Off to one side of the large room there’s an open seat. Threading through a group of women, I make my way to that spot. Doing this, however, is what I hate. For a moment, I’m sure every eye is trained on me. Anxiety blooms in my chest and spreads out to my limbs, as my mind races ahead, pleading for me to leave. Anything to make this uncomfortable feeling stop.
This old anxiety is familiar. One I’ve known from the early days. It began when my youngest sister made her appearance, shifting us from a dyad to a triad. I can still see in my mind’s eye my sisters’ heads bent over some project, lost in the activity. As I neared, they would swivel in unison, protecting their special bond. Their action clarified there was no room for me.
I’m not that girl anymore, and this is a different situation, I remind myself.
Now situated on the couch in the back corner, I fold my hands and try to look interested as I tune into the conversations around me. Tonight is the first night of women’s retreat for separated or divorced partners of sex addicts. I know I’m with like-minded women, who like me, are working their recovery. It’ll get better, I tell myself.
Only it doesn’t. All weekend I watch other women pair up or become engrossed in their text messages with someone special. My aloneness has never been more acute. More distressing.
Time warps, and I’m once again on my elementary school’s playground — a bystander who’s watching the other girls’ pick-up game of jump rope. A castaway in the sea of relationships. A starving misfit who’s left standing outside of some invisible social window where she can watch others partake of enriching social interactions.
“Why don’t I have friends?” my eight-year-old self asked my mom, “What’s wrong with me?”
“Maybe you’re trying too hard,” she said sympathetically. Her answer, though not helpful, indicated she felt as powerless and confused as I.
Only I’m not confused now. I think I know what’s happening. What I’m experiencing is common among trauma survivors, I tell myself. The very skills that enabled me to endure an ongoing dangerous situation are now working against me. Being an early childhood survivor of sexual abuse taught me how to scan my environment for cues of potential risk. Subtle nonverbal communication isn’t lost on me. I’m good at reading others’ micro expressions. I know when someone is stressed, angry, or grieved.
These skills were excellent when I was counseling, but less stellar when navigating the social world. Without context, I’m floundering with no way of making meaning from what I see. Is that person upset with me or trying to shake off her frustration over arriving late? I often can’t tell.
Then my secondary survival response kicks in when faced with ambiguity. Something I like to call, silo-ing. I hunker down in my imaginary foxhole to wait out the supposedly impending storm. Only there isn’t one. This technique worked well when I needed to hide from my predator, but now it’s an overreaction.
As I sit in the room with these lovely ladies, I plaster a confident smile on my face — the perfect mask to hide my growing insecurity. No one can see my raging fears and surges of shame. I politely listen and nod to others. I’m a great conversationalist as I ask questions and tune into what those around me need — meanwhile, my sense of invisibility balloons.
Two days later, I leave the retreat a mess. I thought I was over this.
“What’s wrong with me?” my fifty-seven old self asks my coach.
“Echoism,” my coach says. “Ever hear of it?”
“What’s that?” I say, unfamiliar with the term.
“You know the Greek myth of Narcissus, right?” she asks.
“Yeah,” I reply, intrigued. I know Narcissus had rejected a suitor only to fall love with his reflected image.
“Do you remember Echo, the nymph?” she asks. “Cursed by Hera, Echo lost her voice, which doomed her to watch trapped Narcissus, unable to profess her love for him.”
My coach continues, “Survivors of narcissistic abuse often get good at doing the same thing. We learn to serve others while we struggle to voice our own needs. They become bigger while we grow smaller.”
Determined to know more, I discover Dr. Craig Malkin, researcher and author of Rethinking Narcissism. He learned echoist have an “‘extreme fear of seeming narcissistic in any way.’ In contrast to the attention-grabbing narcissist who craves feeling special, echoists fear special attention — even when it’s positive.
Video by Craig Malkin
Donna Christina Savery, in her book, Echoism: The Silenced Response to Narcissism, describes it as a “painful absence of being.” She expounds on it further. “Echoists are often quiet, unable to take up space, or are likely to adapt themselves to the perceived wishes of others.”
That’s it. I have a name for what I’m struggling with — echoism. I’ve learned how to make myself small. Unassuming. Others can occupy the center of attention. I don’t want it. It’s uncomfortable and too risky. I can’t tell when I’m taking up too much room, time, or attention, and when it’s just enough.
The consequences of this practice are grave, though. It’s not just a loss of attention but also results in me not getting my needs met.
Since the retreat ended, I learned I wasn’t alone. Other women in attendance reported having a similar experience. My inability to speak up resulted in me not discovering that camaraderie existed. How sad.
Now that I know this, I’m armed. Informed.
Let’s hope all of us who have suffered some form of narcissistic abuse can shed our propensity for echoism. To find the courage to step out from the shadows. To regain our lost voice, enabling us to speak on our own behalf. To once again become our own best advocate.