 10 or 11 my mother began sexual shaming. She would say, ‘You’ve got no breasts, that’s why no boys want you,’ then smirk. When she saw pain, she fed off it like a vampire.”
Sarah lived in all-consuming fear of her mother. As she grew up, she learned to keep quiet and hide her own desires. Essentially, she didn’t develop a sense of self. Sarah was an echoist.
Echoism has been popularized by psychologist Dr. Craig Malkin, whose 2015 book Rethinking Narcissism introduced many to the personality trait, although echoism was first coined in a 2005 paper by psychoanalyst Dean Davis. Echoism typically arises when someone is in a toxic relationship with a narcissist. The narcissist may be their partner, parent, or sibling. Highly sensitive, compassionate, and emotionally intelligent, echoists are extreme people-pleasers.
The concept of echoism is drawn from the Greek myth of Narcissus and Echo. Most have heard of the god who became entranced by his own reflection. The lesser-known story is that of Echo, the wood nymph who was cursed to near-silence and able only to repeat the last words she hears.
“Echo fell in love with Narcissus, but all she could do was echo what he said,” says Malkin. “Like Echo, echoists tend to fall into these relationships with really narcissistic friends and partners, because they struggle to have a voice of their own. They become adept at echoing the needs and feelings of more narcissistic people.”
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People with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) are exploitative, entitled, and lack empathy, Malkin explains. “They’re so addicted to feeling special that they’ll lie, steal, cheat—whatever it takes to get their needs met, no matter the cost to others.” As a result, emotionally sensitive, empathetic people can become echoists if they are exploited by narcissists in childhood. Malkin places echoism at the far end of the narcissistic spectrum he has developed: echoists have a fear of being needy, special, or selfish.
As only one percent of the population has a clinical diagnosis of NPD, not all echoists will have been in relationships with individuals with diagnosed NPD, but rather with broader narcissistic tendencies. Malkin estimates around 16 percent of the population exhibit narcissist behaviors, and many of these narcissists will have family members who may have been exposed to potential abuse, meaning that the concept of echoism resonates with a wide audience.
Malkin’s online test for narcissism and echoism has been taken over 100,000 times, whilst the raisedbynarcissists support group on Reddit has 328,000 subscribers. “Most victims search for answers online,” says Michael. Michael tells me that she launched an online forum for echoists and survivors of narcissistic abuse in November 2017 which now has 21,000 members. “Forums are a great source of validation, education and a sense of belonging.”
Narcissistic abuse includes psychological manipulation tactics like shaming, isolation, gaslighting and stonewalling. “One of the experiences that is so corrosive to [echoists’] self-esteem is that you don’t feel like a person,” says Malkin. “You become an echo of this other person.”
“I used to go to the toilet a lot to look at myself in the mirror,” says Sarah, who’s now 39 and lives with her teenage son in Surrey. “This sounds very odd, it wasn’t a vanity thing— [it was] more like [I] checking I was still there. My sense of self was so weak. I hated any focus of attention on me. I wanted to be invisible.”
People with narcissistic parents will often unconsciously seek out narcissistic partners in adulthood. “When you’ve had to completely push down your own identity, you can only feel alive with the same kind of treatment,” Sarah says. “In my 20s I put myself in horrible situations, I got hit, had abusive and demeaning sex, but I couldn’t leave as my only way to exist was to be an ‘add-on’ to a narcissist. Those rollercoaster narcissistic relationships and friendships consumed all my time and energy.”
Echoism is all about people pleasing, says 55-year-old Maria Michael. She says that her father, who is now deceased, was a narcissist. “He lacked empathy, was very selfish and critical, always projecting blame onto me. He basically made me feel like nothing I ever did was good enough. So I tried harder and harder to please him.
“[My siblings and I] were hyper alert to people’s emotions, their facial expressions, because we needed to make sure they were happy.”
"People don’t understand [echoism]; you get shut down over and over again. There were times when I felt on the edge of craziness."
Counsellor Arlo McCloskey founded The Echo Society UK as a support group for victims of narcissistic abuse. He explains that people pleasing is a “learned behavior from an ingrained childhood fear, where you have to please that person all the time so you continue that in later friendships and relationships.”
In her 2018 book Echoism, psychotherapist Donna Christina Savery questions whether women are more prone to echoistic behaviours when raised by a narcissist. She writes that women may be more likely to unconsciously look for narcissistic partners, and play the echo role in other relationships. Echoist women could then be marginalized at work or in friendship groups, leading to underachieving and social anxiety, suggests Savery. However, she concludes that more research is needed in order to make a definite conclusion.
The data on whether women may be more likely to suffer from echoism is patchy. McCloskey says more women than men seek help from his society, but he largely puts that down to men being “more hesitant to access treatment.” (He doesn’t have any data regarding the prevalence amongst LGBTQ+ or non-binary people.) Malkin developed a scale that he used to test 2,000 people for echoist tendencies. The results surprised him. “I anticipated that more women than men would score higher, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. What we found is that there wasn’t any difference between men and women in rates of echoism.”
Everyone I spoke to agreed that there isn’t enough awareness of echoism in the broader mental health community. “There are no support services out there,” says McCloskey. “[Echoists] are reaching out to counsellors, police, courts… and what they’ve been through is not understood. This is very damaging as not only have they experienced emotional invalidation in their abusive relationship, but also suffer added emotional distress from chronic invalidation in wider society.”
The Echo Society runs support groups and workshops. Part of the focus is on developing physical, emotional, and psychological boundaries. “It’s areas like self-esteem, assertiveness and growing comfortable with saying ‘no’,” says McCloskey. “We also get into simple things like self-care; they’ve neglected their own self-care because they’ve been looking after the narcissist.”
Having their experiences minimized, denied, or disbelieved is a real danger for echoists, agrees Sarah. “People don’t understand this; you get shut down over and over again. There were times when I felt on the edge of craziness.” Malkin says the key for therapists treating echoists is helping them find their voice. “They will have learned over time to bury their needs, feelings, preferences, normal moments of disappointment just to survive this relationship.” He advises counsellors to build up a healthy sense of entitlement, “a normal sense of feeling deserving of care and understanding.”
Sarah reached breaking point about five years ago, when she received a message from her estranged mother, blaming her for her father’s suicide. “It was so painful. I couldn’t take it. There was like a weight on my heart.” Sarah eventually contacted Women’s Aidand began therapy. “Recovery from this abuse is totally possible. You need kind people to listen to you and validate you.”