You may have heard people describe themselves as an “empath” to indicate they’re sensitive, intuitive people deeply aware of the emotions and energy of those around them. These self-proclaimed highly feeling souls are emotional sponges, immediately sensing peoples’ moods, making them natural helpers and healers. But, this excess of empathy is not always used for good. Recently, a new term has emerged in the world of pop psychology: the “dark empath.”
The dark empath personality is one who can deeply comprehend another’s mental state, but who also possesses one or more antisocial personality traits that comprise the “dark triad”: Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and narcissism. Someone who reels you in with empathy and understanding, then schemes to serve their own purposes, to your detriment.
What is a dark empath?
According to researchers at Nottingham Trent University who surveyed participants using the Big 5 Model of personality traits, while true empaths experience affective empathy, dark empaths experience cognitive empathy — they can acutely perceive and understand someone’s point of view without actually feeling another’s emotions the way an empath would.
Clinical psychologist and author Dr. Ramani Durvasula told Well + Good, “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.” The dark empath, she continued, looks to “understand what makes (another person) tick with the goal of almost mining data” to their own advantage. (She also noted she wasn’t a fan of the label “dark empath,” as genuine empathy “must have an intrinsic emotional and prosocial element.” Nevertheless, social media loves catchy new personality types, so we will likely see a lot more of this term.)
While not a diagnosable condition in the psychiatric Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), there’s plenty to unpack here. So how can you tell if you’re ensnared in the alluring tendrils of a dark empath? Here’s what to look for.
They’re social and agreeable on the surface
Dark empaths are no wallflowers — far from it. Research found them to be more extroverted and agreeable than typical narcissists. (They also were more neurotic.) They can be charismatic with great social skills. And dark empaths don’t just mope around being, well, dark and lonely. According to the journal Personality and Individual Differences, “In terms of well-being, dark empaths fared better than dark triads on many measures including anxiety, social pleasure, and close relationships.”
Malicious sense of humour (with a side of guilt)
Watch out for what they joke about and laugh at. Research found dark empaths had higher degrees of “malicious humour and guilt induction.” While we couldn’t find the definition of “malicious humour” used in the study, we can only assume it’s mean-spirited and gets laughs at someone else’s expense. And “guilt induction” can only mean one thing: the super-fun activity of guilt-tripping people into feeling bad so they’ll do something you want. Peak emotional manipulation.
They’re narcissistic and antagonistic
According to the study, while dark empaths aren’t wholly narcissistic, they do possess narcissistic traits, such as self-importance, grandiosity, arrogance, manipulation, and a need for admiration. (First boyfriend out of college, is that you?) Dark empaths may not shout in your face — they’re less aggressive than their empathy-lacking dark triad counterparts, but still harbour some antagonism at their core.
Maybe you’ve come across someone of similar personality in your life? If so, now you have a new name to call them.