Listening to Echoism

Understanding this trait may help explain why some people find themselves stuck in relationships with narcissists. It also points the way to recovery.

By Craig Malkin Ph.D., published May 7, 2019 - last reviewed on May 13, 2019

When Amy, 32, arrived  at my office, she was in tears. Just days earlier, Dan, her boyfriend of five years, announced that he had fallen out of love with her. The immediate cause? "He said I never let him do anything for me."

There was some truth to his complaint. Amy refused to let him surprise her on birthdays and rarely sought his help. She had been concerned about her mother's depression for months but seldom mentioned it to him. And although she seemed to ask for precious little attention, she spent a great deal of time wracked with guilt that she'd demanded too much. "He's been working so hard to get a promotion," she sobbed. "I didn't want to pile on."

"What if he loves supporting you as much as you do him?" I asked.

"I know it's strange," she admitted. "I'm happy to listen to his problems, but I hate talking about my own; the rules are just different for me. They always have been."

Years later, I arrived at a name for the rules Amy and many others live by: echoism.

You won't find echoism in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. That's because it's not a disorder, but a measurable trait that my colleagues and I have studied for the past six years. And like all traits, it exists to a greater or lesser degree in all of us, causing damage only when it becomes extreme.

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Echoists have a strong aversion to attention. In fact, the defining characteristic of those who score well above average on our measure of echoism is a fear of seeming narcissistic in any way. They tend to agree with statements like, "When people ask me my preferences, I'm often at a loss," and "I find it hard to enjoy compliments." This powerful resistance to any sign of selfishness, at least in themselves, often makes them especially considerate. Echoists are "warm-hearted," according to one measure we used, and hypervigilant about their impact on others. The very idea that they've "burdened" someone with their problems can send them into a spiral of shame and self-recrimination. One client of mine spent a tearful session worrying that by telling her depressed boyfriend that she felt sad, she had "made his life even harder."

This profound aversion to tending to their own needs can push echoists into one-sided relationships. Some are drawn to narcissists because they're so wary of burdening others or seeming "needy" that it's a relief to be with someone who relishes taking up all the space. The pattern doesn't emerge only in romantic relationships: Picture the friend who loves to be there for you and pays rapt attention to your struggles, but leaves you in the dark about her inner life. Echoists can be terrific listeners, but their ability to share is inhibited.

This doesn't mean that echoists are doormats who passively accept any behavior from the people they're close to; neither do they fit the classic definiton of "codependents" who are drawn to troubled friends and partners. While it's true that some can become emotional caretakers, others' discomfort with any attention to their own needs may lead them to actively reject people. And some are concerned enough about their impact on others that they become "counterdependent," repelling any attempts at nurturance with responses like, "Don't treat me like a child; I'll be fine!" It's as if the one stance echoists take, often vehemently, is "Don't you dare treat me like I'm special." They can get bitterly upset if anyone ignores that rule: One client of mine was outraged when her boss threw her a party after she'd asked him not to make a fuss.

Still, whether they take on the role of doting partner or low-maintenance friend, extreme echoists rarely feel special—and they suffer for that, privately becoming anxious or depressed. This might seem counterintuitive: After all, most of us condemn blowhards who chase applause and suck all the air out of a room, so we may perceive it as the height of mental health when people with obvious gifts never acknowledge their own talents.

A closer look at happy, healthy people around the world reveals a different picture. Despite the virtue we attribute to those who follow the mandate, "Don't act like you're special," research makes it clear that a dose of self-enhancement, or a slightly inflated self-image, helps people persist in the face of failure, dream bigger, and maybe even live longer. The echoist's dread of feeling special, then, appears to be as significant a problem as the narcissist's addiction to it. Echoists and narcissists are in every sense opposites—a truth supported by our finding that the two types  live at opposite ends of the self-enhancement spectrum.

Humblest Origins

As a child, I struggled to celebrate achievements. I dismissed praise — the test was easy, the teacher just likes me—and blamed myself whenever someone hurt me. I was far more comfortable providing care than receiving it. Only years later, while rereading the myth of Narcissus, did I have an epiphany about why I felt the way I did—and how it related to narcissism. Narcissus, remember, was the handsome, vain youth cursed to fatally fall in love with his own reflection; Echo was the nymph cursed to speak only by repeating the last few words she heard. Echo fell in love with Narcissus, but he barely noticed her.

Echo's apparent invisibility to the vain Narcissus struck a chord in me; I scribbled the word echoism on a piece of paper and shivered with recognition. The myth contained both sides of narcissism—the addiction to feeling special and the inability to enjoy feeling special at all. Like the nymph, echoists like me can echo the needs and feeling of others, but are at a loss when it comes to voicing our own desires.

This notion of avidly escaping other people's notice corresponds to the conceptual history of echoism itself: Attention paid to the idea has been uneven, marked by only occasional, briefly noted appearances. In fact, 10 years before our group's work, psychoanalyst Dean Davis proposed the same term for the concept, only to have the idea recede into obscurity. With rare exceptions, others exploring the phenomenon have seemed unaware of their predecessors, yet all have converged on the same themes—silence and selflessness. Perhaps now, we'll all remember Echo's lost voice.

Survival of the Echoist

To understand why some people become echoists, think of the trait 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 may learn, growing up, that they can't turn to others when they're scared or lonely, or trust that people will soothe them, so they bury their needs in the hope that they'll be accepted and loved for demanding so little.

In that sense, like most traits, it's a blend of nature and nurture. When individuals born with greater emotional sensitivity than most—those who feel most deeply—are exposed to parents who shame or punish them for having any needs at all, they're more apt to become echoists. In fact, given the emotionally sensitive nature of many echoists, our group expected that gender norms would play a larger role—women tend to be socialized to focus on emotions and nurturing. That turned out not to be the case; we found roughly equal numbers of male and female echoists.

Regardless of a child's innate sensitivities, he or she can develop chronic emotional fragility and be nudged into echoism by parents who seem happy or fulfilled only when their offspring praise, flatter, or comfort them. Imagine a narcissistic mother who needs her child to tell her that she's especially talented or that she's a supermom. Such children may learn to echo and mirror the parent's every wish, burying their own emotional needs.

Finding a Voice

No matter what makes someone an echoist, understanding the trait's origins could also help overcome its downsides. Bear in mind: Echoists bury their needs by seeing themselves as a burden and blaming themselves for being sensitive, needy, or high maintenance. The first step in restoring balance, then, is to break the habit of self-blame.

This starts by recognizing that self-blame is an action, not a feeling. It's something we do to ourselves to make our needs smaller and our voices quieter: If I'm the problem—too needy, too sensitive, too unforgiving—then I have no reason to be angry or hurt. I have no right to ask for anything. An echoist can begin to overcome self-blame by replacing the question, "What have I done wrong?" with, "Am I feeling disappointed?" or "Am I afraid to say something is wrong?" This shift leaves room to feel, and eventually express, the needs and feelings that should have been given voice in the first place. Only then can we discover whether the person we're with can abide—and even love—truly hearing us.