Echoism - the silent condition in narcissistic relationships

Echoism is a term that has been popularised in the last couple of years and which has, until recently, been largely misunderstood as a form of narcissism. This article will help you to understand more about echoism (as clients or therapists), and is for anyone wanting to share their own experiences of echoism.


What is echoism?

The term was originally used in 2005 by Dean Davis, an American psychoanalyst. Davis alerted the analytic community to a condition he observed in the partners of narcissists and suggested much more research needed to be done into these individuals whom he called 'echoists'. In 2011, I undertook a seven-year study of such individuals, whom I have come to define as echoists, and published the findings in a Routledge book Echoism: the silenced response to Narcissism in 2018.

Craig Malkin has also written extensively about the subject in America. There have been many articles on the subject which vary in depth, detail, and understanding. 

What is an echoist?

An echoist is most easily defined as someone who is prone to being in relationships with narcissists, either in external relationships or internally manifesting as someone who struggles to exist as a person in their own right. In its most benign form, it can produce traits of subservience, people-pleasing, and not voicing one's own thoughts and wishes.

In its most extreme form, it can describe a pathology - one resulting in a way of life in which the individual forgoes having their voice, their existence, and agency, and it can cause complete isolation from others.

The term narcissism originates from psychoanalytic investigations into individuals who present like the character Narcissus (who famously falls in love with his own reflection) from Ovid’s version of the myth of Echo and Narcissus. Echoists resemble more closely the less well-known and often silenced and marginalised character, Echo. She has a curse put upon her in which she loses the ability to speak her thoughts, and can only repeat back those of Narcissus, the creature whom she is fated to fall in love with and who can never love her back.

How to recognise if someone is an echoist

There are no official diagnostic criteria for echoism at this stage, but one can be alerted to echoism in oneself or others when observing a combination of some of the following characteristics:

  • repeated relationships with narcissistic partners or friends
  • an inability to leave a damaging relationship with a narcissistic other or inability to put boundaries in place
  • a fear of speaking one’s thoughts or opinions aloud
  • persecuting oneself and feeling shame for having spoken aloud
  • the need to seek approval and do what others think rather than doing what feels right; this can also result in not knowing what feels right
  • experiencing some pleasure, comfort, or familiarity in suffering at the hands of a narcissist
  • a paralysing fear of upsetting others by drawing attention to their unreasonable demands or behaviours
  • defensive or avoidant behaviours resulting from having a narcissistic parent who has always caused the echoist to feel like she must tread on eggshells in order not to provoke a reaction or attack
  • not being able to speak in a group
  • a prone-ness to being missed, left out, overlooked, or ignored
  • self-persecution and constant self-criticism
  • someone isolated from others who has an absence of nurturing relationships in which there is room to grow, develop, and share agency and responsibility
  • someone who seems to carry out cruel or sadistic actions at the will of another with no feeling of responsibility (a henchman through whom evil and terror is enacted). Such a person might be heard to say "well I did it because X told me to..."

What causes echoism?

Do we know what determines whether we become echoists or not? Is it nature or nurture? Well, because identifying echoism as a real issue is so recent and new, there is still much research to be carried out concerning causality. At this stage, nurture certainly plays a role in the individual developing a voice of their own.

If the individual is the child of a narcissistic parent who forces their own will upon the child’s evolving identity, it will be difficult for that child to listen to or know her thoughts and wishes. This very same experience can result in a narcissist who takes on the parent’s wish to have produced a 'special' child by repeating the same behaviour as the parent and believing themselves to be special or more important than others.

It is unclear at this stage whether there is anything innate that influences whether such a child might turn out to display narcissism or echoism. It is often the case that siblings of the same parents may take on similar roles and emulate the relationship between a narcissistic partner and one who enables it through being echoistic.

Culture and gender - are there more echoists in certain groups?

Again, much more research is required for both gender and determining cultural factors. More females indeed present in therapy as echoistic, and this may well be a result of patriarchal dominance and heritage. There may be other factors that explain why men are less likely to seek therapy for echoism, including shame at feeling weak or 'non-masculine'.

In cultures where there is less emphasis on joint parenting, or where gender and status are strongly-influencing factors in power relationships, echoism and narcissism can be less visible and passed off as 'the natural order of things'. There are also cultures in which it is deemed appropriate to suffer in silence, or where seeking help is frowned upon.

Echoism may also be a way of understanding brainwashing, and offering insight into world politics or even situations in which individuals carry out acts of harm or terror that put themselves and others at risk on behalf of a powerful individual or organisation. More research into these areas is vital.

Are there more echoists today than there used to be?

It is impossible to say, as echoists have remained invisible or 'unheard' until recent times. Phrases like 'codependent' and 'enabler' have contributed to the echoist being missed as a subject in their own right, and to them receiving the help they need to understand their role in relationship dynamics and configurations in their internal world.

Is echoism a phenomenon in its own right?

Some experts, including Malkin, argue that echoism exists on a spectrum with narcissism on one end and echoism on the other, however, I disagree with this. I see echoism as a phenomenon in its own right that exists as part of what I call the 'echoistic narcissistic complex' (ENC). The main evidence is that, wherever you find echoism, you find narcissism.

My work with echoistic clients over the last eight years of researching and writing the book shows that there is almost always a narcissistic parent in the background. Also, that echoists seek out narcissists unconsciously, as a repetition-compulsion, and to avoid having the pain that arises when having to confront their own internal and external relationship patterns.

What is the connection between echoism and narcissism?

If we return to the myth, Echo needs Narcissus to exist at all and, when he stops relating to her, she fades and dies. If we understand echoism and narcissism as being discrete from one another, we can work with both individuals to look at what they seek from the other and, through therapy, address and recover from toxic relating.

When there is a strongly established figure in the internal world of the echoist, this often has the impact of silencing them and stopping them from relating to any others, including a therapist. Like the curse placed upon Echo in the myth, the inability to speak to draw attention to her plight and to make herself heard is the fate of the silenced echoist.

Other critics say so-called echoists are just passive, shy, or insecure people. The distinction between echoists and passive/shy individuals is specifically to do with relating. Although different causes may result in similar manifestations or symptoms, if the individual has a history of relationships with narcissists, this points to an echoistic individual. The therapeutic work to understand this and form a new and different type of relationship with the client requires recognition of echoism as distinct from other depressive manifestations.

Are there any benefits to being an echoist?

There are no real benefits but, instead, there are defences in place which allow the echoistic individual to avoid the anxiety created in taking their freedom and responsibility for agency and for impacting others in the world. Echoists may also feel some relief in not having to be the subject of anyone’s interest - allowing the narcissistic partner to lead, take the limelight, and make all the decisions.

In the following example, we see how echoism affects James:

James, 26, a philosophy student, had been in therapy for two months. He had found making contact with the therapist and staying present in sessions difficult unless he was talking about his partner Clare. Clare was, he said, incredibly beautiful, and much cleverer than him; she was sophisticated and decisive, and when he felt loved by her it was the most amazing feeling in the world. Unfortunately, however, much of the time she was unavailable; she would say she loved him then - when he began to feel relieved - she would say she was not sure that was true or that she could love anybody.

He had found a sheet of paper where she had written his name at the top and listed those things she felt were positive and negative about him. He had tried to change some of the negative things but others were impossible to change, such as her feeling that he came from a less affluent and influential background than her. Clare made promises and broke them constantly. When they went out together she would turn her attention away from James and smile and gaze at other men in a way that made James feel insecure and inadequate. When he tried to address it with her, she became angry and said if he didn’t like her as she was, he should leave.

James felt growing desperation. He was constantly changing his life to fit around Clare and to do what she wanted, and although there were moments of genuine pleasure these were becoming fewer and fewer, and he had begun to feel that a good day was a day when they had shared a pleasant moment, a brief lull in amongst what felt like an ongoing storm. He was, he said, hungry for just a morsel of affection, and receiving this was just enough to hold onto until the next. He said his energy was depleted, his friends were becoming angry with him for neglecting them, and he felt hopeless.

How to heal from echoism

What can people who are seriously affected by their echoistic tendencies do to moderate them, or at least alleviate their effects?

Understanding and awareness are key. Reading about echoism can help orient echoists to a therapist who understands echoism, and help them to recognise their echoistic traits. Echoists are prone to be overlooked and, in the past, they have even been mistaken for narcissists themselves. A nuanced approach to treatment is, therefore, essential.

Expecting an echoist to leave a narcissistic relationship or to put new boundaries in place without a therapist or an informed network of individuals (such as a group of fellow sufferers) can leave the echoist even more isolated, unsupported, and without the internal strength and tools to manage without the narcissist. Information and correct support are key.

How can therapy help?

The idea of keeping tendencies in check is a complex one because much of what happens that keeps the echoist trapped is unconscious and has often become a way of being established in infancy. Spending time with a therapist and analysing what happens in the individual mind of each echoist, consciously and unconsciously, creates an opportunity to see what leads to the kind of thinking that perpetuates their echoism.

In nearly all the minds of echoists, there is an internal voice that is not only critical and punitive but which seems to be an authority over the self. It acts as if it is superego (or conscience) but, instead of working to help the individual make good and healthy decisions, it warns against doing anything that might enable growth or propel the echoist towards healthy relationships in which the individual’s voice can be nurtured and heard.

This internal voice acts as a god and purports to know everything and to be superior (for it is a narcissistic voice often internalised from a narcissistic parent). Once a recovering echoist is aware of this voice and can tell it apart from her emerging voice, they can then question its authority and make more decisions that are in her interest.

There are now many courses which include echoism as part of training or CPD undertaken by therapists. If you think you are an echoist and are looking for a therapist who understands echoism, you should feel free to ask them if they are familiar with the term.

Echoists are often very creative and express themselves more comfortably through other art forms. If you find speaking aloud difficult, you may want to bring things into therapy to help you communicate aspects of yourself until you feel more confident. These might include paintings, poetry, creative writing, etc. Again, it is worth discussing this in an initial contact or an assessment with a therapist.

If you feel you are not the person with the issue, or that you would be wasting somebody's valuable time, or that you are less important or valuable than others, and you worry that what you have to say is not relevant, you almost certainly need to seek help and to find a therapist who is committed to helping you; to understand yourself and your roles in relationships.

If you can relate to three or more of the traits above and, chiefly, if you are in a long-term or have repeated relationships with narcissists, you may well be an echoist.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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