Dark empath

Samir Kadri
Author: Samir Kadri Medical Reviewer: Morgan Blair Last updated:

Empathy is the capacity to understand other people’s emotional states in reference to one’s own and is integral to social interaction. [1] The ability to relate to another person is a valuable skill and a fundamental aspect of forging relationships.

An empathetic person is typically a good listener, offers helpful advice, and is emotionally aware enough to know when something is bothering you.

However, empathy can be weaponized when someone uses it for personal gain or as a manipulation tactic. This is what is referred to as dark empathy.

Dark empath

What is a dark empath?

Dark empaths understand the way you are feeling and make it seem as though they care, but they are using their cognitive ability to empathize with you for their personal gain.

Cognitive empathy refers to the ability to understand and recognize the thoughts, feelings, and perspectives of others without getting emotionally involved. [2] It can be contrasted with emotional empathy which, as the name implies, involves feeling the emotions someone else is feeling as though you were sharing their experience. [1]

Dark empaths are skilled at expressing empathy in a cognitive way rather than an emotional way, and the emotional distance they retain while operating equips them with a laser focus to achieve their ends through manipulation, gaslighting, or bullying.

Dark empath is a relatively new term and not an official condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V).

A dark empath will typically exhibit three interconnected, maladaptive personality constructs commonly referred to as the ‘Dark Triad’ – Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and narcissism. [3]

  • Machiavellianism refers to a person’s exploitative, cynical,and manipulative disposition. The term derives from the name of the Italian pioneer of political philosophy, Niccolo Machiavelli, who operated in Florence at the turn of the 16th
  • Psychopathy is characterized by a combination of affective-interpersonal flaws, such as superficial charm or callous affect, and behavioral deficits, such as an erratic lifestyle or antisocial behavior. [3]
  • Narcissism is characterized by grandiose thinking, an exaggerated sense of entitlement, self-importance, and superiority. [3]

Traits of a dark empath

They are manipulative

A “dark empath” might use their ability to understand and manipulate the emotions of others for personal gain or to control situations. They may guilt trip you one day, making you feel like you’re in the wrong for not playing to their tune. The next, they may gaslight you if you confront them about their behavior, attempting to convince you that you misunderstood the situation.

They are extroverted

Dark empaths are often more extroverted than others, in part due to their narcissistic tendencies, hinting at their ability to be comfortable socializing and communicating with others. [4] A combination of extraversion and high levels of cognitive empathy is extremely effective for forging connections with others. When deployed by a dark empath, these traits can have dangerous consequences for the people they encounter.

They are keenly perceptive

High levels of cognitive empathy mean dark empaths are highly attuned to the way others are feeling or reacting to situations. They can use this information to endear themselves to potential targets, making it seem as though they’re unusually understanding and caring. However, their desire to achieve their own goals is a dark empath’s sole motivation Any information they glean through their higher levels of perception, they can then manipulate others’ feelings to give them what they are after.

They retain emotional distance

Dark empaths can retain emotional distance from other people, despite conveying a sense of deep understanding of their perspectives. They can thus draw people closer to them making them feel that both parties have formed an authentic bond, all the while maintaining a perceived sense of control. When they have ensnared the other person, they can manipulate them without genuine concern for their feelings.

They judge themselves critically

Dark empaths can exhibit a unique form of self-criticism. [4] While their narcissistic tendencies cause them to feel a sense of grandiosity and self-importance, this can be offset by high levels of self-criticism.

Their heightened empathetic insight grants them a deep awareness of their own manipulative tendencies, which can lead to a conflicted inner dialogue. However, this self-critical stance might be driven by a desire to refine their skills of emotional control and exploitation rather than genuine remorse for their actions.

What causes dark empathy?

The exact cause of dark empathy, like many other psychological disorders, is not known. It may involve a combination of psychological, genetic, and environmental factors and can vary from person to person.

If we consider the dark triad – narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism – as potential tenets of dark empathy we can shed some light on indicators of dark empathy. It’s important to reiterate that dark empathy is not recognized as a psychological condition by the DSM.

Narcissism can be linked to adverse childhood experiences. Rejection, trauma, and abusive parenting during childhood can all lead to the development of narcissistic tendencies. [5]

Psychopathy may be due to genetic or environmental factors. Studies show psychopathic adults are less capable of processing emotions, which could be linked to the diminished size of parts of the brain associated with emotional regulation, like the amygdala.

Research indicates that a child’s early environment is fundamental to whether they develop Machiavellian tendencies. [6] If a child has a selfish, manipulative mindset, their parents, peer relationships, and teachers may play important roles in preventing this from leading to a Machiavellian approach to adult relationships.

Dark empath vs narcissist: What’s the difference?

There is a significant overlap between narcissists and dark empaths as both have a sense of grandiosity, entitlement, and self-importance. However, narcissists do not display the same level of self-judgment as dark empaths. [4]

Narcissists are often blind to their flaws and rarely bother to reflect on their actions and how they affect others. Dark Empaths, due to their high levels of cognitive empathy, can display higher levels of self-judgment. They may recognize they are doing badly but continue to do so anyway.

Additionally, dark empaths are more multifaceted than narcissists, expressing elements of the other two dark triad personality traits – Machiavellianism and psychopathy.

Dark empath vs psychopath: What’s the difference?

Dark empaths and psychopaths are terms used to describe individuals who possess distinct psychological characteristics and behaviors. While there might be some overlapping traits, they are generally distinct concepts.

The key difference is that psychopaths exhibit a complete lack of empathy whereas, as the name suggests, dark empaths have high levels of cognitive empathy. While both exhibit manipulative behavior to achieve their own aims, dark empaths can deploy empathetic skills to that end whereas psychopaths are driven by a lack of moral restraint and complete disregard for other’s emotions.

How to deal with a dark empath

If you begin to suspect that someone in your inner circle is manipulating you, it is crucial to address this hunch in order to protect yourself from any further damage. Set boundaries between yourself and the person in question and limit their access to personal information about yourself going forwards. This may prevent them from using that information to manipulate your feelings or gaslight you. Below is a detailed list of tips for dealing with a dark empath:

  1. Set Boundaries: Establish and communicate firm boundaries with the individual. Be clear about what behaviors are unacceptable and what you will not tolerate. By doing so you preserve your self-esteem and give yourself the best chance of experiencing happier outcomes.
  2. Stay emotionally grounded, maintain independence, and limit contact: Recognize your own emotions and vulnerabilities and shield them from the dark empath. Maintain distance from their emotional support and reach out to a trusted loved one to aid in this pursuit. Limit contact with the dark empath and if they continue to bother you, do not hesitate to call the police.
  3. Seek support from your network: Discuss your concerns with trusted friends, family members, or a therapist. They can provide an objective perspective and guidance.
  4. Get therapy: If you feel your sense of self has been compromised by the impact of a dark empath in your life, getting professional help may be of great value. Get a doctor’s appointment with the aim of a referral to a therapist who can help you cope and move forward in life.
  5. Practice self-care: Engage in self-care activities that promote your emotional well-being. Meditation, yoga, singing, gardening, and exercise are all examples of soothing activities that can center you, build resilience, and maintain a strong sense of self.
  6. Be kind to yourself: It was not your fault that this person weaseled their way into your life and caused you harm. Their aim was to manipulate you for their own personal gain, while you were attempting to build an honest, meaningful connection with another human. That is a pursuit that requires no apology. Reminding yourself you are worthy of love and connection can be helpful in healing. Self-affirmations and keeping a regular journal of things you are grateful for can help bolster your self-esteem.
  1. Decety, J., & Moriguchi, Y. (2007). The empathic brain and its dysfunction in psychiatric populations: implications for intervention across different clinical conditions. Biopsychosocial Medicine, 1(1), 22. https://doi.org/10.1186/1751-0759-1-22
  2. The Psychology of Emotional and Cognitive Empathy | Lesley University. (n.d.). https://lesley.edu/article/the-psychology-of-emotional-and-cognitive-empathy
  3. Heym, N., Kibowski, F., Bloxsom, C. A., Blanchard, A., Harper, A., Wallace, L., Firth, J. L., & Sumich, A. (2021). The Dark Empath: Characterising dark traits in the presence of empathy. Personality and Individual Differences, 169, 110172. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2020.110172
  4. Heym, N., Kibowski, F., Bloxsom, C. a. J., Blanchard, A., Harper, A., Wallace, L., Firth, J. L., & Sumich, A. (2021b). The Dark Empath: Characterising dark traits in the presence of empathy. Personality and Individual Differences, 169, 110172. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2020.110172
  5. Mitra P, Fluyau D. Narcissistic Personality Disorder. [Updated 2023 Mar 13]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK556001/
  6. Abell, L., Qualter, P., Brewer, G., Barlow, A., Stylianou, M., Henzi, P., & Barrett, L. (2015). Why Machiavellianism Matters in Childhood: The Relationship Between Children’s Machiavellian Traits and Their Peer Interactions in a Natural Setting. Europe’s journal of psychology, 11(3), 484–493. https://doi.org/10.5964/ejop.v11i3.957
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Samir Kadri
Author Samir Kadri Writer

Samir Kadri is a medical writer with a non-profit sector background, committed to raising awareness about mental health.

Published: Oct 24th 2023, Last edited: Jan 31st 2024

Morgan Blair
Medical Reviewer Morgan Blair MA, LPCC

Morgan Blair is a licensed therapist, writer and medical reviewer, holding a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling from Northwestern University.

Content reviewed by a medical professional. Last reviewed: Oct 24th 2023