You’re doubtless asking yourself what I mean exactly since narcissism has become The Big Bad Wolf of popular psychology; who wants to be narcissistic? Well, no one wants to be high in narcissism but did you know that some people don’t have enough healthy self-regard and that, in some ways, they’re just as problematic as the folks at the other end of spectrum—yes, the Big Bad Wolf types—with their grandiosity, lies, and lack of empathy. As Dr. Craig Malkin explains in his book, Rethinking Narcissism, there’s actually a spectrum of narcissism.
Imagine a line if you will: On the far right, you’ll find those who are extreme narcissists, the very people we want to be wary of. They are high in control, very vindictive, and all about their own needs and not yours. In the middle are the people who have healthy regard and function well in the world, can be trusted as friends and lovers, and have resilience in the wake of setbacks. But on the far left of the line is the echoist.
If you’d like to take Dr. Malkin’s quiz and find out where you fall, go here.
Who is the echoist?
The term derives from the same myth that gave us the word “narcissism.” Echo was a wood nymph who ran afoul of the goddess Hera and was punished by being reduced to an echo—able only to repeat the words uttered by others. The beautiful Narcissus was granted eternal life on the condition that he never saw his own reflection. Alas, poor Echo fell in love with Narcissus who, as it happens, caught sight of himself in a pool of water and became so infatuated with his reflection that he simply pined away. Echo became, yes, an echo.
The echoist wants to hide in plain sight; he or she is uncomfortable with praise and drawing attention to him or herself. What causes someone to be an echoist? Growing up with a controlling, abusive, or narcissistic mother or father (or both) where one way of surviving is to stay under the radar. This child may fear being narcissistic too or, alternatively, comes to understand that having needs and wants is a dangerous thing in the family so the child learns to stay mum. Being voiceless becomes a way of staying safe.
While echoists are uncomfortable both acknowledging and voicing their own needs, they are eager and happy to do for others; are you a person who’s always the one a friend turns to a pinch and you drop everything to help but you never ask for anything in return? Mind you, helpfulness is a good thing but not if you forget yourself in the process as the echoist does. The echoist’s life is often self-limiting by definition; unplugged from her or his own needs and wants, he or she often sets the bar low, avoiding failure rather than taking on the risks that going after a goal always entails.
Because we are all drawn to the familiar in romantic connections—see the root which is also the basis for word family? —the adult echoist may find him or herself in a relationship with someone very high in narcissistic traits, a pairing of one end of the spectrum with the other end as in the original myth. Alas, this is a “perfect” fit from the narcissist’s point of view, if not from the long-suffering echoist’s. The problem here is that it’s a match made in narcissistic Heaven because when things go south, the echoist will pin the blame on her or himself like this: “I asked too much of her,” “I was too demanding of him,” “I’m too sensitive and he’s right that did nothing wrong,” or “Her needs are hers and I should do what I can to meet them.” Say hello to the carousel and buying a ticket to get on is easy but getting off is way, way harder.
What does the echoist sound like?
My mother disapproved of showing emotion—all emotions. If I cried, I was weak and a pitiful wuss, and she’d humiliate and shame me. If I asked for something, she’d mock me for asking so I stopped asking. If I was proud of myself and made the mistake of saying so, she would say I had a swelled head and needed to be taken down a peg or two. Trying to be invisible and keeping my mouth zipped were how I made it through childhood.
I was the middle boy of three and I was his target. Shorter than the rest but also smarter and he hated that. He thought intellect was for pussies, you know. I was valedictorian, college scholar, became a lawyer. Didn’t matter. Still feel the shame. I don’t like asking anyone for anything or relying on people.
Mind you, echoism is not a diagnosis; it’s a trait and it’s quite different from being introverted. Introverted people may shun the limelight too but they can also have healthy self-esteem; the echoist does not.
Using echoism for self-awareness and understanding
One thing I’ve discovered in the course of listening to many women for my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, is that daughters whose emotional needs weren’t met in childhood— who grew up unsupported, unloved, ignored, or marginalized— either become chronic underachievers in their adult lives or become very successful in their chosen paths but still remain plagued by self-doubt. They often feel fraudulent despite their outward success. This appears to be an either/or kind of thing; there are very few daughters who occupy the middle ground. Echoism adds another layer of understanding to why these daughters are either unable to set and attain goals for themselves, in the case of the underachiever, or why daughters who are outwardly successful don’t derive the same pleasure and sense of achievement that a woman who was loved and supported in childhood does,
Underachieving is the echoist’s hallmark, keeping her out of the limelight and in the shadows where she’s most comfortable. Echoism too explains why outward success in the unloved daughter can absolutely coexist with the sneaking suspicion that she’s a fake about to be found out; the truth is that she’s really an echoist at heart, afraid that if people find out who she really is, they will hightail it out of her life.
While many of us are focused on avoiding the painful run-ins with those who are high in narcissistic traits, it’s important that we recognize that strong self-regard and even the need to feel special some of the time are what we’d like to see in ourselves and our potential friends and partners. Ghosting ourselves in life is actually no better than being trapped by the sight of our reflection both for individual happiness and, yes, partnership.
Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.
Photograph by Milan Popovic. Copyright Free. Unsplash.com