I’ve recently read a really good book on narcissism, “Rethinking Narcissism” by Craig Malkin. He describes types of narcissism along a continuum with NPD at one extreme and what he calls echoism at the other end. All people fall somewhere along this line of either extreme deprecation and need lack, to extreme self-absorption and need demands. Malkin discusses several really important things in his book (he is a professor at Harvard Medical School, lectures in psychotherapy, is world expert on treating narcissism and had a narcissistic mother himself), this continuum of narcissism which we all lie on, the need for healthy narcissism in everyone, early red flags of narcissistic traits in people we meet and how to manage a narcissistic person who you have to deal with.
Echo was the water nymph who fell in love with Narcissus the utterly vain and self-absorbed youth in the Greek myth. She followed him around providing constant adoration and attentiveness. All that was left of her, having pined away in the face of his complete disregard, was her voice repeating the last few words he said. She lost herself in placing another’s needs ahead of her own, Narcissus lost himself in placing his needs ahead of everyone else. Both had lost any sense of balance.
I think the polar opposite of narcissism, echoism, isn’t talked about enough. I think it is a trait which a lot of people who find themselves inexplicably tangled up with a narcissist have but may not be aware of. I have also noticed how my NPD MIL can make her children act like echoes when she is around but that they can also copy her and demonstrate the same narcissistic traits when she isn’t. They flip from one end to the other.
What does Echoism Look Like?
I’ll quote Malkin here as he summarises it in his own words…
“The other thing that becomes clear as soon as you start viewing this way is the problem when people lack healthy narcissism. That’s a problem. We already know from the research that people who don’t have those rose coloured glasses view themselves and the world in a slightly dimmer light. Sometimes they’re more anxious, sometimes they’re more depressed. In my research with my colleagues, I dubbed this problem echoism. Echo was the nymph who was cursed to repeat back only the last few words she heard. Where Narcissus fell in love with his reflection, Echo fell in love with Narcissus. Like Echo, people who struggle with echoism struggle to have a voice of their own. They’re afraid of seeming narcissistic in any way. They’re afraid of being a burden. They berate themselves for being too needy. They blame themselves for problems that go wrong in relationships. In the mild range of echoism what we found is these are people who can be deeply empathic. They prefer to focus on others as opposed to themselves. The danger here is in lacking those rose coloured glasses, in shifting away from themselves to other people rather reflexively, echoists also tend to fall into relationships with extremely narcissistic partners and friends.”
“I’m a recovered echoist. Most people who have been raised by extremely narcissistic parents are vulnerable to this. I learned to echo my mother’s narcissism. The other thing I wanted to do was empower people who struggle in this way. There were no words for this. “
Struggle to have a voice of their own, don’t want to be a burden, reject their own needs, blame themselves for relationship problems. I can recognise myself as an adolescent and young adult in this description. Unlike Malkin, I wasn’t raised by an extreme narcissist, but I was raised in an abusive, domestically violent situation and was expected to be no bother to anyone, perfectly behaved and without needs as it was all my mother could do to contain my father’s unpredictable and violent outbursts and drink problem. I was very good at being seen and not heard or actually not seen and not heard. It was safer to take myself off to my room, deal with problems by myself, ask for nothing. When I was very young I would hide in a cupboard to be out of the way and to minimise the unbearable onslaught of scary behaviour around me. Echo hid behind trees to catch a glimpse of Narcissus but would never step forwards and present herself.
Malkin expended on his description of echoism in a discussion on Quora, the question and answer site,
“they’re afraid of becoming a burden, uncomfortable with attention (even if positive), and —it’s not a stretch to say —they hate having needs. They prefer to live life by the rule, “the less room I take up the better” and agree with statements like “I don’t know what I want or need from my relationships.”
“It’s best to think of it kind of like an unconscious contract—if I bury my needs, preferences, and feelings, maybe people will accept me.”
“[Echoism is] a complete absence of normal self-enhancement that causes a number of problems, not the least of which is that, like Echo—the nymph cursed to echo peoples’ words who pined to death for Narcissus — echoists tend to struggle with a voice of their own and fall in love with and befriend extremely narcissistic people. Why? Because narcissists are more than happy to take up all the room echoists are afraid to occupy.”
There is an upside to this also, echoist are not complete doormats with no self of their own. The orientation of an echoists attention onto other people’s needs and feelings makes them exceptional at caring professions and genuinely helpful, empathic friends and partners. As Malkin says,
“of all the people we studied, echoists were the most “warm hearted.” (yup, there’s a measure for that too).
So while they might be socially isolated, not all are, and many milder echoists can be wonderful care-takers (not martyrs).”
I think there is also a cultural facet to echoism. Malkin is American, a culture notorious for it’s brash extraversion and reinforcement of attention grabbing superstar behaviour. My Irish family would be horrified by the loudness and attention seeking of the average American person. In the small country town they came from someone walking down the high street in a new coat would have elicited comments like “Oooh, look at her thinking she’s so special in her posh coat…”. My mother would chastise me for ever drawing attention to myself by doing childlike things such as cartwheels (you’re showing your pants!), skipping down the street (that’s no way to walk to church), practising my ballet steps by looking at my reflection in the TV (stop admiring at yourself), you get the general idea. In many cultures all people or people of one gender or social class have prohibitions against self-enhancement.
Throwing someone who for whatever reason demonstrates echoism into a mix with people at the other extreme is a situation ripe for exploitation of the echoist by the narcissist.
Echoism and The Child of Narcissistic In-Laws
This part of Prof. Malkin’s description above really hits me in the gut, “echoists also tend to fall into relationships with extremely narcissistic partners and friends”. I hate, just hate to think that my childhood which was so incredibly difficult has set me up to choose a family of in-laws with the cancer of narcissism. Good God like I haven’t endured enough already! It makes me so angry. But it is correct.
If there is one thing I wish anyone reading this blog could take away and really, deeply understand it is that you have not found yourself in a relationship with the child of an extreme narcissist by accident.
We fall into relationships with the children of narcissists because we have what they want and they have a role for us which feels familiar. What do they want? The child of a narcissist has lacked many things in their upbringing as a result of their disordered mothers behaviour and it is inevitable that they will bring these unmet needs into your relationship. Something about you made them feel like you could satisfy these unmet needs. They can be very needy or as Malkin says they can be echo themselves and be very reluctant to even think about their own needs and still play a very subservient, servant relationship with their mother.
Unconsciously the child of a narcissist has expectations, as we all do, about how relationships with people work and they can act them out without ever having declared their expectations openly. Often these expectations are a set of unspoken rules about how power and control work in relationships and how one goes about getting needs met. For the abusiveness of the MIL to spill into our relationships we must cooperate in some way with this role.
Healthy narcissism lends itself towards open negotiation of needs and the rules around them as both people accept their own and others needs. Unhealthy narcissism or the lack of narcissism (echoism) tends towards an unbalanced and exploitive relationship where one set of needs gets unfair prominence and the other is left utterly unacknowledged. If you are an echo yourself you can fall into a preprepared role with its unspoken set of rules with the child of a narcissist. So where if at all is the echo in your situation? Who is being echo if MIL is being Narcissus?
There are 4 possible combinations of echo-narcissus that may describe your relationship, your spouse and their mother’s relationship or your in-laws’ relationship.
Echo with Echo
Your partner could expect you to go along with their echoist behaviour and become their co-echo around their mother. If you have echo tendencies yourself you can both become stuck in a pattern of always letting NPD MIL run the show and be unable to assert your needs to each other never mind to her. You would be left with a deep feeling of unfulfilled potential in your marriage and intrusion from the outside.
The rest of the NPD MIL’s family may also play echo roles, a weak FIL and echo children who all play court to her Royal Highness narcissistic MIL is a common set up. Are you filling the role of another echo servant in the life of the Duchess of Up Her Own Arse?
Relationships like this result in both partners being treated badly by the NPD MIL, boundaries being violated left right and centre, the NPD MIL walking into the house whenever she likes and serious concerns about her influence on grandchildren arise. Eventually one partner breaks the pattern and starts pushing back. This can be quite terrifying to the child of the NPD mother. If both echoes can stand together though they make a solid team against the NPD mother and her shenanigans.
Echo with Narcissus
Alternatively your partner could echo in your own relationship and put you on a pedestal whether you want it or not. Indeed some children of narcissists marry narcissists although such narc partners generally wouldn’t be searching the internet for help with their NPD MILs and reading blogs like this. They end up being the subject of blogs called “So I Married a Narcissist…”.
Such an echo partner is unable to stand up for you in the face of NPD MIL’s attacks and manipulations. They may also have similarly exploitive friends or work associates and a history of finding themselves in close company with other narcissistic people. They may be the one sibling who is not like mum whereas others are mini-me narcissists. Extreme echoes would be attracted to confidence and self assurance which granted narcissists have on the surface but they can also be attracted to genuinely confident people, finding yourself partnered with an echo doesn’t automatically mean you are an unhealthy narcissist!
Aside from the obviously narcissistic partners, having a spouse who puts themselves last all the time is not a good relationship to be in. They treat you as a copy of their mother even if you are not NPD yourself, they know no other way, to them acting like echo is how you demonstrate love. They map that behaviour straight onto you, even reacting fearfully as if you were going to be as abusive as their mothers. They can harbour long term resentment and act in passive-aggressive ways or become silent and withdrawn, unable to ask for help and support that they may need. They may find relationships smothering and be quite avoidant in their behaviour. It can be frustrating and lonely to be in relationship with someone who is unable to share their inner world with you because they have never paid attention to it and would rather run screaming from the room than let you in.
Remember the definition of echo is someone who denies, even fees from their own needs and is very uncomfortable with any attention. The old TV series “Absolutely Fabulous” with Jennifer Saunders as the flamboyant, grotesquely self-absorbed designer and her mousy, shy daughter is a narcissus-echo pair.
Narcissus with Echo
The third possibility is that you are the echo to your spouse’s narcissism. Children of NPD mothers can learn narcissistic behaviour and copy their mother’s way of relating to people without even realising it. They can develop their own narcissistic traits as a way of compensating for the deep emotional neglect their mother caused in their own childhoods. Partnering with someone who has strong echo traits means they get all their needs met just as they had to meet their mothers and this is fair to them.
They can act as an echo to their mother, being very attentive, looking for her praise and approval, not wishing to upset her and then once she has gone they can act in exactly the same ways she did but with you. I know of people who describe how the narcissistic MIL teams up with the narcissistic spouse against the echo spouse, both acting very haughty and superior and mocking the echo-spouse. The narcissist spouse is very unlikely to be aware of any family dysfunction, you will in all likelihood be the one to uncover it. That can really devastate the family image and your spouse will make you pay for it.
This is one way you can separate out real echoes from pseudo-echo communal/covert narcissists. The real echoes will a) already know their mothers dominate everything and b) be deeply upset for YOU when you reveal how hurt you have been by MIL’s behaviour. The pseudo-echo communal narcissist will a) not be willing to face that there is anything wrong with their family and b) feel very sorry for themselves while refuting, dismissing, denying and minimising anything you say on the matter.
I hear of overt grandiose narcissistic mothers who rear communal/covert narcissistic children and vice versa so the narcissism is there in the spouse too but revealed in different behaviours. I was fooled for a long time into thinking only very cocky arrogant behaviour or snobby superiority was narcissism. People who fall over themselves to demonstrate how “nice/Christian/helpful” they are are just as obsessed with their self-image it merely manifests in a different way.
It can be particularly hard to see if you are supporting your spouse with their very challenging mother (acting like a good echo) and putting your spouse’s feelings and problems foremost. It is hard to spot that sometimes having their problems and feelings at the centre all the time and needing reassurance by talking about how horrible mummy is etc is actually a way of self-enhancing at your expense. If you stand up for your own needs they can easily switch into oh-poor-me martyrdom. Not all narcissism is about showing off accomplishments sometimes narcissists feel special and enhance their self-image by being long-suffering victims.
Narcissus with Narcissus
Finally of course both the child of the NPD mother and the spouse can exhibit extreme narcissistic traits. I have heard of situations where both MIL and FIL appear extremely narcissistic and back each other to the hilt. I have never met anyone like this but presumably this works a bit like Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, both people love attention and adulation and both feel important and enhanced by association with the other. Their mate has something they value highly like good looks, fame, wealth or whatever and they have other people to supply to their needs. The idea of multiple narcissists in one family makes my head spin.
There are of course other combinations, you or your spouse may be in a place of healthy narcissism due to good parenting, good fortune, good therapy, a clear view of their mother and her behaviour etc. Healthy and echo will work if healthy encourages echo to speak up more, positively enhancing them both, also healthy and slightly narcissistic can work if the healthy uses what Malkin calls empathy prompts to push the slightly narcissistic partner to notice the other’s needs.
Partners with healthy narcissism are far less likely to put up with nonsense from an NPD MIL. They can support the child of the narcissist to break out of old behaviours and become more healthy themselves provided their isn’t a huge level of denial around the MIL’s behaviour or abusive behaviour within the relationship.
Sadly I can see how my echoist behaviour was attractive to my husband. As I have worked hard on myself with my therapist and by reading and reflecting on all of this I have moved my position along the echo—-narcissus continuum. This is the single most encouraging thing about this whole horrible situation for me. Despite my crappy childhood and poor marriage choice I have become a person far more capable of recognising and valuing my own needs, better at standing my ground, I found my own voice (writing this blog was part of that) and stating my preferences. And you know what, I am more accepted now as a result than I was while being more of an echo. I am noticed and accepted by different people and am far less appealing to the narcissists. I don’t notice needy people hoovering up my attention, if I find someone like that has snuck their way into my social sphere I can keep a healthy distance and my neediness doesn’t turn normal people away, it gives them an opportunity to be helpful and what do you know, people actually like doing things for others!
It’s OK to feel special about yourself in fact Malkin would say it is necessary to believe you are a bit above average (apparently most people think this even though it is statistically impossible). You are allowed to feel good and to see your Narcissus MIL as the fool she really is shake your head and say “girl what were you thinking?!” and walk away. Walk away from your relationship too if they are as narcissistic. Let them starve to death staring at their own bloody reflection, I’m not sticking around to watch.