What is a “dark empath”?

Dark Empath

Dark empath vs. narcissist

We’ve written a lot about narcissism on this blog, because as family lawyers we see a lot of survivors of narcissistic relationships. Narcissism as a trait is unfortunately not uncommon, and can cause a lot of damage to the individual in a relationship with a narcissist. There’s another type of person who is similar to a narcissist, but the signs can be more difficult to spot as they are more subtle. This is called the dark empath. 

Types of empathy

Most of us learn at a young age the difference between empathy and sympathy. Sympathy is the act or state of feeling sorrow or compassion for another, whereas empathy is the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the emotions, thoughts, or attitudes of another. Put more simply, when you sympathise with someone, you say you are sorry for what they are going through. When you empathise with someone, you understand what they are feeling; you know what it feels like. You can feel sympathy for someone who has lost a spouse, but if you’ve never suffered that level of grief, you can’t truly understand it. 

Dr Ramani Durvasala, clinical psychologist, tells us there are in fact three types of empathy: cognitive empathy, emotional empathy, and compassionate empathy. Cognitive empathy is not real empathy. It lacks emotion and compassion. Dr Durvasala calls it “empathy lite”. Arguably it is more like sympathy. The person who displays cognitive empathy without emotional engagement or compassionate response is sometimes called a dark empath. They can recognise and name the emotion the other person is experiencing, but they do not engage with the emotion. Somewhat confusingly, they are highly emotionally intelligent; they are aware of the range of human emotions. But they lack the capacity (or will) to feel the other person’s sorrow. They are completely disengaged from the pain.

Dark empath vs. narcissist

Dark empaths and narcissists are very similar. The terms are more or less different words for the same behaviour. The one distinction is that dark empaths don’t exhibit the attention-seeking behaviour of the narcissist. However, the fall-out from a relationship with a dark empath is the same as from a narcissistically abusive relationship. In some ways, a relationship with a dark empath is more dangerous, because the dark empath appears to empathise. Having cognitive empathy means understanding what the other person is experiencing – “getting it”. And that can fool the other person into feeling heard. 

Cognitive empathy is intellectual; it passes for empathy. By contrast, emotional empathy involves identifying with the emotion – feeling what the other person is feeling. And compassionate empathy translates the feeling into action. It is the offer of help when a friend is going through a tough time; it may mean collecting children from school or cooking a meal. Emotional and compassionate empathy go beyond just intellectually understanding the emotion. This is what dark empaths (and narcissists) are not capable of.

Weaponising feelings

The dark empath uses cognitive empathy to gain insight into a partner. They then weaponise the revealed feelings against the other person. Genuine love involves protecting and guarding the vulnerabilities of the person cared about. The dark empath does the opposite; they use the other’s vulnerabilities against them. The dark empath is dangerous because of their camouflage. They are like a venomous snake with the markings of a non-venomous snake. Dark empaths often become business leaders and politicians, where their cognitive empathy enables them to understand what their customers or constituents want and need but they treat their employees and others around them brutally in order to achieve their objectives. 

Symptoms of being in a relationship with a narcissist or dark empath

How can you identify a person who is in a relationship with a dark empath or narcissist? It is easier to spot the signs in someone else than in yourself. That’s because we are very good at fooling ourselves. Someone experiencing narcissistic abuse is hypervigilant. They are riddled with self-doubt, self-blame, and self-devaluation. They may experience depression, apathy, and will almost definitely have low self-esteem. Health issues may go beyond mental health and affect them physically, manifesting as signs of stress and tension, such as headaches, muscle tension, and trouble sleeping. They may be sick more often as a sign of a diminished immune system. Abused people don’t take care of themselves. This may take the form of failing to take essential medication, not exercising, adopting poor eating habits, or self-medicating with drugs and alcohol or excessive shopping. 

Cognitive dissonance

These signs are hard to spot in oneself because of “cognitive dissonance”. This is the ability to keep two opposing thoughts in the mind at the same time. The experience of abusive behaviour should be a sign to leave, but leaving is scary. If someone is full of self-doubt and low self-esteem, they may believe they are not capable of leaving and coping on their own. They justify staying in the relationship. There is also a phenomenon psychologists call “trauma bonding”. This is an unhealthy type of attachment toward a person who causes trauma. Trauma bonding relationships are perpetuated by cycles of abuse, followed by love and kindness. This is the classic cycle of narcissistic abuse.

Radical acceptance

Lack of knowledge holds abused people back. For whatever reason, the abused partner may choose to stay in the relationship. But they must understand the dark empath or narcissist will never change, and it’s not the survivor’s fault. If they stay, it’s important they accept that they are staying for practical reasons. They must not stay in a dissonant state. They need to take care of themselves and have realistic expectations. Those who live in a dissonant state of constantly justifying the abuser’s conduct are actually dangerous. They become enablers of the narcissistic behaviour and send a message to others, including their children, that such behaviour – and the acceptance of it – is OK. Knowledge sets people free. Without awareness and the ability to develop coping strategies, the person exposed to narcissistic abuse becomes more and more affected by self-doubt. This state of mind creates life-long dysphoria, which is not so much depression as an overreaching sadness. 

SD Law can help

We post on the subject of narcissism because we think it is important to help survivors make informed decisions. We’ve written about recognising narcissism, divorcing a narcissist, co-parenting with a narcissist, coping strategies, and more. For a full list of resources or guidance on dealing with or escaping from a narcissistic relationship, contact Simon on 086 099 5146 or email sdippenaar@sdlaw.co.za for a confidential discussion.

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The information on this website is provided to assist the reader with a general understanding of the law. While we believe the information to be factually accurate, and have taken care in our preparation of these pages, these articles cannot and do not take individual circumstances into account and are not a substitute for personal legal advice. If you have a legal matter that concerns you, please consult a qualified attorney. Simon Dippenaar & Associates takes no responsibility for any action you may take as a result of reading the information contained herein (or the consequences thereof), in the absence of professional legal advice.

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