Sunset scene

I was deep in the heat of a conversation with a guy friend of mine, as we sat across from each other at the dinner table. I felt fire burning inside of me. He said, “Tell me what your Small Self is saying right now?”

I glared at him and said, “My Small Self is saying there are two kinds of men.” I paused for dramatic effect. There was venom in my voice.

I went on. “There are the smart, sexy, talented, handsome, charismatic men who are great in bed but who lie, cheat, and betray you. Then there are the kind, sensitive, gentle, compassionate guys who dote on you but are lazy and lack ambition and can’t stand up for themselves or get it up in bed.”

My friend looked at me with kind eyes and no charge and said, “Wow. You really believe that, don’t you?” I started crying.  He said, “I think you should bring that up with your therapist.”

So I did.

The Narcissus/Echo Myth

I retold the same sob story to my therapist Rose, who very pointedly and ruthlessly—but quite lovingly—told me that I believe there are two types of men because I’ve been involved with men who are either “narcissists” or “echoes.” She then went on to tell me the Greek myth of Narcissus and Echo.

Echo was a beautiful but quite talkative nymph who was put under a curse that made her only able to speak what others have spoken first. She fell in love with Narcissus, a vain young man who caught sight of his own reflection in a pool of water and, not realizing it was himself, spoke words of love to the reflection. Echo, the cursed water nymph, would hear “I love you” and repeat “I love you” back to Narcissus. But her love was never truly returned by Narcissus. When Narcissus realized that what he loved was actually his own image, he killed himself and transformed into a narcissus flower.

The Narcissus/Echo Psychology Pattern

This myth can be translated into a psychological pattern of relationships, wherein one partner plays the “It’s all about me!” Narcissus role and the other boosts Narcissus’s already hearty ego by repeating back what Narcissus wants to hear while compromising her own needs and desires until she becomes resentful and feels victimized. Most people who get hooked into this unhealthy relationship pattern tend to prefer one role in the pattern or the other. The Narcissus character tends to be exactly what I said to my friend—sexy, charismatic, talented, the life of the party. Others are drawn to these people—but you only get close if it’s on Narcissus’s terms.  And if you stop echoing back what Narcissus wants to hear, you’re likely to get rejected.

On the other hand, the person who plays the Echo role tends to be more submissive, deferential, sensitive, compassionate, self-effacing, service-oriented, and emotionally manipulative. Echo, who refuses to allow attention to be focused on her, has difficulty receiving if Narcissus tries to refocus the energy on her. Echo is always feeding Narcissus’s ego, and enabling him to be the center of attention. And she never quite has a voice of her own because she’s too afraid Narcissus might leave if she fails to echo back what he wants to hear. (Keep in mind that both genders can play both roles, so this is not a male/female thing.)

Most people who hook into the Narcissus pattern don’t have full blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder, though some do. Echoes may also have personality disorders. Both roles in this pattern are equally unhealthy from a psychological perspective, and this pattern requires the participation of both parties. Most people who get hooked into this pattern play both roles in different relationships. Sometimes they play Narcissus. In other relationships, they play Echo. However, most prefer one role over another.

Some people only have a tinge of this pattern, while others are full blown.

Does this sound like you or someone you love? You’re not a bad person if you wind up as either Narcissus or Echo. You’ve just gotten hooked into a pattern that never results in healthy relationships, and once you illuminate the pattern, you can spot it a mile away. “Red alert! Incoming narcissist! Danger Will Robinson!”

If you’ve found yourself in this kind of relationship, you’ve probably been unconscious of this pattern, and you were operating from the programs of your childhood without awareness of what was operating you. There’s no need to judge yourself or anyone else. It’s just helpful to illuminate what’s true so you can choose the kinds of relationships that truly nourish you.

Childhood Factors That Predispose Us To The Narcissus/Echo Pattern

When I studied this pattern, I learned that people who prefer the Narcissus role tend to come from childhoods when they either had overindulgent parents, especially a doting mother, or the opposite—cold, unempathetic parents who required the child to act out to get attention. These children grow up becoming approval junkies and are attracted to careers that further feed the pattern. (Think celebrity careers such as rock stars, movie stars, authors, and artists, but also high profile, high power careers such as doctors, lawyers, and CEO’s, whose entire career further feeds the childhood pattern.)

Echo, on the other hand, tends to arise from an abusive childhood, where she had to defer to often narcissistic parents who neglected her (or him.) These are not hard and fast psychology rules, and it’s easy to oversimplify here. But you get the picture. . . .

Getting Honest With Myself

My therapy session led to a huge epiphany for me when Rose suggested that the last three men I’d gotten involved with had all been Narcissus, and I had been their Echo. But in other relationships in my life, I’ve played Narcissus to someone else’s Echo.  I feel much more powerful, in control, attractive, and secure when I play Narcissus. When I’m Echo, I feel insecure, grasping, disrespected, resentful, and under-appreciated.  Either way, this dynamic never ends well. And I’ve done it . . . over and over and over. . . .

The curious thing is that my soul has been trying to break this pattern for years. When I examine my past relationships, I see how hard I’ve tried to unhook from this pattern, but it’s hard when both players in the pattern are unconscious of their roles. It’s like hooking into grooves on a dysfunctional road. You have to be wide awake and fully conscious in order to steer out of the ruts and avoid slipping into old grooves.

How To Break The Pattern

So what can you do to break the pattern?

Just say no to Narcissus and Echo.

This may require you to have some heart to hearts with others who have hooked into this pattern with you. Discuss the pattern lovingly and gently. Consider doing it with the moderation of a therapist. Invite the other person, commit to breaking the pattern with you. And as you examine new relationships, keep your eyes open. Once you’re aware of the pattern, you’ll smell it a mile away. Refuse to hook in, no matter how attracted you are!

I’ve had a few of these talks so far.  For some of the people closest to me, it resulted in a lot of tears and “A-ha’s.” One friend said, “OMG, I’m Narcissus and you’re Echo!” then high-fived me and said, “Let’s stop this!” We laughed about it and went out to lunch. Our whole relationship shifted after that conversation.

Another friend hung her head and said, “I’ve been Echo.” I apologized, feeling guilty and self-indulgent as Narcissus. She let me dote on her all afternoon, focusing all our attention on nurturing her for the day, to try to over-correct for all the days we’d focused on me.

Are You Narcissus? Are You Echo?

Are you ready to unhook from the pattern? Are there conversations you need to initiate? Remember to be gentle with yourself if your answer is yes. Don’t judge yourself. Give yourself a hug for the soul growth you’re embracing, and get excited about the healthier relationships you’re sure to attract.

Feel free to share your thoughts and stories in the comments.

Love,

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25 Comments

  1. SHENZI

    Brave Lissa!!
    THANK YOU!!

    Reply
  2. glassmap

    I was married to a narcissist, and am over time better understanding my role as Echo. Believe me, divorcing a narcissist who is so wrapped up in his self-image that he won’t/can’t see or admit to his own role in the unhealthy dynamic is extremely tough. Frankly, I experienced the relationship as emotionally abusive, which continued after I learned how to change my behavior that enabled the dynamic. A couple of years of therapy helped!
    Lissa’s childhood back ground profiles for the narcissist/echo roles don’t ring true for me, but there is a fair amount of literature on the subject.
    Understanding my role as Echo has put me up against my ego and has required me to be more forgiving of myself – a challenge.
    Thanks Lissa for addressing this syndrome.

    Reply
  3. Gwendolyn Grace

    Very open—Lisa. I ended up becoming very ill after playing that game with my husband for 25 years. We moved into “equality” in 2007 when I left for a month to figure out who I was. It has taken great courage for us to face this old pattern and brought us great joy. The book, “Shame and Guilt-the masters of disguise” was a helpful support.

    Reply
  4. Kathy Keshock-Knight

    Tried it with my father-in-law…did NOT go well…some people are harmful and refuse to see it. I choose to protect my soul and no longer interact with him…or my mother-in-law. They blame me but I will not hold this against them. I have to choose the way of forgiveness again and again and again. Sometimes, it’s best to release them with and into love and never look back.

    Reply
    • janet

      i hear you. I would try time and time again to reach out and try to get them to meet me half way, to “understand where I’m coming from” thinking if they only knew how I felt, they would care .. they do not. . zero empathy. In fact, they are envious of your empathy and attack you for having it. They were victimized as a child as well .. they just went that way instead of the co-dependent way.
      Finally putting the definition (label) to the parents (yes BOTH of them), is almost relief like. I can breathe. . I like Teal Swan’s video on youtube channel. .there are 200+ but one called Narcissism and another one “interview style” with Ross Rosenberg ..really good ones .. check em out. She puts out a free video every Saturday from her askteal.com sit. There are many other people who are recovering from narcissist/life coaches/therapists, etc .. so grab hold of the teachers that resonates with you. much love

      Reply
  5. Laurie Fear

    Hmmm… Very interesting syndrome I had not heard defined before… Thanks for the eye-opening illustrations! I am seeing a correlation to my relationships involving substance use disorder (addiction/alcoholism)! I’m now 11-1/2 years sober and have my own business in Recovery Life Coaching, but in my 19-year marriage (while I was still an active, high-functioning alcoholic), I played Narcissus! My marriage ended a year after I got sober because I had realized I was miserable in that relationship. And now, I’m in an on-again/off-again long distance relationship with an active, high-functioning alcoholic, where I have sometimes been playing Echo! Hmmmm… Seeing a correlation to co-dependency and enabling! What do you think? Am I onto something here? Hmmmmmm…

    Reply
    • Jackie Jeffery

      According to a good friend who works as a counselor and coordinator at an in-patient treatment center, addictive personalities very often display narcissistic behaviors. Those behaviors may or may not continue after sobriety.

      Reply
  6. Sirsa Shekim

    Lisa, thank you so much for your courage in sharing this story. I feel like my ex was a definite narcissist, and I her enabler. She’s everything you described — beautiful, talented, charismatic, the life of the party, a big shot artist with lots of attention always on her. Her talent was so attractive to me. Ironically I too am an artist and have had my share of attention, yet as a giver and enabler, I tended to put her first. It’s been four months apart now and I’m currently working on forgiving her AND myself. Somehow I’m terrified of forgiving her though. “Letting go” seems so scary because I feel like once I let go of her, she will never return. It’s almost like, through running over all the pain over and over in my head, I stay connected to her. It’s twisted but thankfully i’m recognizing the pattern and I’m ready to heal. I am ready to stop connecting to people through PAIN. I want a drama-free, equal, stable, loving, peaceful relationship with someone. In her narcissism I always felt blamed for our problems. She actually told me that she thought we weren’t equals on so many levels, and the most painful thing is, part of me believed her at the time. : ( So I’m actually coming full circle now, because all that pain with her forced me into some really deep healing work and I am getting stronger every day. I have realized that our souls agreed to hurt each other, to encourage the other to heal. So I am actually working on being grateful to her now. Much love xo Sirsa

    Reply
  7. Jackie Jeffery

    A very helpful article. We all have some degree of narcissism; at a healthy dose, we use it to weigh our own best interests against those of people in our lives. I’m sure we all have degrees of “Echo” as well. If, in an otherwise generally healthy relationship, we notice patterns of leaning too far one way, we have an opportunity to address and rebalance. There are, however, people with genuine Narcissistic Personality Disorder; in my experience, they are not open to discussing or changing their behavior … because they believe there is nothing harmful or unhealthy in what they do. I wish my NPD partner could have grown with me. Eventually, I made the choice to change the only person I could: myself.

    Reply
  8. Amy Johnson

    As always LIssa, thanks for your wise and courageous posts. For me this interplays with halos/horns, otherwise known as enshrinement/bedevilment, to produce assumptions and stereotypes that are out of touch with what’s really happening. Thanks for the reminder to be with what’s real!

    Reply
  9. Shay Pausa

    Bravo to you for this vulnerable and important share! It is really important to understand that while there is a healthy spectrum of self love and care, those suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder are so internally broken that they actually have no Self for which to love and care. They actually suffer from self loathing and lack of self esteem, not conceit. The are boastful and prideful but only of false ego they create to survive. They turn aggressive to those they love when there is any sense of criticism or threat to the false Self. At the beginning of a romantic relationship, they are brilliantly charming and reflect back every beautiful trait in those who fall for them. This creates the narcissist supply of adoration. They will however, happily take another kind of supply which is negative attention when they can no longer maintain the “greatest love” of your life mask. As long as a person stays hooked in the drama, it creates a sense of Self and importance. It is sad but when they find an empathetic, tenacious, strong and loving partner, they have found the best kind of prey. Those who have been part of a relationship with someone who has NPD, which is rarely diagnosed as they avoid therapy at all costs, will find themselves in an emotionally abusive and toxic relationship. Unfortunately, they will tenaciously stay in, self reflect, take on negative projections and fight to find the one they fell in love with at the beginning. If someone finds themselves confused by Dr. Jekyll/Mr Hyde behaviors, mean/sweet cycles and questioning their sanity, seeing a therapist and researching Narcissist Personality Disorder/Antisocial Personality Disorder could bring about some relief. Thank you again for sharing!

    Reply
  10. Mary Jane Heppe

    Darling Lissa,
    Everyone is involved with a narcissist. We are born that way. If we become wise enough, we can learn the difference between narcissism and empathy.
    That becomes apparent through suffering. When we lose our innocence and invincibility, we become students in initiation toward the darkness of pain and suffering. When we sit there long enough, we become wise enough to share our vulnerabilities with others. It is only through our suffering that we realize what a connected web we are.

    Reply
  11. Gailen Anna DeJong Dougherty

    I,m not sure which of these of these or maybe both.I think the over riding need to be loved and accepted, has probably had me play both.I currently live with an alcoholic, who is hard and cold and a baby who controls me.I am recentful and feel victimized all the time. I have two children who I feel resentment for because no matter how hard I try to get them to follow any rules or be responsible for themselves, no one budges.I can see the patterns in relationships and I can say, I wouldn’t know a healthy relationship if I fell in one.I am not even sure what is I want from my relationships. I guess a healthy mix of leaning and where each person feels supported and I don’t carry the whole load.I want to be free to just love someone and not need them.I most certainly don’t want to be a victim, but sometimes I am and not because I want be. I feel stuck.I often want no relationship.Just time to see clearly and breathe. A life time of being hurt and probably hurting people has made me close down.I have dated people who seemed so strong, but in the end, I am the one pulling all the weight.

    Reply
  12. Kim

    Lissa, thanks for this thoughtful post reminding many of us that we are not alone. I found myself married for the first time and had my first child with a narcissist in my early 40s. I described my now ex as a Jekyll and Hyde, broken character, fragmented personality. I had no clue about NPD and now I am very informed. It sucks when you consider yourself smart, wise, etc. that your unconcious could fall for this and this crazy destructive cycle. It is dizzying and confusing. My soul/intuition has learned from this experience to listen to the whispers…any hint of an angry, abusive personality, or if a person seems to be good to be true, probably time to look under the hood and most likely move on. The sad thing about NPD is why these individuals know the difference from right and wrong…it seems like their crazy and sometimes abusive childhoods create a lifetime of them not being able to attach to anyone…just an empty shell of person looking for the fuel of narcissistic supply and they will lie, manipulate, etc. to get it. Their false self is the only thing that gets them by, but what an awful way to have to live. I am in the stage where I have been healing, I can’t imagine trusting myself again, tyring to co-parent with my ex…what an exhausting experience. And while I know I am imperfect and the following statement makes no sense…it is awful when you are in thick of narcisstic abuse in hindsight, to think if you just behaved better, this person would return to being the person who you first met. However, the point is now I know I am worthy of a loving, trusting relationship filled with respect, compassion and kindness. (PERIOD). And if I learn to treat myself that way and learn to be my soul more often, hopefully I will attract the right soul/energy in the future. I am trying to find peace in what my soul was suppose to learn and be awakened to on this leg of the journey and thankful for the gift of my child. Thanks again Lissa for this timely post.

    Reply
  13. Penny

    Thank you Lissa. This rang loud bells with me – I recently ended my engagement (and 4.5 year relationship) which fitted much of the description here. Especially the part about how I, in the Echo role, was always “repeating back what Narcissus wants to hear while compromising her own needs and desires until she becomes resentful and feels victimized.”

    Although I recognised the pattern before reading about it here – and it was the major reason why I ended the relationship – I didn’t feel able to consider having “heart to hearts with others who have hooked into this pattern with you”. I was so set into the pattern of supporting Narcissus’s ego that I didn’t dare to break the spell by explaining to him the pattern that I perceived. Or when I did tell him how I saw it, I did so in an aggressive, resentful, blaming and despairing way, far from “lovingly and gently” as you managed to do with your friends. So it felt like the only option was to break away from the relationship rather than try to heal it.

    Now I am wondering, if I really love(d) this man – which I did and still do in many ways, as we have huge amounts in common in terms of tastes (books, music, art etc), worldview and sense of humour, and were strongly pair-bonded with a joyful sensuality – wouldn’t the most loving action be to initiate a conversation so that he has the opportunity to break the narcissistic pattern?

    But intuitively I feel he is not ready to do so, and I am at a stage in my development where I need to focus primarily on my own needs which I was compromising for so long. Breaking free of the Echo role feels like something I can best do alone.

    Reply
  14. Tina Moody

    Great post, Lissa. I so enjoy your writing style as well as your content. Having worked with narcissists and those in relationship to them and having written a book to aid those who find themselves in relationship to a narcissist, I offer a word of caution about confronting a narcissist or one who is overly self-absorbed–they have only one point of view. While they are quite intuitive, they cannot read nuance well, nor readily tolerate a different POV from their own. There is a right way, their POV and anything else is unacceptable. They are masterful at turning the conversation, which began with your issue, and using the information you reveal against you. Using the word “narcissist” is flammable material and gets you nowhere. Those who fall prey to narcissists beware, use your smarts; narcissists can become violent if they are threatened with the loss of their echo.

    Reply
  15. Michelle M Ambrose

    I love the way you explain this! Thinking over past relationships; I see a few Ah-ha moments. Fortunately they are not a part of my life and have not been for quite some time. I am happy with the people in my life.

    Reply
  16. Chris Boenke

    Hi Lissa,
    thank you for bringing up that pattern that probably occurs in every relationship – partners as well as friends, coworkers, family….. As almost always the root of this pattern is fear. Fear to take your place and space for the echo self and fear to not be recognized or seen or heard of the narcissistic self. It can be tough to look into your fear as liberating as it may be. So I want to emphasize to be patient with each other. It may not be the case too often that you have a hearts to hearts meeting and all is clear. It is a ‘root-pattern’ that might reoccur as any other pattern and habit. Patience and empathy are the tool to overcome patterns and the understanding that the root of it is fear. Can make narcissistic behavior more bearable. Plus very often we tend to judge the narcissistic part as bad and the echo part as good – which is a mistake. Both are simply patterns to be healed and dealt with. Love from wonderful the Alps – Bavaria / Germany, Chris

    Reply
  17. Anshulika Chawla

    My father is a narcissist and my mom always played his Echo till her end. After getting married I discovered a similar narcissist in my mom in law and I made the mistake of playing her Echo during the initial years of my marriage. Tired of feeling like her cat’s paw, I gradually started rebelling. There is too much venom on both sides now. Can there be a way out?

    Kathy I am somewhat in similar situation. My mother in law refuses to see or talk. And I have opted for no interaction as a solution. But we live together. And something or the other keeps fueling the old fire. I need a better solution.

    Reply
  18. Tricia Malouf

    I used to be “Echo” till I learned about personality disorders. When I told my psych about how my boyfriend used me for years, the doctor diagnosed him with malignant NPD, No more Echo for me!

    Reply
  19. mike

    “(Think celebrity careers such as rock stars, movie stars, authors, and artists, but also high profile, high power careers such as doctors, lawyers, and CEO’s, whose entire career further feeds the childhood pattern.)”

    So what should all these people do then??? I’m not okay with generalizing negative characteristics of people without ALSO generalizing positive ones. This is coming from a musician. If you want to say that artists are predisposed to being narcissists, I could say that therapists or psychologists are predisposed to having god complexes. Not really fair without looking at the individual, is it?

    Not all people are exactly the same, even if they are drawn to similar paths.

    Reply
  20. Melissa

    Lissa, thank you so much from the bottom of my heart for writing this! I’ve been to multiple therapists, read more books than I can count, just to be left feeling more confused and frustrated that I could not seem to undo this pattern. You made it so simple and straight-forward by not making anyone in the situation a villain or victim. Like another person wrote below, some people are not interested in changing. How do I deal with these? Walk away? I am always Echo, and often find myself in situations where there will not be a happy ending. Is it possible for someone who is a narcissist to change? Again, I truly thank you and I am looking forward to the positive changes and relationships ahead!

    Reply
  21. Kim

    Awesome essay and comments! I know NPD very well — my mother was a classic. I don’t have much to say here that hasn’t been said already, except that I’ve always thought that those ancient Greek mythological stories weren’t just tales told for entertainment, they were actually psychological profiles.

    The Echo character is right on. Echo had best be reflecting what Narcissus wants to see or she/he has hell to pay!

    Reply
  22. InsanelyBright

    As someone who was kept locked in a basement half the time by a Narc Mother, I am a classic echo. What happened to was many years ago, decades even.
    I have gone the therapy and self healing route but still the pattern remains.

    Reply
  23. Mas0chist

    I’m a Masochist acording to https://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-22868/10-ways-to-spot-a and i like my brothers friend who i think is a narcissist he doesn’t have verry much emotions toward people i broke up with my loveing boyfriend because I liked my brother’s friend the so called narcissist he is nice every sometimes and i treasure that and remember that when he calls me names or tells me to make him sandwiches. I need help

    Reply

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