Healthy Mind

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

Mary Grace Garis

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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 beware of 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 rather than the suck the life from everyone around them. 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.

Upon first thought—to me, at least—the dark empath sounds sexy as hell. While it's common knowledge that avoiding dark triad energy vampires is wise, a dark empath is different. This type of vampire doesn't drain human energy; rather, they just brood while caring about others' feelings. But, according to a mental-health pro, my first thought was very wrong—a dark empath might, in fact, be the most emotionally dangerous.

"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."

"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." — Ramani Durvasula, PhD, clinical psychologist

For Dr. Durvasula, the term "dark empath" itself doesn't sit well, 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. And no matter what, this empathy is void of malevolence. Such is not the case, though, with the empathy associated with 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 became putty in the hands" of the dark empath.

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.

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. They also rate higher when it comes to guilt induction, or being able to guilt others. And yes, guilt-tripping someone does feel like a total manipulation move.

To an extent, dark empaths are kind of a doesn't-eat-human vampire—the Edward Cullen of personality types, if you will. They probably won't bite and drain you dry at first sight, but they can be self-loathing and controlling. Their ability to read your thoughts is a subtle but powerful evil superpower—and one that doesn't really reflect passionate, reciprocal feeling.

So, while I thought they sounded sexy as hell initially, I stand corrected. I like my vampires to have soul.

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