They may be the worst “Energy Vampire” personality type, but what makes a Dark Empath so terrifying and what should you do when you meet one?

The world is simpler in black-or-white terms, but not more accurate. Right vs. wrong, left vs. right, good vs. evil, and other divisions always miss out on a large portion of data and understanding. This is particularly relevant to the field of psychology and human behavior; it’s tempting to box people into neat packages. But that doesn’t lead to accurately understanding others.

One of the qualities that are pedestalled in pop psychology is empathy. Or, more specifically, the “empath,” a label given to people who are able to perceive and understand other people’s emotions. Empaths are usually positioned as the “good” to the “evil” of narcissists, who only consider themselves. Empathy is a wonderful thing. It’s essential in order to care for other people, and nurture society as a whole. However, emotional empathy alone doesn’t make someone automatically caring, kind, or loving.

Ultimately, everyone has a shadow, and everyone can have some dark personality traits. The nicest person in the world might suppress their true emotions, afraid to express anger or frustration. The most caring person in the world might develop resentment towards those they “care for,” due to always putting others before them. Someone who appears aloof and detached may be deeply empathetic, but struggle to show their vulnerable side.

In fact, empathy comes alongside the characterising dark traits of the dark empath personality, a type seen a dangerous personality type for their manipulative behavior in the mental health community. You may find many references to “dark triads” but in the context of psychology, there’s only one thing that comes to mind, and it is scary. The so called dark empath is one of a group of personality types who display the dark triad of personality traits — with empathy thrown into the mix, hence their knack for emotional manipulation tactic. This personality trait makes them more threatening than the typical, unfeeling dark triad type.

But what actually is a dark empath, how can you identify one, and how can you steer clear of the most dangerous personality type’s emotional clutches ?

What Is a Dark Empath?

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The dark triad refers to three negative personality traits: narcissism (grandiosity and self-centredness), Machiavellianism (manipulating others, lacking morals), and psychopathy (selfishness, lack of remorse). The term was originally coined by psychologists Delroy Paulhus and Kevin Williams in 2002, because of the damaging ways in which people with this personality type behave. Dark triad personality types are more likely to commit crime, demonstrate antisocial behavior, lack compassion, and exploit others in order to serve their needs. 

Most notably, the dark triad personality type has always been associated with low, or zero, empathy. Yet in 2021, a paper in Personality and Individual Differences discovered a distinct personality type — the dark empath — who scored high in each of the three dark triad traits, along with high levels of empathy. The results of this are twofold: dark empaths reported lower aggression than the traditional dark triad, but they were more difficult to spot.

The reason they are harder to detect is that, unlike those with psychopathy, the dark empath has a high level of social skills. It’s long been speculated that persistent violent offenders, for example, struggle to empathize with others. Yet the research on dark empaths suggests someone with a gift of perception can use empathy as a powerful weapon or as a way to gather intel, making it even easier to manipulate and coerce others.

What the Research Says

To put this into context, studies into personality types seek to explore clinically diagnosable personality disorders. Labels such as gaslighting, narcissism, and psychopath are often used overzealously in popular culture, yet everyone possesses these traits to a degree, landing somewhere on a spectrum. Those who are recognized and diagnosed with the most dangerous personality types, such as antisocial personality disorder, are at higher risk of threatening or violent behavior.

The purpose of the research on dark empaths was to explore elevated dark empath traits in the general population. The dark empath isn’t a recognized, clinical disorder in the same way as conditions such as NPD, but that doesn’t make much difference to how harmful this particular personality type can be.

The Role of Empathy in Personality Disorders

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As noted above, people with psychopathy — those often imprisoned due to violent or disruptive behavior — have low levels of empathy. The common understanding of people with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is that they lack empathy, and that they are only able to think of themselves in a form of grandiose self-delusion. However, studies have suggested that the role of empathy in NPD is much more complex. Some people may have trouble regulating their empathy levels, yet demonstrate occasions of high understanding of others.

Either way, empathy is seen as one of the hallmarks of altruism, and trustworthiness. A healthy, functioning adult will have a high degree of empathy for others; in other words, they have the ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, to understand how they might feel, and how they might think. There are three forms of empathy: cognitive empathy, affective empathy, and compassionate empathy.

What Is Cognitive Empathy?

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Photo by 胡 卓亨 on Unsplash

Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand what someone else might be thinking. It’s centered on rationally or logically understanding why someone feels the way they do. If you’re late to an important meeting and your colleague is frustrated with you, you’ll likely be able to understand the reasons why, and apologize.

If your partner receives a rejection letter for a job they really wanted, you’ll appreciate why that causes them pain. Another term for this is perspective-taking; although you might not feel the same as the other person, you can relate to their perspective.

What Is Affective Empathy?

Two sad women sitting on couch by Ben White on Unsplash
Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Affective empathy is the ability to actually feel what someone else feels. This trait is often linked with those who identify as empaths; that is, those who are extra-sensitive to other people’s emotions.

If someone is upset, they don’t only possess the ability to understand, but actually begin to feel the same emotion. The downside of affective empathy is being easily swayed by how others are feeling, all of the time.

What Is Compassionate Empathy?

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Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

The third type, compassionate empathy is closely linked to the Buddhist notion of loving-kindness. Not only does it involve taking the perspective of someone else, and possibly feeling what they’re feeling, it includes a proactive sense of wanting to help, to support that person, or even to share “sympathetic joy” by celebrating their successes with them.

Note that studies have found people have different degrees of each of these types of empathy. Some people might have high levels of cognitive empathy, but rarely feel what others feel. Others may feel others without making intellectual sense of it. Or someone could be sensitive to empathy, without taking direct action to help.

The Traits of a Dark Empath, Explained

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The authors of the original paper on dark empaths recently addressed whether the personality type was the most dangerous of those currently identified. “We believe that dark empaths have the capacity to be callous and ruthless, but are able to limit such aggression,” they write in their article in The Conversation. In some sense, a dark empath’s ability to emotionally manipulate others is what makes them most dangerous. It can be more difficult to detect, compared to someone who displays obvious violent tendencies or impulsive behavior.

A dark empath may be charming and likeable, after all, but due to their social skills and ability to perceive subtleties in others, dark empaths may be able to hide their harmful behavior. They may use malicious humor, and make their victims feel as if it’s their fault, through gaslighting or blame. Worse yet, a dark empath is more likely to feign empathy, rather than appear completely detached. For anyone on the receiving end of these types of abuse, that can be incredibly confusing.

The Dark Empath and Narcissistic Abuse

The pattern of narcissistic abuse, particularly in romance, shows signs of dark empathy. For example, love bombing someone requires a level of understanding of the person’s inner world, which would be impossible without empathy. Equally, abusive tactics such as gaslighting require a deep understanding of the person’s psychology and emotions — gaslighting is a particularly damaging form of abuse because it turns someone against themselves.

Dark empaths may also experience vulnerable narcissism. This is an inverted type of narcissism, that is still pathologically self-centered, but more introverted or emotionally distant. For example, a vulnerable or covert narcissist may always see themselves as the victim, but have low self-esteem, compared to an extrovert narcissist who believes themselves to be some form of perfection.

How to “Spot” Dark Empaths – And What to Do When You Find Them

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Part of modern culture is to look out for red flags, spot narcissists, gaslighters, and more recently dark empaths. People have a willingness to diagnose others, to pinpoint exactly what’s wrong, and why they behave the way they do. The label might be reassuring, or it might be a way for someone to feel superior or avoid self-reflection.

The world of personality disorders or abuse is complex, and best understood by professionals. Understanding more about certain traits is useful because it can allow you to detect these behaviors in others, which can help detect harmful behaviors. But keep in mind human behavior is on a spectrum, and everyone has a darker side, from the casual guilt trip to unconscious manipulation.

RELATED: The Hero And The Villain: Narcissists Deserve Empathy Too

In terms of personal development, stay connected to yourself, and maintain personal responsibility. Identifying traits in others is useful. But don’t obsess over how others are behaving; consider your role, your behavior, the need for boundaries. If someone is treating you harmfully, act to protect yourself. Trust your deeper intuition and your gut.

Most people are hesitant to always look for the worst in people. As Abraham Maslow once said, “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” If you look for dark empaths, you’ll probably find evidence for it in most people you meet, at different times, to different degrees. Maybe awareness of the dark empath offers a chance of genuine empathy, a chance to understand and forgive, while having the knowledge to avoid being on the receiving end of the dark empath’s manipulative behaviors.


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