New research has identified a term known as the dark empath, which some refer to as the most dangerous personality type. Note this is not a recognized personality disorder. Let’s explore what the term means, and what you need to know.
To understand the dark empath, we first must have a good understanding of empathy. You’ve likely heard the term before and can conjure images of someone being kind and understanding.
The American Psychological Association defines empathy as “understanding a person from his or her frame of reference rather than one’s own, or vicariously experiencing that persona’s feelings, perceptions, and thoughts”.
That definition feels straightforward, but in reality, there are different kinds of empathy, and it can look different depending on the situation and the person expressing it. It’s commonly understood in three distinct types: cognitive, emotional, and compassionate.
Cognitive Empathy: This form of empathy is logic-based and intellectual. Simply understanding that someone feels a certain way, and possibly being able to correctly label that is empathy, but it’s fairly limited in how useful it is.
- A friend comes to you and tells you that they have been struggling with a health condition. You simply respond that must be difficult”, and then continue doing the activity you were doing prior to them sharing that information.
- You are watching the news and see a story of someone struggling to meet basic needs. You feel for them and can recognize that would be challenging, but then change the channel and carry on with your night.
You might say things like:
- “I’m sorry you feel that way:
- “That must be hard”
- “You must be feeling ______”
Emotional Empathy: Emotional empathy typically refers to when someone can feel the same emotions and sensations as other people, even when they are not the person affected. This could be related to emotions like anger and sadness, but also physical pain and discomfort.
- Your friend is walking around barefoot and steps on a sharp nail. When they scream, you wince in pain along with them and feel sick to your stomach.
- You hear someone talking about losing a loved one, and feel a heavy weight on your chest and tears welling in your eyes as you listen to their story and remember your own experiences with grief.
You might say things like:
- “I understand how that feels.”
- “I can imagine you would be feeling _____, I have definitely felt that way before.”
Compassionate Empathy: This form of empathy is the ideal form. Once we have understood (cognitive empathy) and felt (emotional empathy), compassionate empathy takes that information and turns it into action, moving us to help in whatever way we can.
- When your friend comes to you and tells you about their health condition, you listen intently, voice understanding, and identify areas of their life that you might be able to help with like grocery shopping or handy work around the house.
- When you see a story on the news about people in your community struggling to meet basic news, you sit with this heavy recognition, then call your local shelter to inquire about donating and volunteering.
- When your friend steps on the sharp nail and hurts their foot, you wince along with them, then immediately get the first aid kit to bandage their foot, and do a sweep of the floors to make sure there are no more nails.
- When you hear someone discussing their grief, you listen fully, and offer tangible help and ways to keep their memory alive.
You might say things like:
- “I’m so sorry to hear you’re struggling, tell me what it’s been like while we find a way to help.”
- “I can imagine you would be feeling _____, can you share with me how I can best help you right now?”
The Dark Triad
The dark triad is a trio of personality traits, and it is equally as important as empathy when understanding the dark empath.
When psychologists refer to the dark triad, they are referring to personality traits that might overlap with mental health diagnoses, but explain a more broad picture of character and personality.
The three traits included in the dark triad are:
- Narcissism (heightened self-regard, selfishness, arrogance)
- Machiavellianism (stemming from the infamous Niccolo Machievlli- manipulative, deceiving, often highly intelligent but will go to any length to achieve their desires)
- Psychopathy (lack of remorse, antisocial behavior, emotionally cold, volatile).
People who are described as being high in any of the traits in the dark triad are often thought to have low empathy. While some are highly intelligent, their emotional intelligence is typically lacking.
The dark empath is the exception to this.
The Dark Empath
New research has explored these types of people. Researchers identified folks who scored high on dark traits, and also high on empathy measures, and in doing so coined the term “the dark empath”.
These researchers studied nearly 1000 people (n=991) and looked at the classic dark traits, but also general well-being and empathy.
They determined that a dark empath generally has many traits from the dark triad, and couples that with a relatively high emotional intelligence or empathy, but this isn’t to say that dark empaths are highly empathic. Going back to our earlier descriptions of the different types of empathy, dark empaths typically are highly skilled at cognitive empathy. They understand emotions very well, but struggle to translate that emotion into a motivation to help, and instead use it to their advantage.
They noted that while empathy can play a role in slightly improving the general well-being of people with dark triad traits, these dark empaths still engage in problematic and sinister behavior, just slightly differently.
What Does a Dark Empath Look Like?
A dark empath can be more problematic than someone with outright dark characteristics because they can be tougher to spot.
On the surface, they may appear kind and charming, and they may even seem more empathic than their peers. Typically more extroverted and well-liked by surface-level peers, they’re not people you would immediately peg as having dark traits.
They often elicit vulnerable information and confessions, appear to show empathy in the moment, but then later weaponize that vulnerability. They make people feel heard and understood, but are doing so less for the benefit of the other person, and more so to gain intel and trust to use later.
Dark empaths are no strangers to guilt trips and gaslighting. Especially if they’ve understood someone to be a caring and compassionate person, they can use that to try to position themselves as a victim and elicit compassion rather than own their own actions.
Is a Dark Empath the Same as a Narcissist?
The short answer here is no, but the longer answer is kind of. The researchers who coined this term did so specifically because narcissists are classically thought to have little to no empathy, and dark empaths have high empathy capabilities.
The behaviors and internal desires of these two types of people may be very similar in that they are almost exclusively self-serving, but the mechanisms they use to get to those desires are slightly different.
Dark empaths are also typically better at not letting others be aware of their dark traits. Narcissists aren’t often well-liked (though they may be in positions of power or prestige by means of their confidence or by instilling fear), but dark empaths are exceptionally good at navigating social interactions to appear friendly, empathetic, and like someone you would want to become close with.
So, very likely there are people who may have been previously described as narcissists, who now more specifically fall under the term dark empath, and there may be people who did not let enough of their dark traits show to be thought of as narcissists, but could be better understood under this new description.
What to do if you suspect you have a Dark empath in your life
First of all, it’s important to be careful with how we apply this term. It’s tempting to want to apply a psychological term when you have a bad experience with someone.
If there have been only a few small occurrences of arguing or feeling like someone brought something up unfairly to hurt you in an argument, they may simply be a poor communicator or have trouble managing strong emotions.
If this seems to be an ongoing pattern and there is a clear intention to harm you and use your vulnerability against you, it’s possible they are a dark empath.
If you suspect you have a dark empath in your life, here are a few things to do:
Remember, this is not your fault. Even if you now see their true colors, remember they are highly skilled at presenting themselves in a different way, so it would have been exceptionally difficult to know then what you do now.
Lean on supportive people in your life. Identify the people in your life that make you feel loved, accepted, and supported. Reconnect with people you know are caring, even if you distanced yourself from them while you were close with the dark empath
Trust yourself. A dark empath will attempt to manipulate and twist your feelings, stick to what you know is true.
Reach out for help. A neutral third party like a therapist can be an unbiased place to help you sort through the confusion that often results from being around a dark empath. Be open and honest with people in your life about what has happened and let them help you work through it.
Prioritize yourself. Many people (especially those that identify as empaths themselves) can be completely exhausted by dark empaths. Taking time to rest and care for yourself is vital to give you the strength to make a change.
Learn their patterns. While dark empaths can be intelligent and creative, their motivations are relatively simplistic. You can learn to understand their patterns and tactics, so that when they attempt them again in a new situation, you can immediately see it, and shut it down or remove yourself from it.
Practice gray rocking. A strategy for dealing with the guilt trips and gaslighting often used by dark empaths (and narcissists), grey rocking involves trying not to feed into the pattern the dark empath wants. When they say or do things to elicit a strong emotional response from you, you instead are unphased, uninterested, unbothered. You don’t fuel the interaction and don’t offer unnecessary information.
Conversations where one person is grey rocking often have a lot of one-word answers or nods, and no emotional escalation from the person grey rocking. It’s a major challenge and takes time, but it does eventually remove the excitement and interest for the dark empath.
Set firm boundaries and stick to them. As with most people with traits from the dark triad, dark empaths will attempt to push their limits and can take advantage of you without firm boundaries in place. It’s vital that you stick to the boundaries once they’re set. The dark empath may up the ante to see if you’ll fold, but eventually, they’ll learn they can no longer get what they want from you.
Set up a safety plan. Not all dark empaths are violent, but when dealing with anyone who is high on dark triad traits, it’s important to maintain your safety. Especially if you are in a situation where you are attempting to leave or set boundaries that will likely anger the dark empath, a safety plan is essential.
Talk to friends or loved ones about what’s happening, and identify a safe place to go in the event of an escalation. Talk to authorities at the first sign of violence about your options for protection. If you are concerned that your experience with a dark empath has or is becoming violent or abusive, do not hesitate to reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800- 799-7233 or online at https://www.thehotline.org/. You can also access other mental health resources here.