I can feel better by tuning out.
Daniel Goleman offers some clarity here that helps us navigate the confusion. He explains that there are three aspects of empathy:
The first kind, cognitive empathy, allows me to see the world through your eyes: to take your perspective and understand the mental models that make up your lens on events. The second kind, emotional empathy, means I feel what you are feel; this empathy gives us an instant felt sense of the other person’s emotions.
It’s the third kind, empathic concern, that leads us to care about the other person’s welfare, to want to help them if they are in need. Empathic concern forms a basis for compassion.
In order to feel someone else’s pain I have to connect with memories and experiences I have had. Goleman explains that this might mean we choose not to help others because “if your suffering makes me suffer, I can feel better by tuning out…When we think of empathy as a spur to prosocial acts, it’s empathic concern we have in mind.”