What is a Dark Empath, and could you spot one?

When it comes to personalities we hope to avoid, those with narcissistic tendencies are well and truly up there. 

In fact, most of us probably assume finding ourselves attached to a narcissist is one of the worst things that could happen to us. We've all heard the horror stories.

Conversely, an empathetic person is someone we might be drawn to. Who wouldn't want to spend time with someone who can truly understand and relate to our experiences and feelings?

Well, turns out, empaths aren't all created equal. Enter, the dark empath. 

Watch: Signs You're Dating A Narcissist. Post continues below.

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Unlike the narcissist, dark empaths can relate to how others are feeling, it's just that they use that knowledge against the person they claim to love and support.

"People with Narcissistic Personality Disorder manipulate emotions to serve their own needs or goals," says relationship counsellor, Susan De Campo. 

"Dark empaths cognitively understand another person’s feelings, and can pretend to care, but they do not genuinely care about someone else's distress or suffering (despite understanding it)," she says. 


"Narcissists are often blind to their flaws, whereas a dark empath's high level of 'cognitive empathy' can mean they are aware of their 'critical self'."

It's a dangerous combination. Some researchers say that dark empathy is part of a so-called dark triad — narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism.

"Dark empaths are high on narcissism, entitlement, grandiosity of emotions, inflated self-worth, poor self-regulation, psychopathy and Machiavellianism, which is characterised by interpersonal manipulation," explains clinical psychologist Phoebe Rogers. 

"This research appears very new and still needs to delineate differences and similarities between dark empaths and narcissists."

And while they easily fly under the radar, there are plenty of them around. 

"It's difficult to quantify because people will rarely self-identify," says De Campo. 

"Some research that was undertaken in the UK in 2022, said that up to about 19 per cent  of people exhibit dark empath traits."

While more research is required, dark empathy is considered more common in men. By default, more women are victimised by them.

How it feels to be in a relationship with a dark empath? 

"Initially, it would be intense and exciting," says Rogers. "You're swept off your feet, and showered with gifts and gestures; you feel adored."

It's love bombing in the extreme, but it's even more complicated than that. Dark empaths may initially express deep empathy, in a highly intellectual way. Ultimately though, they end up showing disregard for other people's feelings, particularly when in conflict.


"It is likely that you can feel like you have met someone who really gets you and understands you at a deep level," says De Campo. 

"This makes them harder to spot than narcissists, where you won't usually see fake empathy. Dark empaths are gold medallists at love bombing. They also have an uncanny ability to make you believe they share identical values to you—moral, political, economical."

How can you spot a dark empath?

Because of their ability to tune into the feelings of others, dark empaths can be difficult to identify — especially in the early stages of a relationship—but there are some telltale signs. 

"People who are amazing at back-handed compliments are often dark empaths: 'What a stunning dress — that's the sort of style that will look even better if you were say five kilos lighter'. They love a good gossip — usually gossip that is borderline or actually cruel, they can be physically aggressive and extroverted."

Dark empaths will come across as 'getting it', sometimes more so than your average person, however they'll often avoid social engagement, despite craving constant validation. 

"They crave having their ego stroked. They are people who have what we call a strong 'external locus of control' — that is, their sense of self is derived from external sources."

Over time, the signs of dark empathy may become more obvious. That's because over time, the dark empath will have began to use their empathy against their partner to get what they want.


"Start listening to how you feel in their presence; do I feel genuinely heard, and understood? Or does it feel a bit 'off'?" says Rogers. 

"Compare to how you feel in other caring relationships; watch out for intensity, adrenalin, a rollercoaster of highs and lows; someone who needs to have things on their terms; who acts as if they are above the law, and others, and belittles, and demeans others, is risk taking, and has no regard for others and consequences."

How to manage a dark empath?

Like narcissists, dark empaths are unlikely to actively seek support to change. 

"I have seen way too many women tolerate and try to manage dark empaths and narcissists," says De Campo. "They waste years of their lives. Rarely, and if the price is high enough, they will do the work required to change."

De Campo says if you find yourself in a relationship with a dark empath, it's critical to set clear boundaries, practice self-kindness and self-care. 

According to Rogers, it's unlikely this type of personality will change, so ultimately, you need to assess whether you should leave. 

If you do, both experts suggest you try to limit contact and get professional help to reassure yourself that you are not the one with the problem.

Feature Image: Getty.