- 19.3% of those studied on dark triad traits had signs of dark empathy.
- Dark empaths and narcissists are related but not the same.
- Psychologists warn their deception makes them emotionally dangerous.
Imagine you told a colleague about your new job. You were excited about the role but also nervous about the transition. As you opened up and shared how you felt, they congratulated you but said, “Don’t you really struggle with self-confidence? I know you’ve shared this with me in the past. Hopefully, it won’t affect your performance . . . Wouldn’t it be better to stick to what you know in this role here?”
While this comment is rude and uncalled for, the underlying tone of this response might be even more sinister. This person could be a dark empath.
Dark empathy was discovered and coined by psychologists during a 2020 study on dark personality traits. Unfortunately, if you’ve never heard of dark empathy, it’s more common than you may think. A study of 991 participants revealed that 19.3% ranked as dark empaths.
Dark empathy is related to narcissism as a part of the “dark triad” (narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy). However, unlike narcissists, who are traditionally known for being very low in empathy, dark empaths have a high ability to cognitively empathize—for their own personal gain.
While you might think it’s easy to spot a manipulative person, dark empaths are highly skilled at making people feel emotionally safe to be vulnerable with them. Because dark empaths’ toxic behavior is covert, it’s important to learn the signs of dark empathy to protect yourself from this harmful personality type.
What Is a Dark Empath?
A dark empath is a person who understands another person’s emotions but doesn’t experience those feelings. Though they may pretend like they care about what you’re going through, they would rather use your emotions to manipulate you. They use these relationships to take advantage of people when they are most vulnerable. Where a regular empath feels with you to be comforting and supportive, dark empaths avoid getting too close. They exhibit an emotional distance disguised as charm and understanding. It is usually motivated by personal gain. Think of this more as the dark side of empathy.
Dark empathy is related to the dark triad personality traits. The dark triad refers to the malevolent personality types of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Characteristics of a regular compassionate empath would score low on dark triad traits but high in empathy. Dark empaths, conversely, score high in both, making them a dangerous personality type to encounter.
As Psych2Go explains, “Dark empaths often use cognitive empathy to their advantage, meaning they know what it is you want and feel, but dark empaths may use it against you.”
While dark empaths and narcissists are different, their harmful effects can be very similar. Clinical psychologist and narcissism expert Dr. Ramani Durvasula explains, “The fallout of such a relationship with a dark empath would be the same as we’d see in any narcissistically abusive relationship.”
Types of Empathy
“Empathy has no script. There is no right or wrong way to do it. It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgement, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘you’re not alone.’”Brené Brown
Before diving into the more twisted version of empathy, you may ask yourself, “What is empathy”? There are three types of empathy that a person can have. Understanding each of these will help reveal the subtle nuances of dark empaths.
The three types of empathy, according to PsychCentral:
- Cognitive empathy: This is the surface-level ability or choice to understand a person’s emotions without relating to them personally.
- Emotional empathy: This is when someone can feel and process another person’s emotions as if they were going through the experience too.
- Compassionate empathy: This refers to someone who can both cognitively understand and deeply emotionally connect with another person’s situation.
Dark empaths practice cognitive empathy. This means they are aware of your emotions intellectually and are even able to connect with them more deeply but simply choose not to.
How Dark Empaths Can Hurt You
Dr. Durvasula, previously mentioned above, shares what makes a dark empath dark: “The dark empath uses cognitive empathy almost as a tool to get intel. Now they’re learning about you because you think you’re getting empathy . . . it’s almost like there’s something almost surgically precise about how the conversation’s happening.”
Speaker and coach Dean Hyers adds to this explanation, “It can be a little bit more like espionage . . . so someone empathizes with you and they feel what you’re feeling which often encourages more sharing and then they’re harvesting this data . . . to potentially manipulate you.”
While it’s commonly understood that narcissists and psychopaths lack emotional aptitude, thus making them relatively identifiable, spotting dark empaths is trickier. This is because to the untrained receiver, dark empaths appear as compassionate empaths. As such, dark empaths can facilitate moments of vulnerability for the other person, creating an advantage that they can later use for their benefit. For this reason, some psychologists warn that dark empaths are more harmful than other dark triad personalities.
10 Signs Someone You Know Is a Dark Empath
1. Everything works out magically in their favor.
Dark empaths are highly manipulative. They use their insights and “data” they’ve collected on you and others to orchestrate things in their favor. This is because, similar to narcissists, dark empaths place their wants and needs above everyone and everything else. If someone you know always seems to be getting the long end of the stick, especially at your expense, they may be a dark empath.
2. They repress their mental health problems.
In addition to being highly aware of emotional complexities, dark empaths are also highly self-aware. For this reason, those with this personality type tend to understand but repress mental health issues like anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and low self-worth. If someone you know appears confident and charming but seems like they could snap if things don’t go their way, that’s a sign of dark empathy.
3. They’re sarcastic and have dark humor.
The definition of sarcasm is “the use of irony to mock or convey contempt.” Brené Brown shares that in Greek, sarcasm literally translates to “tear flesh.” Dark empaths often disguise their contempt or ridicule with sarcasm or dark humor. To the untrained eye, it may seem harmless, but their snarky humor and biting sarcasm is the deceptive tool they use to bully, belittle, and shame you. If someone you know often leans on these forms of communication to try and be funny, they may be a dark empath.
4. They weaponize your feelings.
This is what makes a dark empath “dark.” Rather than exercise emotional or compassionate empathy, dark empaths employ cognitive empathy. By doing this, they’re able to maintain emotional distance so they can position and prepare themselves to react and use your emotions against you. If someone has ever left you feeling played or shamed after sharing something with them, you’ve probably encountered a dark empath.
5. They guilt-trip you.
As researchers with The Conversation explain, dark empaths are typically less overtly aggressive than the dark triad personality types. However, dark empaths take the lead when it comes to indirect aggression through manipulation tactics. Guilt-tripping is one tactic that dark empaths employ to get their way. Essentially, if a dark empath’s strategic orchestration to put their needs first have failed or if they’re challenged, they’ll make sure you feel bad about it.
6. They’re outwardly charming and agreeable.
A 2020 study on dark empath character traits revealed that dark empaths score higher in extraversion and agreeableness and lower in aggression than the other dark triad personalities. This is likely why most people are unfamiliar with dark empaths or know how to spot one. Essentially, dark empaths are masters of disguise. They appear incredibly social, charming, and agreeable to the unsuspecting person. On the inside, though, a dark empath “maintains an antagonistic core.”
7. They’re manipulative.
Dark empaths are emotionally intuitive, and their extroversion makes them extraordinarily good with people. This gives them the perfect ability to utilize their manipulative tactics however they see fit.
Common manipulation tactics used:
- Gossiping (negatively talking about someone behind their back)
- Sarcasm (conveying contempt through irony)
- Love bombing (excessive attention and affection towards someone)
- Ghosting (suddenly ending a relationship without notice or explanation)
- Gaslighting (making someone question their sanity)
- Playing the victim (acting like they’re the afflicted party)
8. They’re vindictive.
Dark empaths can be vindictive if they don’t get their way or their wants and needs don’t come first. Stemming from their feelings of low self-worth and self-esteem, those with this personality type will use gossip, intimidation, and guilt to seek revenge if they feel they’ve been slighted. If someone you know has ever expressed interest or behavior in “getting back” at someone for something, that’s a clear indication they might be a dark empath.
9. They keep themselves emotionally unavailable to others.
As empathetic as they appear, their own lack of emotional vulnerability usually goes unnoticed. For dark empaths, becoming vulnerable means relinquishing control, a factor they rely on for survival. Therefore, they armor themselves with distance and social charm to ensure their status and safety, rendering them fairly unavailable to others. If someone you know exhibits these behaviors and never truly opens up about themselves, they may be a dark empath.
Dr. Les Carter explains further: “They don’t really want to share in such a way that’s going to give you too much information, but they’ll do so in enough of a way that keeps you on the hook.”
10. They have a big ego but also need constant validation.
The extroverted and friendly nature of most dark empaths almost makes them seem overconfident. They never seem to shy away from certain situations and confront things head-on. Yet, secretly, because of their experiences, upbringing, and viewpoints, they have low self-esteem. One tell-tale sign of dark empathy is the constant need for validation and approval from others.
Examples of Dark Empathy in Action
“We can consider a dark empath like a predator in the wild; they don’t strike you at your toughest moment, but when you turn around, they bite.”Psychology Element
Example scenario: You meet your friend for lunch. The first few minutes are spent discussing work and upcoming weekend plans. Then, your friend shifts the conversation and says “what do you think of Sara’s new car? I can’t believe she got that. I heard she can’t afford it.” Gossiping is one manipulation tool dark empaths use to keep others down and themselves in positions of “authority.”
Example scenario: You and a colleague prepare to present during a meeting at work. When you begin speaking, you explain that your colleague will present the data after you provide a summary. When your colleague begins speaking, he displays the numbers and performance charts and then says, “We all know how GREAT Tom is with math so I went ahead and did all of the calculations.” To ensure their own social safety and ego, dark empaths like to make others feel like less and use the appearance of jokes to do it.
Example scenario: You begin dating someone. At first, everything flows normally, from the conversations to the activities. The person gives you several gifts, compliments you daily, and requests to see you often. Time continues, and the gifts start to become more frequent and expensive. The person’s requests to spend time start to feel like demands and they’re suddenly integrated into every part of your life. It feels excessive and fast for the dating phase. This is an example of love bombing, and it’s all part of a dark empath’s plan to gain control of you.
Example scenario: Ghosting also frequently occurs within the realm of dating. Using the same example as above, imagine you’re spending a lot of time with someone. They seem interested in you and your hobbies, and things seem to be going well. When, one day, you text them, and they don’t reply. Since this is unusual, you give them the day to respond, and when you don’t hear anything, you wait a couple more days. Then you send another text to check on them, and again, no reply. Eventually, days and weeks pass, and you never hear from them again. This is an example of ghosting. For a dark empath, everyone must serve their needs; the minute you don’t or can’t serve them, they disappear.
Example scenario: You’re working on a project with your coworker, but notice they’ve put false information into the presentation. When you call out the error, they question you relentlessly and refuse to acknowledge their mistake. This is an example of gaslighting in a workplace environment. To maintain their reputation, dark empaths will use gaslighting to make you question your sanity and beliefs.
Playing the Victim
Example scenario: Your partner takes some time off from work, and the two of you plan to go out of town for a day. The day arrives when your partner is called in for a work emergency, and the trip out of town is postponed. You were looking forward to the trip, so you can’t hide your disappointment. When you express your sadness, your partner says, “Stop feeling sorry for yourself—I’m the one who has to go to work!” This is an example of a dark empath playing the victim. When you express your feelings, dark empaths dismiss your emotions because they see themselves as hurting worse.
Frequently Asked Questions About Dark Empaths
What is the difference between a regular empath and a dark empath?
A compassionate empath is willing to endure an experience with you. They don’t just say “that stinks,” and leave you to suffer alone. They sit with you, listen, and feel what you’re feeling. Dark empaths have this same ability, except they keep their emotional distance. Rather than experience something with you, they appear empathetic to gain favor without actually getting invested emotionally.
How do you handle a dark empath if they are someone close to you, like a friend, family member, boss, or colleague?
Dealing with people with dark triad traits, including dark empathy, starts with being able to spot them. By learning these dark empath traits, you can better equip and protect yourself against their manipulative behavior. This might mean leaning on others for emotional and mental health support, moderating your time with them, or ending the relationship if it’s unhealthy to maintain.
As Dr. Durvasula advises, “Don’t date them . . . ideally, don’t work for them; dark empaths are tricky; they are the poisonous snake that has the same markings as a non-poisonous snake.”
Are people born as dark empaths?
While psychologists aren’t sure what exactly causes dark empathy, it is believed that it develops similarly to narcissistic personality disorder. According to Psycom, there are several factors that may cultivate this particular personality trait and narcissism. These include learned manipulation from parents, excessive negative criticism, childhood abuse, or excessive pampering.
Do dark empaths have any real emotions?
The dark part about a dark empath is that they are just as emotionally adept as compassionate empaths—they just choose to suppress it.
What should I do if I suspect I’m a dark empath? Can I get help?
Begin by being honest with yourself and examining the behaviors mentioned above. Do any of them sound like you? There isn’t a test for dark empathy specifically, but you can supplement your self-examination by also taking the dark triad personality test. If you’re relating to the above behaviors and scored highly on dark triad traits, it may be beneficial to seek out a licensed therapist. They can help you unpack your particular tendencies and their causes and help you transition into a more healthy emotional state.
Additional Resources for Those Struggling With Dark Empathy
It may take some time before a dark empath’s true traits show themselves, particularly since they are good at appearing empathetic. However, as Dr. Les Carter shares, “You’ll eventually begin realizing when differences and conflicts begin showing up that empathy tends to fall back and these more nefarious kinds of ingredients begin to come to the forefront.”
The good news is that being a dark empath is not permanent, and growth is possible. Like with any negative mindset, establishing new positive habits regarding mental health is vital for change. Dark empaths can lean into books, licensed therapists, and emotion experts to begin the process of cultivating compassionate empathy.
Ways to combat dark empathy today, for yourself or others:
- Take steps to practice a growth mindset.
- Read Dare to Lead by Brené Brown.
- Read Empathy: Why It Matters and How to Get It by Roman Krznaric.
- Do worksheet exercises to begin building empathy.
- Find a local licensed therapist or mental health professional to work with or use online services, like Talkspace or BetterHelp.
- Cultivate healthy relationships.
For more on the brighter side of empathy, check out “What is an empath?”
Explore how to lean into empathy in the workplace by reading Why is Empathy Important as a Business Leader?
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- Posts, 642. “Dean Hyers on LinkedIn: #architecture #engineeringmanagement #constructionmanagement.” LinkedIn, 28 Nov. 2022, https://www.linkedin.com/posts/deanhyers_architecture-engineeringmanagement-constructionmanagement-activity-6929946897201725440-GtoY.
- “5 Signs of a Dark Empath – The Most Dangerous Personality Type.” YouTube, 21 Jan. 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tl20Ke2Y58g.
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- “What Is a Dark Empath?” Psych Central, https://psychcentral.com/health/what-is-a-dark-empath. Accessed 12 May 2022.
- Heym, Nadja. “The Dark Empath.” ResearchGate, July 2020, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/343314108_The_Dark_Empath_Characterising_dark_traits_in_the_presence_of_empathy.
- “What You Should Know About Dark Empathy.” YouTube, 30 Aug. 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d1kOl3H3L2U.
- “How to Spot a Dark Empath? 7 Dark Empath Traits.” YouTube, 17 July 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lbAwPwTwUkU.
- Soriano, Krista. “Tell Me All I Need to Know About Narcissistic Personality Disorder.” Psycom, Oct. 2022, https://www.psycom.net/personality-disorders/narcissistic.