Afraid to put your own voice and opinions out there? If you’re more comfortable blending into the background, you may be displaying echoist behaviours...

You’ve probably heard of narcissism before – and may even know a narcissist yourself. Well those who might display a lack of empathy, an inflated sense of self-importance, and a need for attention, actually have an opposite, which you may not be as familiar with – echoists.

Are your friends and family always encouraging you to open up about your feelings? Do you feel sick whenever you get a bit of limelight? Do you actively downplay your successes to avoid any unwanted attention? Do you struggle to describe what your own personal interests and hobbies are, finding it easier to latch on to things that your partner enjoys? These are just a few red flags which could mean that you are experiencing echoism.

The stuff of legend...

The name for the mental health disorder narcissism was actually inspired by a Greek mythological character. Narcissus was so self-obsessed that he was cursed to fall in love with his own reflection, and part of his story involved his partner Echo – a forest nymph who was punished by the goddess Juno for talking too much. Echo’s ability to express herself was taken away, and in the absence of a voice of her own, she was only able to speak by repeating the last few words she heard from others. This is where the term echoism originates from and, as with the myth, the behaviours are often intertwined.

Cognitive behavioural psychotherapist and Counselling Directory member Peter Klein says: “Sufferers with such tendencies will often have had a narcissist as a parent. Narcissists tend to have opposite tendencies and use sufferers to fulfil their own needs and desires, which can make the tendencies of echoism even worse.”

Recognising the reflection

Coined by Harvard Medical School lecturer Dr Craig Malkin, the term echoist describes someone who, like the Greek nymph Echo, struggles to have an autonomous voice. They tend to emphasise other people’s needs over their own, and have difficulty accepting compliments. In more serious cases, sufferers can’t define their own identity because they automatically take on the interests and desires of those around them, leaving no room for their own preferences. Echoism is a personality trait, which is thought to intensify as a coping mechanism in response to living with a narcissist.

Echoists aren’t easy to spot and they don’t present themselves as you might expect. They are often highly intelligent individuals who are kind, supportive, and successful to boot. But if you go against their wishes, when they adamantly state they don’t want a fuss (such as with a surprise party), be prepared for them to potentially kick off...

Echoism in relationships

Echoists tend to feel things more intensely, and feel more empathetic than the average person. When exposed to a narcissistic parent, they often learn not to express freely, because displaying emotions evokes a negative response from their caregiver. The child is solely focused on managing the overwhelming emotional needs of the parent, leaving little room for their own. The echoist will grow up believing life is easier when they take up as little space as possible in a relationship, and will rarely share their problems because they fear burdening others. Ironically, they often worry that they will appear selfish and narcissistic.

Unfortunately, cutting off ties with the parent in question doesn’t solve the problem. In fact, it can often lead to a noticeable dip in self-esteem, and even bouts of depression. “Self-doubt, worries, and self-criticism are accompanying features,” says Peter. “These make it even harder for the sufferer to express their own needs and desires.” In some cases, it then perpetuates the cycle and makes the echoist the ideal prey for another narcissist.

Echoists give endlessly to emotionally-needy friends, leaving little room to talk about their own problems

Echoism can play out in romantic relationships, too. Women are thought to be more vulnerable than men, and children of narcissistic parents often find themselves drawn to one-sided relationships in adulthood.

Those affected will gladly give their partner attention, and shower them with compliments, but actively shun anything when it’s reciprocated.

Platonic friendships can also act as the breeding ground for this counter-dependent behaviour. Echoists give endlessly to emotionally-needy friends, leaving little room to talk about their own problems. On the surface, this suits the echoist just fine. But in reality, it can cause complex emotional, identity, and attachment issues, which often centre around excessive feelings of guilt.

Rediscovering your voice

Treatment for echoism tends to focus on teaching the person to recognise their own behaviours, and express the emotions that have gone repressed for so long. Peter says: “Understanding one’s own needs in relevant situations, and the practice of expressing these in a graded manner, can be helpful. Due to the complexity and individual expressions of echoism, this is best performed in conjunction with a suitably trained professional.”

For more information on echoism visit