Echoism Is Basically the Polar Opposite of Narcissism—But It Can Also Be Damaging in Relationships

Photo: Getty Images/ Klaus Vedfelt
When your partner asks you what you want for dinner, you tell them that you'll eat anything. Perhaps you’re the agreeable one in the friend group who’s always down to do whatever others want. Maybe you’d rather hop into a freezing lake than disagree with a coworker. Or, you hate being the center of attention (others singing, “Happy Birthday” to you is a nightmare) or want to be perceived as the “easygoing” friend who doesn’t have needs.

To be clear, these feelings and behaviors are nothing to be ashamed of, but putting a word to what they may signify can be helpful for managing them. That word is “echoism.”

Experts In This Article

What is echoism?

Echoists, or people who experience echoism, are... exactly what they sound like. “It's a person who tends to mimic or reflect the feelings, opinions, or desires of others instead of expressing their own individual thoughts and emotions," says Jamie Genatt, LCSW, psychotherapist and owner of Realistic Remedies.

Generally, they have difficulty engaging in behaviors that bring attention to their needs and differences. “An echoist is a person who struggles to express themselves, receive praise or attention, struggles with emotional individuation, where they can decipher their likes and dislikes, and struggles to feel they are worthy of setting boundaries or having an opinion at the risk of offending others,” adds Amelia Kelley, PhD, LCMHC, a trauma-informed therapist, author, podcaster, and researcher. She believes this is all in the name of regarding others’ well-being over their own.

Although the stereotype of an echoist as being warm, modest, and ever-flexible may seem the opposite of narcissism, at its core, echoism is based in fear, McSparran says. Those who struggle with echoism are fearful of being or being perceived as narcissistic that they leave no room for themselves in their own lives," she says.

While discussing echoism can help people feel seen and supported, it’s important to not pathologize it. “In the realm of psychology, ‘echoist’ and ‘echoism’ are relatively new terms, and there is no current correlated clinical diagnosis in the [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders],” says Whitney McSparran, LPCC, a licensed professional clinical counselor at Thriveworks who specializes in working with individuals coping with life transitions, anxiety, and depression.

Echoism is also a spectrum, she adds, like other personality traits. “An echoist is simply a person who displays or experiences echoism more than average.”

Where does the term “echoism” come from?

Clinical psychologist, researcher, and Harvard Medical School lecturer, Craig Malkin, PhD, initially addressed this topic in his book Rethinking Narcissism and has continued to explore it further in subsequent articles for Psychology Today.

So why did he choose the word “echoist”? To answer this, Dr. Malkin points back to mythology. “In the myth of Narcissus, Echo, the nymph who eventually falls madly in love with Narcissus, has been cursed to repeat back the last few words she hears,” he writes in one of those articles. “Like their namesake, echoists definitely struggle to have a voice of their own.”

While echoists may be drawn to people with narcissistic tendencies in real life as it helps them stay in their safe echo state, he writes, their echo traits can exist outside of relationships with narcissists, too.

10 signs of echoism

1. Avoiding attention

You prefer being in the background rather than the center of attention. “Echoists tend to avoid the spotlight and shy away from attention or recognition,” Genatt says, explaining that attention can make them feel uncomfortable. She adds this is the opposite of many types of narcissists that “actively seek attention, recognition, and validation from others,” she says.

2. Mirroring others

Along those lines, echoists don’t want to draw attention to themselves by acting differently or disagreeing. They’d rather mirror others’ emotions and preferences, according to Genatt. “They may struggle to express their own individual identity and instead adapt to the people they are with, often at the cost of neglecting their own needs and desires,” she says.

3. Feeling fearful of displeasing others

Does this mean all people-pleasers are echoists? Not necessarily, though some of the signs may look similar, since, in both cases, Genatt says, “Fear can drive them to avoid conflict and be overly accommodating, making it difficult for them to say ‘no.’

4. Having low self-esteem

While narcissists act superior, echoists act (and feel) inferior. Genatt says they may downplay their worth or view themselves as less important or less valuable. “This can lead to feelings of insecurity and self-doubt,” she continues. Unfortunately, it can become a cycle.

5. Difficulty accepting praise (or any attention at all)

Echoists are afraid of being perceived as narcissistic in any way, which is where this comes into action. “Receiving positive feedback or attention can be incredibly uncomfortable for someone experiencing echoism because acknowledging their own strengths and merits can feel too close to narcissism,” McSparran explains.

As a result, they may try to minimize, explain away, or avoid any of that commentary or those situations. “This may look like the coworker who seems physically uncomfortable when you praise her productivity or attention to detail or the friend who would rather hide under the covers than have a birthday party where he is the center of attention,” she says.

6. Feeling they have few or no preferences

While part of echoism is not saying what you want, it can also entail not knowing what you want, or feeling like you don’t care either way. “An echoist response of ‘I don’t know’ may be completely genuine,” McSparran says. They may be so conditioned to devalue their own wants or take direction from others that they don’t know their preferences, she continues, saying this may look like a friend who “doesn’t care” what movie you watch.

7. Finding it easier to take up as little space as possible

Familiar with staying in the background and not speaking up, echoists feel most safe and comfortable that way. They don’t want to come across as burdens, McSparran says, adding that in their view, this feels better and easier “than acknowledging that they are full humans deserving of care, respect, self-direction, and a place in the world.”

8. Rejection sensitivity

While no one likes being rejected, to some extent, the experience may be especially difficult for echoists. “Rejection sensitivity is an emotionally painful level of dysregulation in emotions related to potential failure and rejection,” Dr. Kelley explains. As a result, she says individuals who experience this may be less likely to take healthy risks.

9. Unhealthy levels of empathy

Yes, it’s possible to be too empathic! Dr. Kelley says empathy can create a stress response in our bodies as we experience some of someone else’s pain with them.

“With echoists, this can cause issues with chronic pain, stress, emotion dysregulation, and finally fatigue from internalizing other’s pain and struggling to create healthy boundaries to protect oneself,” she adds. Because of those boundary challenges, she says, echoists may engage in situations or relationships they don’t want to.

10. Fear of abandonment

Not only do echoists fear speaking up and having needs, but they fear the ramifications they believe can result. So, they hate and avoid conflict at all costs.

“Echoists fear that if they express themselves, especially if it is not in agreement with someone else, that the person they are in a relationship with will leave them or stop loving them,” Dr. Kelley explains. While this may not make sense to people who aren’t echoists, it’s a very real fear.

What causes someone to be an echoist?

Parents “teaching” that behavior

Genatt says the way a person is raised can play a significant role in whether they become an echoist or not. “If someone grew up in an environment where they were taught to be exclusively compliant, always prioritize others, or were subjected to authoritarian or overbearing caregivers, they may develop echoist traits,” she says.

From another perspective, they may have had echoist caregivers who modeled this behavior, according to McSparran. “In these situations, echoists learn that it is simply ‘easier’ to minimize themselves in order to avoid further hurt and conflict,” she explains.

“Eggshell parenting”

Dr. Kelley shares this specific example of a childhood environment that can contribute to the development of echoism. She says “eggshell parenting” is when kids feel like they have to “walk on eggshells” in response to their parents’ unpredictable behavior, emotions, expectations, or outbursts.

As a result, she explains, children may be deterred from caring for their own needs in exchange for meeting their parents’ demands. It can be indirect in that way, or a result of more direct actions. “Many of these parents discourage their children from expressing their own needs, and also struggle to take ownership for their wrongdoings and train their children to chronically take the blame,” she adds.

Being a caretaker as a child

Further, if parents struggle with emotion regulation, a mental health condition, substance abuse, or other stressors, children may feel they have to be the “adult” in the situation. “This plays into the child in the caretaking role as they navigate how to calm their parent, as opposed to the preferred dynamic where parents teach their child to emotionally regulate through modeling or empathizing with their child’s needs,” Dr. Kelley explains.

Low self-esteem

When people don’t feel like they have anything of value to say, they may not say anything, right? That’s essentially what we’re talking about here. “When someone doesn’t have a strong sense of self-worth, they may struggle to assert their own needs and opinions,” Genatt says.

Insecure attachment style

This is another factor that starts in early childhood and continues into adulthood. We all develop one of three attachment styles: secure, anxious, or avoidant. Genatt says people with anxious or avoidant styles may be more prone to become echoists “as they may struggle with forming healthy boundaries and assertiveness in relationships.”

Experiencing shame or punishment for acting otherwise

Similar to some of the causes above, echoists can “learn” that their behaviors feel safer or more comfortable. “Echoism can be a means of adapting to relationships or situations in which there are perceived consequences to requiring care or attention, acting in one’s interest, or attempting to assert oneself,” McSparran says.

For example, she continues, they may have been shamed or punished for asking for support, expressing strong emotions, or advocating for themselves. This could happen at any point in life and have an impact, not just childhood if the experience is particularly emotionally intense.

Tips for working through and coping with echoism

Much like the challenges associated with narcissism, those linked with echoism spring from leaning too far in one direction: Just as it isn't beneficial to think the entire world revolves around you, it's also equally as unhelpful to think that you or your needs don't matter in the slightest.

Genatt says self-awareness, self-compassion, and a commitment to personal growth are important starting points for managing the challenges of echoism and are needed on an ongoing basis. Below are practical steps for moving in that direction.

Set boundaries

Focusing on everyone else all the time can be emotionally exhausting; you deserve to take care of yourself, too. “It’s okay to say ‘no’ when necessary and to prioritize your own needs and well-being,” Genatt says. As the saying goes, self-care isn’t selfish!

Then, McSparran encourages you to find ways to “manage related feelings of discomfort or guilt.” To help with this, you may want to remind yourself why you said no (and that you’re allowed to), distract yourself with a hobby you enjoy, or talk it out with someone you trust.

Be mindful of the company you keep

In other words, do your loved ones help you feel comfortable? Do they ask about what you want and genuinely want your input? Dr. Kelley encourages surrounding yourself “with supportive people who are themselves empathetic and compassionate.”

Further, those people are the ones you may want to try boundary setting with first. “Practice sharing your feelings with these safe individuals to reinforce that you are worthy of support as well as your own opinions,” she says. (More on this in a bit.)

Embrace yourself

While this tip sounds pretty big, it can be broken down into baby steps. To start, Genatt recommends identifying who you are, what you want, and what you need. She says journaling, mindfulness, and meditation can help you explore your thoughts and connect to your feelings.

Once you’ve got an idea, remind yourself that those aspects are good. “Celebrate your uniqueness and individuality,” Genatt says. “Embrace your own preferences and opinions, even if they differ from others.”

Practice being disagreeable

Have an idea of what you like and don’t like? Share it!

Dr. Kelley suggests disagreeing more freely, even if it’s difficult. You can start small, she says, with topics like music preferences and which restaurant to go to. “Each time you voice your preference, and especially if it differs from others, it supports your ego state and ability to remember that you are worthy of being cared for and regarded.”

Challenge unhelpful thoughts

Inevitably, some negative thinking may arise—but it doesn’t have to stick. “Work to notice and challenge self-blame and negative self-talk,” McSparran says. Asking a friend for a reality check, writing a letter to yourself, and taking deep breaths are skills that can help you avoid that shame spiral.

Being kind to yourself is crucial here. “Because these narratives have likely been reinforced for years, this can take some time and patience, but each effort is important in the healing process,” Dr. Kelley adds.

Encourage helpful thinking

Besides pointing out the inaccuracies in unhelpful thoughts, try to foster more positive ones, too. McSparran encourages you to “develop a more accurate self-image and build self-esteem.” According to the Mayo Clinic, this can look like calling out inaccurate thought patterns, forgiving yourself, engaging in activities that you enjoy, and spending time with people who love you.

Work with a therapist

These tips are easier said than done, of course, which is why professional help is often the way to go. “Because it is extremely difficult to see our own patterns clearly, working with a professional therapist can be deeply helpful in working through echoist tendencies,” McSparran says.

Genatt suggests therapists who specialize in assertiveness, self-esteem, and personal growth specifically.

“Remember that addressing echoist tendencies is a personal journey,” Genatt adds, “and it’s essential to be kind and patient with yourself as you work toward a healthier balance in your relationships and self-expression.”

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