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Is Empathy Always a Good Thing?

Empathetic people truly feel our emotions, but is that always a good thing?

Key points

  • Empathy is a quality we treasurer in others because it makes us feel known and understood. It's the essential element in emotional intelligence.
  • There's a dark side to empathy, seen in people who may set us up to be exploited, manipulated or conned out of something valuable.
  • Dark empathy is the charisma that draws us to certain superheroes, rogues, cult leaders and politicians.
  • Empathy draw us to trust some people intuitively, but it should also cause us to know them better before we do.

Empathy is generally considered a desirable trait; when we think of those we feel closest to, it’s an aspect of their personality that makes us feel known in a deep and meaningful way. Empathy is the basis of emotional intelligence—an intuitive quality that allows us to take another’s perspective and feel what he or she is feeling.

It’s different from sympathy, which is an intellectual or cognitive insight into someone’s emotional state without actually sharing it. Differently stated, empathy is feeling with, sympathy is feeling for.

Empathy has cognitive as well as affective dimensions; the former is a mental skill exercised in a real-time interpersonal connection, while the latter is the ability to mimic and respond to others’ emotional tones and signals. Empathetic people are quick to understand where we’re coming from; they recognize not only our happiness, satisfaction and joy but also our fear, anger, sorrow, contempt, shame or anxiety. They notice our micro-expressions and are good at deciphering both our verbal and non-verbal clues.

Empaths truly share other people's joy and happiness, but also their pain and sadness; sometimes they feel that pain physically. They often have difficulty maintaining their own inner boundaries, which sometimes makes them feel overburdened by other people’s feelings and even occasionally unable to distinguish whose emotions are whose.

But empathy has a dark side, particularly when it’s used to exploit other people’s emotions. Recent findings in psychology point to the role of empathy in what’s known in personality theory as the dark triad of traits, which include Machiavellianism, narcissism and psychopathy. Just as its eponymous name suggests, Machiavellianism, is marked by manipulativeness, callousness, and indifference to morality, as Machiavelli himself was. Narcissism, named for the mythical figure whose gaze into the mirror of a pool reflected only his own image, is characterized by grandiosity, pride, egotism and a lack of empathy. And psychopathy is marked by deficient emotional responses, poor behavior controls, and a lack of empathy.

Yet people with elevated Dark Triad traits are not really unempathetic; in fact, empathy may be a useful trait in some performance-demanding situations requiring cool, streamlined calculations, such as those faced by soldiers and first responders as well as sociopaths and criminals. Dark empaths use information gleaned from the emotions of others to deal with threatening experiences that conflict with their own beliefs and values. And empathy in the Machiavellian mind is a useful tool for manipulating and exploiting other people.

Dark empaths comprise a unique group of personality types. A familiar character in literature and media, dark empaths are different from psychopaths and narcissists: They combine a sexy, edgy, sparkling charisma with the ability to read people’s emotions. Think Lucifer, Dexter, the Talented Mr. Ripley, or even your last Very Bad (but still compelling) boyfriend. Dark empathy is the charisma that draws us to superheroes, certain rock stars, vampires, dark crusaders, cult leaders, and some political leaders. Bill Clinton may have felt your pain, but Donald Trump felt your fear.

The affinity we feel for some people is often based on their empathetic quality; intuitively, we trust them with our deepest selves. But sometimes it’s worth examining whether we should, at least until we get to know them better


; Heym et al, Nottingham Trent University, UK, 2020, in "Introducing the Dark Empath", Grant H. Brenner, Medium