Healthy Mind

The Dark Empath Personality Merges Empathy With Dark Triad Traits—And That Spells Trouble

Photo: Getty Images / iprogressman
When it comes to personality types and traits, I've gleaned two takeaways that run along a parallel path. First up is to proceed with caution when interacting with folks who exhibit the dark triad cluster of personality traits: Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and narcissism. Second is that empaths are the opposite of narcissists in that they are healers who absorb the emotions of others in a benevolent, loving way. But according to recent research published in Personality and Individual Differences, those two learnings can be melded in a singular personality type. Say hello to the dark empath, who mixes the traits of the dark triad with an ability to understand others' emotions. A master manipulator, the dark empath might be the most dangerous personality type there is.

What is a dark empath?

While it's common knowledge that avoiding dark triad energy vampires is wise, a dark empath is different. This type of person doesn't drain human energy the way a typical narcissist might; rather, they just brood while caring about others' feelings. A dark empath is someone who has difficulty with emotional empathy, says Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, a New York City-based neuropsychologist and director of Comprehend the Mind. In other words, they can’t feel the emotions of another person. She adds that dark empathy is not a diagnosable mental health condition, but rather a personality trait.

Here’s the kicker: while a dark empath doesn’t emotionally connect with someone else’s feelings, they do identify the other person’s viewpoint and use that to their advantage. “A dark empath uses the emotions another person exhibits and turns that into manipulation,” says Dr. Hafeez. “The dark empath will guilt trip you into thinking you’re at fault for something you’re not. They often crave attention but do not gain pleasure from social rewards and desire to have a sense of power.”

What makes a dark empath so dangerous?

According to mental health professionals, the dark empath might be more emotionally hazardous to folks than those with other dark triad personality types. "A dark empath may actually be more dangerous than a more cold and unfeeling dark triad type, because the so-called dark empath can draw you in closer—and do more harm as a result," says Ramani Durvasula, PhD, clinical psychologist and author of "Don't You Know Who I Am?": How To Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. "The closer you are to someone, the more you can hurt them."

For Dr. Durvasula, the term "dark empath" itself doesn't sit well in describing its potential for emotional destruction, largely because of its use of the word "empath." By her definition, genuine empathy must have an intrinsic emotional and prosocial element. For example, it would mean that hearing someone else's pain makes you want to help them, and hearing someone's joy makes you want to support them. This empathy is void of malevolence. Such is not the case, though, with the empathetic quality associated with dark empaths. What these folks seem to experience is more so cognitive empathy, or being able to understand someone's emotional state, but not necessarily connecting to it in a way that propels an emotional, prosocial output.

"The way the term is being used in the 'dark empath' variant is as manipulation," Dr. Durvasula says. "It's giving a surgical, almost razor-precision focus on another person to understand what makes them tick with the goal of almost mining data that could be used to the advantage of the dark empath." Mirrored empathy can put the other person at ease, and they "may relax and [become] putty in the hands" of the dark empath.

What are the most common dark empath traits to look out for?

1. They’re extroverted, agreeable, and neurotic

So since the general consensus is that dark empaths are bad news, how can we spot them in order to take note and steer clear? Well, when researchers surveyed 991 participants and measured their traits using the Big Five model of personality traits, they found dark empaths to be more extroverted, agreeable, and neurotic than their companions in the dark triad. Based on these data points, it's not hard to see how they'd relate to others more than your garden variety self-absorbed narcissist.

2. They have a malicious humor

The tradeoff is that dark empaths were found to have higher degrees of malicious humor, a term that refers to laughing at someone (and often groups) you think is beneath you. Dr. Hafeez adds that a dark empath’s biting humor and sarcastic commentary are indirect ways they affect, bully, and belittle others.

3. They gaslight and guilt trip others

Dark empaths also rate higher when it comes to guilt induction, or being able to guilt others. Along with guilt-tripping, gaslighting is another manipulative dark empath trait. “They will use these tactics to continue staying in control,” Dr. Hafeez says. “Dark empaths have no emotion as to how the other person feels and will twist the scenario around to work in their favor. If the ‘victim’ catches on to the dark empath's tactics, the latter will likely question your sanity instead of taking accountability.”

4. They use other people

Using other people for personal gain is another manipulative tactic dark empaths employ. “Since dark empaths have the ability to read people so well, they sense what others need and play the complementary role to satisfy their own personal agenda,” Dr. Hafeez says.

5. They fake sincerity

Dark empaths are pros at faking sincerity as a way to mask their manipulative motives. Although a dark empath’s emotions may come off as empathetic, Dr. Hafeez says there is always a lack of genuineness in their expression, so don’t be fooled.

How do I recognize and deal with a dark empath in my relationships?

Dark empaths exhibit all the above traits in their relationships. On the surface, you’ll see their connected, extroverted nature. They’ll come off as understanding and agreeable. However, Dr. Hafeez says these traits serve as distractions to their aforementioned dark traits of malicious humor, gaslighting, guilt-tripping, and maintaining emotional distance from others.

In other words, you have to really read between the lines when it comes to spotting dark empaths in relationships. “Their sense of control and self-absorption bring dark empaths joy and others pain, however, these manipulation tactics do not come off as obvious as a narcissist’s manipulative tactics,” Dr. Hafeez says.

If you do spot the signs, Dr. Hafeez advises not letting them emotionally manipulate you, and if the relationship is not in a healthy place, it may be best to distance yourself.

FAQs: What else should you know about dark empaths?

How common are dark empaths?

Dr. Hafeez says this is a tricky thing to quantify since it’s a relatively new term and because being a dark empath is not necessarily a trait you’re born with. Rather, she says it's a mix of experience, biological makeup, and character, making it difficult to put a number to how common the dark empath traits are in a person.

Do dark empaths have a conscience?

Dark empaths do have a conscience but it's ultimately up to them whether they pay attention to it or not. “Dark empaths may identify what one is going through and choose not to feel sympathy or any desire to assist,” Dr. Hafeez says. “This can give them an advantage, as they can either listen to their conscience and do good or use their skills to get what they want without remorse.”

Are people with dark triad traits a lost cause?

“They are a difficult cause,” Dr. Hafeez says. In order to change, they must first recognize themselves as someone within this personality group and be willing to undergo intensive therapy. The reason, she says, is because dealing with and understanding the three traits that make up the dark triad is challenging for a professional in the mental health field, let alone a lay person.

Is a dark empath more dangerous than a psychopath?

Generally, a psychopath is more physically dangerous, Dr. Hafeez says, while a dark empath is more emotionally dangerous but typically won’t cause bodily harm to others. She adds that the psychology field is still researching to better understand the difference between the two, but one point of differentiation is that a psychopath can’t understand the feelings or thoughts of others, while a dark empath can and uses that information to manipulate others.

How do you know if you're a dark empath?

Dr. Hafeez recommends asking yourself if you exhibit the telltale traits of a dark empath such as being extroverted and charming, being in tune with the experiences of others yet feeling emotionally detached, and behaving vindictively (e.g. emotionally manipulating, bullying, gossiping, gaslighting, ghosting, love-bombing, or playing the victim). While there is no official dark empath test, there is a dark triad personality test you can take online for informational purposes. However, if you’re truly concerned you may fit the personality type, Dr. Hafeez says it’s best to find a licensed therapist qualified to administer and analyze the findings.

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