Imagine this: You were planning to see a band you love, but someone you like texts you to hang out for a drink that same night. You immediately agree, not even mentioning the show. You’re just happy they texted you, and you don’t want them to change their mind.
You get there and conversation flows easily. You ask a ton of questions and listen as they tell lots of funny stories. You don’t get a word in, but you don’t mind. You’re glad they’re not asking much about you because you don’t want the focus on you anyway.
If you recognize yourself in this scenario — a person who doesn’t express fear of rejection; a person who doesn’t want to be the center of attention, and someone who’s a great listener but doesn’t talk much — then you might be an echoist.
What is echoism?
Echoism is a psychological trait defined by psychologist Dr. Craig Malkin. The trait develops in childhood and can have a lasting impact on one’s ability to show up fully in their adult romantic relationships. Echoists hold back their needs, desires, opinions, hurts, and all of the other things they experience as complicated humans in complex relationships.
Echoism is defined primarily by fear of seeming narcissistic. Echoists don’t like to be the center of attention, often reject praise, have trouble expressing opinions and preferences, and are afraid of being burdensome to their loved ones.
On a spectrum, narcissism would be on the extreme side of self-centeredness and echoism would be on the opposite end. Most people fall somewhere the middle of that spectrum since they often have a touch of both echoism and narcissism to some degree. Echoism is not a disorder, so most psychologists aren’t interested in diagnosing it, but naming and understanding it can help echoists start to develop healthier ways of relating to others and to themselves.
How does echoism show up in romantic relationships?
Echoists often struggle in romantic partnerships to identify and set healthy boundaries, and to identify and express their feelings. They may also find their relationships are uneven, since they tend not to share as much of themselves as they draw out of others. This can make it difficult to connect with and feel close to them.
An echoist may also be inclined to choose narcissists as romantic partners, making it more difficult to work on asserting their needs and feelings. Wendy Behary, author of Disarming the Narcissist, and therapist who works primarily with narcissistic men, tells O.school her patients’ partners often “forfeit their voice, their preferences, their choices, their opinions, their wishes, their ideas, their inclinations, their desires in the spirit of protecting themselves from the possible risk of being rejected or criticized or abandoned or judged. When you’re living with a narcissist, you lose your voice.”
Echoists are often people-pleasers because they feel it keeps them safe, but it means their needs and opinions are held under the surface of the relationship, submerged by others’ needs and their own fear of rejection.
What causes echoism?
“Echoists appear to be born with more emotional sensitivity than most of us — they feel deeply,” says Dr. Malkin, “and 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.” Most of the time, that shame and punishment comes from narcissistic parents — people who are vain and entitled, and who disregard others in pursuit of their own goals and desires. But sometimes it comes from fellow echoists, who teach children that pride in oneself is a failing or something to be ashamed of.
Children with narcissistic parents learn to survive by making themselves as small as possible, by expressing as few needs as they can manage. They learn that pleasing others means making themselves invisible. They carry this habit of invisibility into their adult relationships and tend to choose partners who are happy to fill the spaces and silences they leave.
Behary says, “if you’re someone who has evolved through your life learning messages and developing life patterns like subjugation then you are someone who can easily put aside all of your own personal preferences and desires. You can give up that voice in favor of the narcissist’s choices and controls because you’re used to it. It’s the message that you’ve carried forth probably since you were very young.”
Think you’re an echoist? Here’s what you can do about it
Echoists need support and practice asserting their needs, putting themselves first, articulating their feelings, and setting and maintaining healthy boundaries.
Dr. Malkin says, “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 will cease to love them.”
Perhaps you’ve recognized yourself in the description of echoism and you’re wondering what to do next. Dr. Malkin has developed a free assessment that allows people to see roughly where they fall on the narcissism spectrum. Once you have that information you can decide where to go from there. Therapy, online support forums, or further reading on narcissism might be good next steps. Like any psychological healing process, it can take time, work, and good support, but healing from echoism is possible.