While many of us know about the narcissist who loves any kind of attention, there’s an equally fascinating counterpart—the echoist.

What is echoism?

Echoism is sometimes considered the opposite of narcissism, but central to being an echoist is a fear of seeming narcissistic. They fear being the center of attention or a burden to others. Individuals like that tend to be warmhearted, to the point of overgiving and under-receiving. They also tend to be self-effacing and overly modest. Unfortunately, in obsessing over how not to be like the narcissist who is self-absorbed, the echoist is ironically also self-absorbed.

The term was coined by clinical psychologist and expert on narcissism Craig Malkin, Ph.D., and people who exhibit traits of echoism—my younger self included—tend to be vulnerable to abuse from dark personality types, including narcissists and various types of psychopaths.

The story of Narcissus and Echo. 

Narcissists and echoists get their names from ancient Greek mythology. Narcissus was the nymph who fell in love with his reflection, obsessing over it to the point that he neglected food and rest, and died. But few of us know Echo’s tragic tale. Echo was condemned to repeat the last words anyone uttered to her, and when she fell in love with Narcissus, she could sadly only echo him. Rejected, she grieved and died. 

Characteristics of an echoist:

1. Afraid to take up any space.

Echoists assiduously avoid any (real or imagined) spotlight. Even subtly acknowledging their accomplishments or needs makes them feel selfish, undeserving, or guilty—they’re constantly on the lookout in case they appear narcissistic.

2. Low self-esteem.

In his book Rethinking Narcissism, Malkin states that echoists have low self-esteem, often feeling anxious, exhausted, and depressed.

3. Everybody else comes first.

Echoists are great at taking care of others and solving their problems, often to the point that this is what their identity revolves around. Whatever their needs and wishes, echoists will find a way to explain why things are the way they are, even at the cost of their well-being. 

4. Double standards.

Echoists believe it’s OK for others to have needs and desires, but they see it as a weakness for themselves to have needs and desires. It’s also hard for echoists to receive care and affection. 

5. Poor boundaries

Echoists have weak boundaries or aren’t even aware that they are allowed to have boundaries. They say yes even when they mean no.

6. Deliberately self-effacing.

Echoists work hard to demonstrate how un-arrogant they are, often to their detriment. For instance, they may doggedly talk about how they’ll never be one of those people who knows how to introduce themselves (or their jobs) smoothly, and they belittle your own views. Their language is tentative and hesitant, peppered excessively with qualifiers, like “kind of,” “um,” “could be,” that diminish your communication or presence.   

7. Interactions with envious relatives or peers.

Malkin explains that echoism may be rooted in upbringing. For instance, if one’s parents discouraged pride or modeled self-effacement, then children might grow up to be the same. There are other cases of parents who are secretly envious of their child’s talents and accomplishments and are mounting their own unmet dreams, therefore attacking others who have the spotlight. Echoism may also be seeded by attacks from envious siblings, and in an attempt to protect oneself, echoists avoid standing out at all costs, resorting to self-sabotage behaviors such as delaying studying or turning papers in. 

8. Never asking for help. 

Malkin also describes the case of “subtle echoism.” These individuals are run by the rule to not need anything at all. While being noticed is OK, it’s only within the context of what they are doing for others. Focusing on others’ problems makes them more likable and lovable. It’s an unconscious strategy to prevent rejection while distracting oneself from one’s own demands and worries.

Subtle echoists keep close tabs on their requests, afraid to cross the line into selfishness; however, in all our lives, there are points when we inadvertently need more. This is where subtle echoists start to experience emotional distress and breakdown in their daily functioning.

How to heal as an echoist. 

Malkin says that life as an echoist “is just as bleak” as a narcissist. In fact, he makes the case for healthy narcissism. (Yes, not every narcissist has narcissistic personality disorder.)

“At the heart of healthy narcissism is the capacity to love and be loved on a grand scale. People who live in the center of the spectrum don’t always take to the stage, but when they do, they often lift others up with them,” he explains. “People who live in the center know when their grandiosity is getting the better of them. They know when they’re getting too caught up in themselves.” 

Here’s how to cope with being an echoist and practice building those muscles of healthy narcissism:

1. Take inventory of what makes you great.

Make an honest inventory of what you have accomplished and should be proud of. Chances are, you’ll be a little stumped, so ask your closest circle, “What do you think I’m good at?” and “What are my best traits?” Or, “How would you introduce me to a total stranger?”

Curate your “jaw of awesome,” as Tim Ferriss calls it. This is your list of everything awesome you’ve done—what you’ve added or subtracted from your life, mental breakthroughs, improvements, etc. It doesn’t matter if you judge them as “too small/silly/easy.” All that matters is that it means something to you.

2. Assert your boundaries.

Know that you are allowed to have healthy boundaries, and you can assert them gracefully. Simply say, “No, I don’t want to [action].” Often, most reasonable people will not need any explanation. Also, if you are not aware of what your boundaries are, start writing a list of the Hell No’s in your life.

3. Practice putting yourself first.

If you burn out, everybody suffers. Every day, practice one thing where you are taking care of yourself. Perhaps it’s taking 10 minutes for a long walk, giving yourself three minutes to breathe, or treating yourself to a well-deserved bar of chocolate. Small habits that translate to big wins add up.

4. Heal the traumas and rewrite the script.

Often, echoism is reinforced by traumatic experiences of abuse, so we are run by a script of shrinking away. Know that you can heal from trauma and live a whole and joyful life. This might require help by working with a professional. 

5. Learn to turn your perceived “weaknesses” into strengths.

Stop fearing some dark behaviors. Learn to leverage them instead. Here’s where narcissists can actually be our greatest teachers: They serve as the opposite to tell us what we need to heal in our lives. For instance, it’s OK to learn to be strategic, especially in a professional context or if you’re embroiled in a legal battle.

Ultimately, there is a deep fear of being unhealthily narcissistic, and what echoists fail to realize is that they have deep reserves of empathy which the narcissist lacks. I often frame it this way with my clients: Imagine you have a good karma bank that is fat and earning compound interest. If you were to simply be a little less echoist, you are merely drawing from the interest. There are tons of reserves left.

The bottom line.

We fear becoming the opposite of who we are, but that’s just our brains resisting change and being pedantic. Know that you merely want to become balanced—to have a healthy dose of narcissism that allows you to shine and allows you to model self-esteem and confidence for the people you love. 

“People feel closer to us when we allow ourselves to become a gleam in their eyes,” Malkin says. “Enjoying our moments on the pedestal elevates not only us but also those we love.”

Keen to heal from echoism and have a healthy sense of self-love? Contact DrP to find out more.