Unwitting Failures of the Empath

How being kind can be bad for you, and why you should be kind anyway.

Adam Erland
4 min readApr 14, 2020


Photo by Nathaniel Sison on Unsplash

The Ice Cream that Fell

How do you understand empathy?

Usually, people describe it as the ability to put oneself in the shoes of another.

Empathy is that smudge of grief you felt when a poor boy’s ice cream fell to the ground. As well as that spark of joy in his eyes, and in yours, when you see his brother bought him a new scoop.

It’s not your ice cream. You don’t get to eat it anyway, so why do you feel what he’s feeling? Blame (or thank) the mirror neurons in your brain. They prompt you to reflect the emotional state of others, thus leaving you open to feel pain and pleasure that is not yours.

It’s a weird phenomenon, if you think of it. However, it’s real, and it’s normal. We can even say that it constitutes a huge part in what makes a human, human.

Empathy = Kindness?

In a 2012 TED Talk, Simon Baron-Cohen pointed out that the commonly known concept of good and evil is actually unhelpful and unscientific. He proposed that, instead, we can use the concept of empathy as a framework for better elaboration.

There are two major categories of empathy: cognitive and affective. To illustrate the difference, imagine these two different individuals: a person with autism and a psychopath.

The first individual has an intact affective empathy, which signifies the ability to feel the emotions of others. However, because of neurological reasons, he or she is struggling with the cognitive counterpart. This entails a challenge in understanding others’ thoughts and intentions, resulting in the difficulty to act appropriately in certain social contexts.

On the contrary, the second individual is lacking in affective empathy. He or she can inflict pain on others without the slightest bit of remorse. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that a psychopath can’t understand what others feel. In fact, a psychopath is usually quite adept in deception and manipulation, indicating a strong cognitive empathy.



Adam Erland

Sharing my mistakes and learnings as a clueless 20-something. | If you enjoy my stories, consider buying me a coffee: ko-fi.com/akerland.