We all know the story of Narcissus, the hunter cursed to fall in love with his own reflection. But what we don’t always remember is the myth isn’t just about Narcissus, it’s actually about Narcissus and Echo.
According to Greek mythology, Echo was a once-talkative nymph cursed to repeat back the last words she hears. In effect, Echo was cursed to have no voice of her own. Because the Greeks have a flair for tragedy, Echo ends up falling in love with Narcissus, the man who could love no one but himself.
Some psychologists have latched onto this myth and used it to explain a trait — “echoism” — that shows up in people who grow up with narcissistic parents. Like their namesake, Echo, echoists are often forgotten and struggle to have a voice of their own in the wake of loving the narcissists in their lives.
What Is Echoism?
Echoism is a trait of people who are skilled at echoing the needs and feelings of those around them — often at the expense of their own needs and feelings. If we were to put echoism on a spectrum, echoism would be on one end and narcissism would be on the opposite end. If narcissism concerns thinking more of yourself, echoism is characterized by chronically thinking less of yourself.
“The defining feature of echoism, according to my team’s research, is a fear of seeming narcissistic in any way,” Craig Malkin, Ph.D., lecturer at Harvard Medical School and author of “Rethinking Narcissism,” told The Mighty. “Where narcissists are addicted to feeling special, echoists are afraid of special attention, even when it’s positive.”
Echoists are so afraid of taking up space that they often find themselves in relationships with narcissists who thrive on taking up space. Though these pairings can be painful for the echoist, they also come as a relief as well, because by focusing on the needs of the dominant personality, they don’t feel like they are asking for too much of others.
What Causes Echoism?
Echoism is a personality trait, not a psychiatric diagnosis. The trait often develops in childhood as a survival strategy for growing up with a narcissistic parent who doesn’t attend to his or her child’s needs.
“Echoists learn, growing up, that they can’t turn to people when they’re sad or scared or lonely and trust that people will care for or soothe them… so they bury their needs in the hopes that they’ll be accepted or loved because they demand so little,” Malkin explained.
Though all narcissists are addicted to feeling special, not all narcissistic parents look the same — nor are they all inherently abusive. Malkin said the more extreme a narcissistic parent is, the more likely the person is disordered. The more disordered a narcissistic parent is, the more likely they are to emotionally abuse their children.
The three basic types of “narcissistic” parents out there are classic (extroverted), covert (introverted) and communal. Each type has the ability to produce echoism in his or her children. Below we’ve given a brief description of each type:
1. Classic Narcissist
Classic (extroverted) narcissists are who we typically think of when we hear the word “narcissism.” This classic narcissistic parent is usually vain, boastful, entitled and will do whatever it takes to meet his or her needs. This kind of narcissist wants to stand out, and isn’t shy about it.
2. Covert Narcissist
The “covert” narcissist (also called “introverted” or “hypersensitive”), may not appear how we typically think of narcissism at all. This narcissistic parent is highly sensitive — someone we might call an emotionally fragile parent.
“Disordered narcissism isn’t always loud. Some narcissistic parents are quiet, social avoidant and couldn’t care less about looks or fame or money,” Malkin said. “Instead they insist their pain is greater than anyone else’s — including their child’s — react with anger at the slightest suggestion they made a mistake and agree with statements like, ‘I’m more temperamentally sensitive than most.’”
3. Communal Narcissist
Communal narcissists believe themselves to be extremely helpful, empathetic and nurturing. They pride themselves on being the best friend anyone could have and believe their good deeds set them apart from others.
“Disordered communal narcissists are apt to leave their kids feeling like the most selfish person alive if they can’t recognize how generous and caring their parent is,” Malkin said.
No matter what type of narcissist a parent is, growing up with a narcissistic parent often leads a child into a damaging pattern of burying his or her own feelings and needs. If a narcissistic parent becomes abusive, the child will often blame themselves for the mistreatment — even though the abuser is 100% responsible. This dynamic can be particularly painful for children who are highly sensitive — which is often true of echoists.
“Echoists appear to be born with more emotional sensitivity than most of us — they feel deeply,” Malkin said. “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.”
How Does Echoism Play Out in Adulthood?
Adult echoists who spent their childhoods focused on the emotional needs, feelings and desires of their narcissistic parents often struggle in adulthood.
“[Echoists are often] more affected by other people’s moods, are sensitive to pain and can easily be overwhelmed by things like bright lights, strong smells, loud noises and/or chaotic scenes,” Arlo McCloskey, counselor and founder of The Echo Society (UK), told The Mighty.
In addition to finding themselves in relationships that mirror the narcissistic (and/or abusive) parent-child dynamic they experienced growing up, echoists often struggle to connect with others. In conversation, echoists are great listeners, but don’t easily share about their lives for fear of coming across as “burdensome,” Malkin explained. Even in safe, non-abusive circumstances, echoists can make their relationships one-sided by solely focusing on pleasing the other person and never voicing their thoughts, feelings or needs.
How Do You Heal From Growing Up With a Narcissistic Parent?
Healing from any kind of trauma takes time, and it’s no different when you’re healing from the impact of growing up with a narcissistic parent.
McCloskey told The Mighty two of the main issues facing recovering echoists are stopping people-pleasing behavior and developing boundaries.
“[People-pleasing] is a learned behavior from fear that’s ingrained in childhood. You have to please [the narcissistic parent] all the time, so you continue that in friendships in school and later in relationships with others,” McCloskey said. “That’s where boundaries come in. If you had a narcissistic parent, you are not taught what unhealthy and healthy boundaries are. You have to be re-taught and begin the process of developing physical, emotional and psychological boundaries.”
Learning how to assert boundaries is important, and seeking professional support is instrumental to the process. If you’re looking for immediate help with boundaries, check out our guide for having boundaries with someone who doesn’t respect your boundaries.
In addition to boundaries, Malkin emphasized the importance of learning to express your feelings — even when it feels like you’re asking for too much!
The key to helping echoists is teaching them, emotionally, to express normal feelings of disappointment and anger over unmet needs for care and closeness instead of burying them under self-blame… [Echoists] carry deep fears that if they dare ask for more, that people who cease to love them — a lesson from growing up with emotionally fragile or narcissistic adults who had little capacity to meet anyone else’s needs. Therapy and healthier relationships need to give them updated rules to live by, where they learn that, unlike the family environment they had to survive, their present adult world is full of people who can not only handle their asking for more, but might love them all the more fully and deeply once they try.
If you’ve been reading this article nodding your head the whole time, you’re not alone. Healing from a childhood dominated by a narcissistic parent takes time, but is completely possible. If you’re struggling to connect with others who understand, we encourage you to post on The Mighty with the hashtag #TraumaSurvivors. Our community wants to support you on your healing journey.
To anyone struggling to find their voice after growing up with a narcissistic parent, Malkin has a few words of encouragement:
“We’re all known and loved through our own voices — it’s not enough to simply echo and mirror other people or quietly love them without expectations,” he said. “You do actually have a voice — you’ve just learned to silence it. And some people may even love to hear it.”