Mythology can offer valuable insights into human nature, and the story of Echo and Narcissus is a cautionary tale that rings true even today.

Extreme self-love, as what’s seen in narcissism, can negatively impact your life and the lives of those around you. When you’re the center of your own attention, everything else may seem unimportant.

The opposite can also be true. Codependency, or an extreme reliance on another, can be equally detrimental. Being hyper-focused on someone else may make you neglect your own needs to satisfy theirs.

The story of Echo and Narcissus illustrates these two extremes and how they often find one another in relationships.

Narcissus is a fictional character in Greek mythology that appears in multiple tales.

At the core, he’s known as the man who fell in love with his own reflection, becoming so obsessed he was unable to leave his image, eventually passing away from starvation and thirst.

This tale was expanded on by Roman writer Ovid in his book Metamorphosis, where the female nymph character of Echo was added.

Echo and Narcissus

Echo was a nymph, cursed by the gods to only repeat the last words of others. She fell in love with Narcissus after encountering him in the woods, and despite his rejection, she continued to long for him.

One day while hunting, Narcissus saw his reflection in a pool of water and became so entranced he refused to leave, declaring to the gods that he and his love (his reflection) would die as one if they couldn’t be together.

Narcissus eventually perishes by the pool with Echo as a witness, repeating the farewell she heard him say to his reflection.

In some variations of the tale, Echo also passes away, her voice forever echoing her sentiments of love.

Echoism and Narcissism

From this tale comes the foundation for modern terminology of narcissism and echoism, though echoism is not a clinical diagnosis.

“Echoism is characterized by a pattern of passivity in relationships,” explains Dr. Nathan Brandon, a licensed psychologist from San Francisco. “People who exhibit echoism have difficulty asserting themselves and are prone to people-pleasing.”

He adds that while there’s not a formal diagnosis for echoism, it is thought to be related to codependency.

“Often codependent people find themselves in relationships with narcissists,” says Brandon.

The tale of Echo and Narcissus is not necessarily a story with a moral as much as it’s a representation of certain conditions of human behavior.

Josiah Teng, a mental health clinician from New York City, indicates, “It highlights the natural consequences of narcissism and echoism and how living thinly, that is, living within only one dimension of your full identity, will lead to obsession and withering.”

In the tale, both Echo and Narcissus suffer as a result of their fixations, demonstrating that both extremes can have significant consequences.

“This story highlights the importance of not being overly self-involved,” adds Brandon. “On the other hand, it’s detrimental to be too selfless and give up your own needs entirely. We should strive to find a balance between compassion for others and taking care of ourselves as well.”

The fundamental self-obsession aspect of the Narcissus myth remains true in narcissism today.

As a personality trait, narcissism is self-importance and self-absorption that can occur on a spectrum, with extremely high narcissism potentially indicating narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

According to the clinical criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, revised text (DSM-5-RT), a pervasive sense of grandiosity is one of the hallmarks of NPD.

While Narcissus exhibited grandiosity, he may have also met many of the other DSM-5-RT diagnostic criteria, including:

  • fantasies of perfect love, power, brilliance, beauty, or success
  • a sense of being elevated above all others
  • a need for admiration
  • a sense of entitlement
  • exploitative behaviors
  • lack of empathy
  • arrogance
  • envious behavior/believe others are envious

Modern echoism

Modern echoism, or codependency, isn’t considered a mental health disorder.

Instead, it’s understood as a learned behavior that can orient you toward having one-sided, unfulfilling relationships where you give emotionally and physically — often at your expense and with almost nothing in return — in order to feel appreciated and cared for.

Codependency can cause you to ignore your own wants and needs. You may feel helpless or choiceless in your relationship.

Common signs you may be experiencing codependency include:

The myth of Echo and Narcissus is a cautionary tale of two extreme aspects of human nature.

Narcissus, experiencing narcissism, passes away when he’s unable to leave the sight of his own reflection, of which he’s hopelessly in love with.

Echo, unable to communicate clearly, pines away for Narcissus despite his rejection, ignoring her own needs as she fixates on him.

While this ancient story appears simple, it can accurately convey some of the core features of narcissism and codependency in the modern world.