Last week, three long-time friends and I were trying to pick a restaurant for dinner. The conversation went something like this:
Friend 1: Where should we go to dinner?
Friend 2: Anywhere!
Me: Yes, anywhere. What sounds good to people?
Friend 1: Well, there’s the Mexican place, or this other Mexican place, or this Italian place, or this Italian place in a different part of the city.
Friend 2: Yes, any of those. Maybe the Mexican place. Or the Italian place. Or the other Italian place.
Friend 3: Yeah, I like all of those places.
…30 minutes before we were scheduled to meet, I finally – reluctantly – took the reins and made the executive decision that we would go to the restaurant that I knew was most convenient for the friend who had a long drive back home out-of-state that night. “Great,” said everyone. Dinner was lovely, despite our ridiculous indecisiveness.
This week, I stumbled upon a psychology term I was shocked to have never learned before: Echoism. “Echoism” is not a diagnosis you’ll find in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Nonetheless, it is a useful term to know and one that often rings true in relation to ourselves or those with whom we have relationships.
In the simplest terms, echoists are the opposite of narcissists. They have an aversion to getting a lot of attention and a fear of appearing narcissistic, so they instead avoid stating their preferences, make efforts to be extremely considerate, dismiss compliments, and resist anything that might make them appear selfish. Echoists tend to be very warm-hearted and are highly attuned to the needs of others. The idea of being a “burden” on anyone evokes a sense of shame. Echoists can skillfully echo the feelings and needs of others, but they are at a loss about their own. Because of these traits, echoists sometimes find themselves in one-sided relationships, in which they are so concerned with not being “needy” that they don’t get any of their needs met. A “mild” echoist might just appear to be a highly supportive friend, who is a great listener but who barely ever shares her own fears or dreams. In the extreme, an echoist’s need to never feel special might cause them to suffer from anxiety or depression. Psychological research has taught us that a little bit of narcissism is okay; it’s normal to feel special from time to time. And a slightly elevated self-image contributes to positive outcomes such as resilience in the face of failure. Thus, the echoist’s aversion to being “special” can be just as problematic as the narcissist’s obsession with it.
Researchers believe that echoism is a trait that often develops in childhood as a “survival strategy”: In order to be safe and cared for, I need to give as much as possible and ask for as little as possible. Echoists may learn as children that they can’t turn to others when they are afraid or hurting, or trust that others will soothe them, so they bury their needs in the hope that being undemanding will earn them acceptance and love. Like with most personality traits, echoists probably become so through a combination of both nature and nurture. Certain individuals are born with a high degree of emotional sensitivity, and some of these individuals will be born to parents who shame or punish them for having any needs at all. These children are more likely to become echoists. For many of us, it seems that echoism is a trait that will come up from time to time, in varying degrees. With my closest friends, it will mean we will always take forever to settle on a spot for dinner.
No matter how the trait develops, understanding its origins could help someone overcome the aspects of it that are most problematic to them. The first step is to break the habit of self-blame. This can be done by recognizing that self-blame is an action, not a feeling. By acknowledging that it’s something we do to ourselves, we can take responsibility for actively treating ourselves differently. We can begin to replace the question, “What did I do wrong?” with “Am I feeling disappointed?” or “Am I afraid to share my real feelings?” This shift allows more space to feel and express the feelings and needs that should have been given voice all along.
Paige Fegan, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist