What’s in it for me? Discover the many ways empathy can steer you in the wrong direction.

Empathy is an emotional response that allows us to understand and feel what others go through.

You often hear the word empathy being used in conversation, likely about some heartless person who could use more of it. But what exactly is this valuable emotional resource?

Empathy is defined as an ability to understand and share the feelings or situation which another person is going through.

To see empathy in practice, we might look at the aftermath following a public tragedy like the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut where 20 children were killed by gunman Adam Lanza on December 14, 2012.

Immediately upon hearing this news, the author’s wife felt the need to visit the school which their own kids attended, even though there was little reason to think they’d be in danger.

Later that day, the author stopped for a coffee, and at the cafe, there was a woman weeping. She didn’t know any of the victims of the shooting, but she also had kids the same age and felt devastated.

When President Obama made a public address to share his sympathies about the tragedy, he too was in tears.

In all of these cases, we see people with children finding it very easy to put themselves in the shoes of the parents in Newton who’d lost their sons and daughters.

These are examples of emotional empathy. Emotional empathy differs from cognitive empathy, which is the ability to understand a person’s emotional state without feeling it yourself.

Cognitive empathy is what con artists and bullies use to understand a victim’s weakness and exploit it. Unlike emotional empathy, they don’t feel their victim’s pain, but they can take advantage of it.

Emotional empathy can also manifest itself in physical ways. You might see someone take a hard fall, hit their head, and then yourself feel pain in the same spot where the poor stranger injured himself. Similarly, the writer John Updike described feeling a tightness in his throat whenever his grandmother had one of her “choking fits” at the dinner table.