Skip to content

Narcissus and Echo: A mythical dance made reality

I was once told a story by a colleague.  She was at a conference on systems of oppression and there was a presentation on the patriarchy and how it inhibits the ability of women to be authentically themselves.  At the end of the presentation, the conference all broke out into work groups.  In her group was a white middle aged man, who took umbrage at being told he was part of the problem of patriarchy, and asked the woman, my colleague who knew him, to confirm that he was not a bad person.  As he kept on repeating this request, my colleague found herself torn between two positions; firstly that she had witnessed first hand the man’s misogyny towards women and wanted to tell him just how bad she had found it witnessing so much of this, and secondly, she felt the pull to reassure this man and put him back on a kind of pedestal.  She asked me about these two positions.

So I told her about Echoism.

What I love about the story, is not just the fact that my colleague found herself being split in two by the need to be in service, as much as by her own inbuilt authenticity. It is the narcissistic need to be seen as a ‘good person’ by the man.  This man’s specialness, his inability to recognise that he too was a part of the patriarchial bubble tweaked within said workshop meant that the fragility of this position was rocked suddenly.  And instead of risking certain growth, he sought out a woman, his patriarchal other, to firm up his identity ego. 

In Ovid’s Metamorphosis, the idea that Narcissus wandered the forest only to find a pool where he could watch his beauty reflected was born (Ovid, 2015).  When Freud (2014) in one of his seminal works considered the idea of the selfishness of man, he did so opening the doors to a deeper exploration of just how narcissism worked.  In his tomes, he recognised that from birth we are all narcissistic, and that without this stage of development we, as defenceless babies, would not survive (thus titled Primary Narcissism).  This is where we require our caregivers to hold us, to feed us, to cuddle us and care for us.  This is were this need to be central to the small world around us of parents and caregivers begins.

I was married to a woman who needed to dominate me, my actions, my thoughts, whilst deadening my feelings and my intuition. When we discussed anything, what she would do would be to make a personal statement, and then generalise it, making it about everyone across the world (quite literally), and then declare that she was right. If I held a different view, and not necessarily one which challenged hers, then I was attacked (occasionally physically), and berated for being wrong (even if i actually knew better). The mere fact that I had my own mind was not allowed, and meant that I had to suppress anything authentic within myself in order to survive this person. And when I was allowed my own position, because she had taken up all the central ground and generalised her viewpoint, this therefore meant that any position I had was the other.

This is Echoism.

Of the many theorists who have taken Freuds ideas further over the years, Piaget (1951) did an excellent job in mapping out the stages of narcissism and a child’s movement beyond such a position, when considering its relationship to difference and the other. For example, between the ages of 0-2 he raised the idea that of course a child is narcissistic, but that whilst it cannot understand let alone take on the empathic position of the other, what it can do is mimic it. This for me, is where echoism is born, in the mimicry of the baby, it is always there, under the surface, jostling for centrality alongside the survival instincts of the primary narcissist.

What does occasionally happen though is that for many children this movement from a more narcissistic, ego centric, position to one where we relate to the other is stunted. Either through developmental trauma, attachment issues, or something else, we are forced back upon ourselves for our survival (Bowlby, 1988; Winnicott, 1969). The perfect example emerges out of the Victorian parenting style of leaving the child to ‘cry it out’, which therefore left this need for narcissistic dominion stifled, and many a child with a wound whereby they became self-sufficient and insular and non-trusting. Whilst another is emergent out of the strange practice of sending children away to the developmental hothousing environment of Boarding Schools at 7 years of age (Schaverien, 2004). The cost of these is that not only do we end up relying upon ourselves as our own source of comfort, given the nature of these early wounds, we might seek out adult relationships where we crave comfort from the projected parent who did not care for us.

Be seen but not heard.  Know your place.  If you think you’re a man, then get out.  As a child I was told by both my father and mother these things.  From an early age, I was told what I was going to do, who I was going to be, how I was supposed to study, the friends I was supposed to have.  When I showed any kind of defiance, this was beaten out of me, but either and sometimes both parents.  Any sense of my own reality was repressed, and went into my love of fantasy books, comics and superheroes, spaces where I could project myself as more than just an echo.  Those spaces kept me alive.

This is surviving Echoism.

Narcissism for this blog, underpins most of the social structures we all swim within.  It sits central to patriarchy, and is a cornerstone of both white supremacy and capitalism.  The difficulty though is that these systems, and the people at their pinnacles are quite adept at the subtleties needed to entice that sense of love, loyalty, and adoration from the other.  Yet, at other times, narcissus, either collectively or individually, uses its power to enviegal free that which it needs in order to confirm its specialness.  It rejects any sense that it might be wrong, as to be wrong or to have admitted that it hurt another person, group, gender etc, might mean that it is bad.  Its thinking is simplistic and binary as well, and it can often play the victim in order to deny its complicity in the manipulation and abuses which have helped it maintain its primary narcissistic potion. As an observer, these angles, these behaviour, are all symptoms of how early these kinds of wounds are, reflecting back Piaget’s wisdom on the subject. 

What this simplistic grandiose means of living also reveals, is how difficult narcissus finds it to remember its own humanity, its own services to the other.  Narcissus therefore needs echo.  It needs it as a reminder of who it is on this earthly plane.  It needs it as a reminder that it is not Icarus about to rise high and supplant the gods in the heavens (Unknown, 2017).  It needs echo to ground it here on the earth, amongst the rest of us mere mortals, or at least until it decides that being human is too much of a burden, and, as per the myth, it dismisses echo and lives out its days wedded to its own specialness and superiority. 

As my colleague recognised, being the dance between Echo and Narcissus comes in many forms. From the gendered echo where a woman assuages the brittle narcissism of the patriarch, to the racial echo where Persons of Colour tiptoe around the fragility of whiteness, to the class echo where those from the working class forgive the cruelty of the financially superior. These intersectional identities mean that this dance between Echo/Narcissus sits within us all, also meaning that our own failure to recognise and own its opposite leaves us beholden to repeat said patterns of destructive relationships. Only through this wedding can this return to humanity be achieved, both without and within.

We are Narcissus. We are Echo.     


Bowlby, J. (1988). A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development. Basic Books.

Freud, S. (2014). On Narcissism. Penguin Limited.

Ovid. (2015). The Metamorphoses. Xist Publishing.

Schaverien, J. (2004). Boarding school: the trauma of the privileged child. The Journal of Analytical Psychology, 49(5), 683–705.

Unknown. (2017). The myth of Daedalus and Icarus. Greek Myths and Greek Mythology.

Weil, A. M., & Piaget, J. (1951). The development in children of the idea of the homeland and of relations to other countries. International Social Sciences Journal, 3, 561–578.

Winnicott, D. W. (1969). The Use of an Object. 711–716.