What Exactly Is A Dark Empath?

Have you ever met someone and gotten the feeling that something is just off about them? Like, you couldn't quite place it but you just knew? Our gut is usually pretty good at letting us know when someone is not who they pretend to be, but when it comes to dark empaths, your gut might not pick up on the signals immediately. That's what makes dark empaths so dangerous.

The term "dark empath" might sound like something you'll read about in a fantasy novel, but these people are very real, and they can wreak havoc on your life. "A dark empath is a person who basically has the cognitive knowledge of empathy — they know how to relate to somebody, they know how to understand if someone's going through something or is feeling something — but they don't know how to follow through with any actions," Alyza Berman, founder and clinical director at The Berman Center, told Men's Health. Phoenix Adams, the executive vice president of Florida programming for Caron Treatment Centers, adds that, while dark empaths are empathetic people, they don't utilize this quality in the way ordinary folks would, so to speak. Instead of using their empathy as a tool to help others or provide understanding, they use it to manipulate others. Read on to learn more about dark empaths and how to recognize them.

Dark empaths can be incredibly dangerous

Dark empaths are wolves in sheep's clothing. They have many of the same traits exhibited by narcissists, but they're much harder to identify, thanks to — you guessed it — their ability to empathize.

In an article licensed professional counselor Taylor Cameron wrote for Nobu, she explains that it's so much easier for people to let a dark empath into their lives because the person can seem like they truly understand them and empathize with their situation. "However, this is a façade that dark empaths use to connect with others and then exploit them," Cameron writes. She adds that those who are in a relationship with a dark empath might find that they start to believe they are the problem. They might start to question their own behaviors, thoughts, and feelings without realizing that the real problem is the dark empath.

A 2021 study published in Personality and Individual Differences found that dark empaths can be extroverted and agreeable while at the same time being incredibly aggressive. They won't let you see their dark side until they've roped you in, however. "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," clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula, Ph.D., told Well+Good. "The closer you are to someone, the more you can hurt them," she adds.

How dark empaths experience emotions and thoughts

Dark empaths experience the world a little differently than the rest of us, according to PshychCentral. They are incredibly sensitive to how others feel, much like ordinary empaths. They can empathize with someone's circumstances and the things they are experiencing. They understand those feelings, but they don't feel the need to actually do anything about it — in reality, they are emotionally detached and distant with no desire to support the person. Instead, they are typically calculating how to use the person's emotions or circumstances against them in a way that would benefit themselves.

Dark empaths love attention but don't find any fulfillment or pleasure in typical social rewards. They are often incredibly critical of themselves but at the same time strive to be impressive. In an article two experts in psychology from Nottingham Trent University, Nadja Heym and Alexander Sumich, wrote for The Conversation, they explained that dark empaths are typically aware that they can be ruthless and callous, but unlike narcissists and psychopaths, they have the ability to control their aggression to some extent.

What does the dark triad have to do with all of this?

If you're a psychology geek, you've probably heard of the dark triad before. Licensed professional counselor Taylor Cameron describes the dark triad as "a grouping of three negative and potentially harmful personality traits." In an article she wrote for Nobu, she explains that these personality traits include Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and narcissism.

Machiavellianism refers to people who are incredibly manipulative and display character traits like callousness, immorality, and self-interest. Psychopathy, on the other hand, refers to people who appear incredibly charming on the surface, but display antisocial behaviors, emotional detachment, and an inability to feel bad about their actions, no matter how cruel or terrible they may be. Narcissists also display a lack of remorse, and they believe that they are superior to others and are extra special and therefore deserve special treatment. As a result, they can't handle any criticism that comes their way.

Dark empaths can show signs of all three of these personality traits, Cameron writes. This is where the "dark" in the term "dark empath" comes from.

What sets dark empaths apart from narcissists and psychopaths?

While they can seem like the same thing, there are some differences between dark empaths and narcissists. We've already established that narcissists typically don't have empathy, or very low levels of it, while dark empaths can have bucketloads (via MedCircle).

Another trait that sets these two personality types apart is the dark empath's ability to hide their dark side. They can appear super friendly, relatable, and genuinely understanding. Narcissists aren't good at doing this — people are often all too aware of their mean-spirited personalities and behaviors. Dark empaths and narcissists are similar, there is no arguing that, but the tactics they use to manipulate people to get their way differs.

Dark empaths' ability to feel empathy is also what sets them apart from psychopaths. Speaking to Well+Good, neuropsychologist Sanam Hafeez explained that, emotionally, dark empaths can be more dangerous than psychopaths. Psychopaths are void of any emotion and can't comprehend the feelings and thoughts people around them experience, hence they can't use those thoughts and feelings as a weapon, Hafeez explains. Dark empaths, while having all other character traits associated with psychopathy, can weaponize others' emotions. More research is needed to better understand the difference between these personality types, Hafeez says.

Dark empaths are incredibly sensitive

In an article former therapist Crystal Jackson wrote for The Truly Charming, she explains that one trait you might be able to identify a dark empath by is their "heightened sensitivity." "They have the full range of empathic emotions and an ability to experience the emotions of others  —  although experts are unsure if their emotional intelligence is cognitive, affective, or a combination of the two," Jackson writes. They are what one would call emotionally intelligent. You might, in fact, think you've just met the kindest, most sensitive, and most understanding person on the planet. 

Jackson says that it's true that the emotions dark empaths experience are very real, but thanks to their dark triad traits, they abuse what is usually a positive trait to draw people in and manipulate and control them. Your emotions are their weapon, and this allows them to take control of your life and whatever type of relationship you have with them. If you know someone who seems to empathize and yet acts in ways that are cruel, controlling, or manipulative, you're likely dealing with a dark empath.

They have a cruel sense of humor

Everyone tells a bad joke every once in a while, but a telltale sign that you're dealing with a dark empath is when a person consistently makes cruel jokes that put someone else down or embarrasses them in some way (via Lifehacker).

Pay close attention to what someone finds funny and the subject matter they choose for their jokes. In an article two experts in psychology from Nottingham Trent University, Nadja Heym and Alexander Sumich, wrote for The Conversation, they explain that dark empaths have a malicious sense of humor. They are also masters at making their victims feel guilty. So if you dare to take them on about their cruel jokes or inappropriate sense of humor, chances are pretty good they will turn the tables on you and do it so well that you'll believe you're the problem. Dark empaths know just how to make people feel guilty enough to do their bidding. In this case, their bad behavior will often be forgiven because the victim believes they were in the wrong.

They typically have a very low self-esteem

Despite being able to appear super charming and self-assured to the rest of the world, dark empaths usually have very low self-esteem, former therapist Crystal Jackson explains in an article for The Truly Charming. She adds that dark empaths can have massive egos and yet need the people around them to constantly tell them that they are awesome. Jackson says this stems from the dark empath's ability to know, deep down, that they manipulate people for their own gain. This can result in feelings of unworthiness. The dark empath might feel that they don't deserve stable, healthy relationships or true love. In turn, they see themselves in a negative light and continue to seek validation from those around them.

This is another reason why dark empaths are so hard to spot. Jackson says they will typically even go as far as to point out their imperfections to those close to them. Often, people will believe that the person can't possibly have a narcissistic personality if they're able to point out their own flaws, but Jackson says to take a closer look — you'll probably notice that, despite them being super self-aware, everything they do and say still serves as a means to get what they want in the end.

They are a nightmare in relationships

Being in a relationship with a dark empath can not only be emotionally draining, but it can also be dangerous. Speaking to Health, psychotherapist Paul Hokemeyer explained that dark empaths have a terrible track record when it comes to sustaining long-term relationships. "They have a string of unsuccessful relationships where they have 'cut off' significant people in their lives," he says, adding that this doesn't just apply to romantic relationships, but friendships and working relationships as well. Dark empaths also don't make an exception for family members and will cut them off if it serves them.

Former therapist Crystal Jackson explains in The Truly Charming that dark empaths will always manipulate a relationship to ensure it revolves around them. Their wants and needs are all that matter, they don't care about what their partner needs, and will do whatever they can to always be the one in control. Jackson warns that the tactics they use may be subtle, so pay close attention to how your partner acts. If the odds are always somehow stacked in their favor and you're left out in the cold, they might possess dark empath traits, and it's best to get out.

They figure out what makes you tick, then use it against you

According to Marriage.com, those who first enter into relationships with dark empaths typically feel safe and loved. This is because dark empaths are incredibly observant and will quickly figure out how to make a person feel important and understood. They will listen when you speak and appear to understand your struggles and desires. The more you tell them about yourself, the more ammunition they have. They start to figure out what makes you tick and weaponize it.

They'll use your own words and emotions against you, leaving you feeling inadequate and like you have even more problems than before. You'll likely depend on them again to listen and understand, and the vicious cycle will repeat itself. Make no mistake — a dark empath's only goal is to gather enough emotional intel on you so they can be your puppet master. They might seem like they care, but they really don't. If you're in a relationship like this, don't make excuses for them — leave!

They are known for gaslighting and guilt-tripping people

A dark empath's hold on someone is heavily dependent on that person not figuring out that they are actually being manipulated and exploited. Former therapist Crystal Jackson explains in her article for The Truly Charming that once you start to question the dark empath's actions, they will resort to gaslighting and guilt-tripping to keep you in line. "If you figure out what they're doing, they're more likely to question your sanity in a gaslighting attempt than to admit that you've caught them out," Jackson warns.

Assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, Paige Sweet, explains that gaslighting refers to the action of making someone else believe that they are crazy. "It's making someone seem or feel unstable, irrational and not credible, making them feel like what they're seeing or experiencing isn't real, that they're making it up, that no one else will believe them," she told Forbes.

Jackson adds that gaslighting is a natural response for dark empaths when the person they're trying to control starts to set some boundaries. Acting like you're the one who's crazy and making you feel guilty for confronting or resisting them in the first place is their way of keeping you caught up in their web. Don't be surprised if they resort to emotional blackmail as well.

They can be incredibly charming and manipulative

Dark empaths are experts at reading people and making them feel special, experts warn. Speaking to PsychCentral, mental health counselor Mary Joye explained why people so easily fall prey to dark empaths. "They can be very charming and put you on a pedestal and then be the very person who will knock that pedestal down," she warns. 

Positive psychologist and cognitive behavioral therapist Cali Estes adds that dark empaths are excellent actors, which means they are usually well-liked by those who don't know them well or who aren't in a direct relationship with them. "They may love bomb you, act amazing around your family, and appear the perfect partner to your family, but inside they only want you for your money or value you can give them," Estes explains.

You can expect a dark empath to use various manipulative tactics to stay in control — they might intimidate you, ghost you, and even gossip about you or others. They also often resort to sarcasm and playing the victim, all to keep you in line.

Dealing with a dark empath can be emotionally draining

This goes without saying, but dealing with a dark empath can be utterly draining. Speaking to Men's Health, founder and clinical director at The Berman Center, Alyza Berman, warned that being in a relationship with a dark empath can have some serious repercussions for your mental health.

Noticing a drop in your self-confidence and constantly feeling confused and guilty is just the beginning. Victims of dark empaths often experience anxiety and trauma as well, and as long as they're under the dark empath's influence, their mental health will continue to suffer. Vice president of Florida programming for Caron Treatment Centers, Phoenix Adams, says that victims often blame themselves, not realizing that they aren't actually the problem and that the manipulation and exploitation they are enduring isn't their fault. "Their partner tries to strategically play on their emotions and use them to their advantage," explains Darren Moore, owner of the counseling and consulting practice I AM MOORE, adding, "This could contribute to major power differences within relationships, and it could be difficult to escape from if the partner is not aware this is happening."

Adams warns that those stuck in a relationship with a dark empath often resort to maladaptive coping techniques to numb the pain. These coping strategies often include alcohol and drug abuse as well as binging on food. Others squander money or use sex as a way to act out.

How to handle the dark empath in your life

If you've realized that there's someone in your life that shows signs of being a dark empath, we've got a few tips on how to deal with them.

First of all, you'll need to set very strict boundaries. "People with traits of dark empaths may have a level of narcissism that inhibits their ability to see their behaviors as problematic, and therefore may be less likely to seek help," vice president of Florida programming for Caron Treatment Centers, Phoenix Adams, told Men's Health. But you need to watch out — if the dark empath in your life seems way too willing to get help, it might just be another manipulation tactic. However, the owner of the counseling and consulting practice I AM MOORE, Darren Moore, says that some dark empaths do go to therapy, but not to address their dark side. Typically it's for other issues that are a symptom of their condition, like relationship problems, substance abuse, or addiction.

If you are in a relationship with a dark empath or have a family member who is one, going for regular therapy sessions can help you cope and might even help you pluck up the courage to end the relationship or distance yourself from that person. MedCircle adds that you should remember that you are not responsible for the dark empath's behavior. Learn the person's patterns so you know how to sidestep them, and reach out to loved ones to help support you.

Is it possible to have a healthy relationship with a dark empath?

This is a loaded question and one you've probably contemplated if the dark empath in your life is a family member or someone you thought was your soulmate. The answer might not be what you hoped for, unfortunately.

"It's dangerous to be in any kind of relationship, be it a friendship, an intimate affair, or a business association, with someone with a dark triad personality profile," psychotherapist Paul Hokemeyer told Health. He adds that nothing you do from your end will help them to change into the person you wish them to be. Their brains are literally wired to manipulate and exploit — they can't help themselves.

If you're wondering if therapy might be an effective tool to help dark empaths change for the better, Hokemeyer says not to get your hopes up since the chances of therapy working a miracle and changing their toxic traits and behaviors are "minuscule" at best. "The personality traits that make up a dark triad are deeply ingrained in their psyche and highly resistant to any sort of challenge that would manifest a change," Hokemeyer stresses, adding that the best course of action is always to remove yourself from this person entirely — and quickly.