For those who are desperate to break away from the surreal malevolence of a malignant narcissist, it may seem all the more disorienting to consider that there are pathologically codependent folks who adore and latch on exclusively to narcissists. Yet they do indeed exist. As a complex trauma therapist and survivor, I have both treated others and recovered from what is referred to as inverted narcissism. Understood as a form of dependent personality disorder, and coined by Dr. Craig Malkin as echoism or Echo Personality Disorder (EPD), this unfortunate affliction explains the psychological machinations of those who are magnetically drawn to narcissists.
Dr. Malkin derived the term echoism from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, which contains the myth of the cruel shepherd boy Narcissus and the forest nymph Echo. Ovid’s story conveys the pathological obsession and devotion Echo had for Narcissus. Although rejected by him and tortured by his refusal to pay her any mind, Echo who was cursed by Juno, the Roman Goddess of love and marriage, was destined to be a mere echo chamber for Narcissus. Although Echo presented as highly articulate and communicative prior to her rapture with Narcissus, once entranced with him she was reduced to an echoing reply, never able to form her own thoughts or articulate her own words.
Like Echo, those who present with EPD lack the capacity for self-expression. They are masochistically driven to please and defer to the needs of others. This narcissist groupie will fawn, flatter, and worship to get their primal dependency needs met and deflect from the pain of a tenuous sense of identity. They present as self-effacing bootlickers, lackeys, and puppets eager to please the narcissist so as to symbiotically feed off the narcissist’s perceived specialness.
Essentially, the tormented echoist gleans supply by being supply.
Often high in empathy, but devoid of self-worth and dignity (i.e. deficient in healthy narcissism) those beset by echoism are severely co-dependent. According to Melody Beattie in Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself, codependency is a term used to describe “self-defeating, learned behaviors or character defects that result in a diminished capacity to initiate or to participate in loving relationships.”
A result of child abuse, codependency comprises a set of behaviors that ensure survival under dire circumstances. The abused, neglected child must devise any means to get their dependency needs met. Hence, they learn to control and manipulate to appease their abusers and to procure a modicum of worth and a tenuous sense of self. Through people-pleasing, excessive caretaking and effusive admiration, the children of narcissists placate their abusers and try to derive a pittance of intermittent attention.
Devoid of a formidable authentic identity, the codependent is compelled to manage others’ behavior because they are ill equipped to handle their own emotional discomfort. The codependent’s tenuous sense of identity fuels the need to distract from ravenous emptiness by compulsively and obsessively fixating on the needs of others. This deflects from the internal suffering rooted in the absence of a fully formed sense of self.
Psychiatrist Timmen Cermak, M.D. proposed that there are times when co-dependency can be identified as a personality disorder. He explained that when certain personality traits are excessive and maladaptive, causing major impairments with distress levels and functioning it warrants a personality disorder diagnosis. Consequently, the codependent evidencing EPD aptly fits this description.
The echoist has been groomed to survive through a circuitous power-submissive dynamic with narcissists. Through submission and deference they believe redemption will be received from one’s tormentor.
I lived this way for much of my life.
Without a blueprint to offer me an explanation of what I was enduring, I resembled the mountain nymph Echo from Ovid’s myth. Like Echo, I had no personal words, no sense of self to anchor myself in. Just an insatiable desperate longing for the unattainable. Like Echo, the shame and humiliation of being spurned and unwanted kept me craving and obsessing for the tormentor. Of course, like Echo, I saw the tormentor, the narcissist, as my redeemer.
Indeed, many folks with EPD were born into families ruled by narcissistic parents. The lack of empathy crucial to self-other awareness, along with severe chronic abuse and neglect characterizing the parental narcissist relationship, ensures that traumatic enactments will infiltrate the adult bonding of children of narcissists. In a subconscious effort to master complex relational trauma, adult children of parental narcissists will seek to repair attachment injuries by subconsciously choosing narcissistic partners.
As a result, echoists are fated to subsequently undergo the same abusive tactics employed by their parental abusers. Accordingly, gaslighting, a form of psychological manipulation in which false information is manufactured and deliberately manipulated so as to make the child doubt reality, memory and perceptions in order to ensure control, will persist in the context of adult relationships. The imprinted stipulation that attachment and dependency needs will only be met by serving the parental abuser will also carry through into adult relational dynamics. Being repeatedly utilized as a tool against a targeted rival to divide and conquer, or being on the receiving end of orchestrated discord and opposition, will set the stage for tolerating ongoing triangulation in adulthood.
The litany of infractions committed by parental narcissists and regurgitated in the relationships of their adult children are endless. They objectify their children, exploit and emotionally abuse, distort roles and boundaries, stonewall, and create a state of constant uncertainty through lying and feigning confusion and innocence. Smear campaigns comprised of lies and character assassination establish systemic familial chaos and damage the targeted child’s fragile self-concept.
The absence of an emotional connection with a parental narcissist creates an omnipresent state of disconnection, which is further exacerbated by their emotional indifference, neglect, and contempt. This sends the ubiquitous message that the child must abandon themself in order to be ‘good.’
Interspersed with amoral maneuvering is virtue signaling and grandstanding. Here the narcissist parent conspicuously asserts moral values and philanthropic activities so as to ensure a (false) sense of security and glean admiration and trust from the child. Envious of any gifts the child may possess, the parental narcissist condemns their child for what the narcissist lacks and covets. This ruthless competitive energy dehumanizes the child into smallness and submission. The narcissist parent will take pleasure in strategically subverting their children’s efforts to individuate and actualize potentials.
The parental narcissist repeatedly inculcates into the child’s psyche that they are meant to serve as compliant prey. Consequently, as adults, these children are driven to ward off pervasive fears of abandonment and self-loathing by conforming and upholding whatever agenda the lauded narcissist demands. They have been groomed to experience a vicarious thrill and sense of ‘value’ through being a narcissistic extension. One might conclude that they are addicted to narcissists. Their obsequious compliance and blind obedience make them malleable enablers in the narcissist’s arsenal, as they live to promote the narcissist’s delusional sense of omnipotence and omniscience.
To heal from inverted narcissism one must dismantle an insidious indoctrination that brainwashed one to believe that love is equated with the abdication of self. Likewise, they must strive to attain healthy narcissism and break free of trauma bonding aka Stockholm Syndrome.
Resurrecting the inherent right to be loved, to shine and be seen and valued is an extensive process that can only be traversed with a trusted therapeutic ally versed in treating complex trauma and narcissistic abuse. It is by taking this journey that the one devastated by EPD can reclaim the voice that was tragically reduced to an echo.