Empathy & compassion

Quan Yin, bodhisattva or goddess of compassion; the Chinese interpretation of Avalokiteśvara

Sensitive. Or: oversensitive.

These are terms I hear bandied about to describe people who react deeply to anything from wool clothing or sock seams to sarcasm or “charged language.” When I was a child, people told me I was sensitive; initially, I thought that was a kind of compliment, and sometimes that was the intention. The teenager I once was believed that sensitivity made me empathetic and compassionate.

As I matured, however, the term sensitivity took on more negative connotations of the “can’t you take a joke?” sort. Worse yet, the charge of sensitivity came loaded with accusations of narcissism, as in “you take everything personally.” In today’s phraseology, “It’s not all about you.” Under those terms, sensitivity does not resemble empathy.

Empathy is a feeling-response, true. It appears to have a like-kind relationship to sensitivity–but a person must be sensitive to others’ experiences in order to feel empathy; so the similarity’s not as swappable as it first seems. I thought that my feeling-response signaled that I was a compassionate person. Indeed, fiction elicits empathy in me. A lifelong bookworm and early addict to novels, I definitely feel along with the characters of the stories I read. Is it really the experience of others that makes me weep or feel joy as the characters forge through lives such as I will never be able to encounter? Or is it a feeling response to damned good writing?

I ask myself these questions because, given my inquiries into what consciousness is and what poetry does, it seems I have not made clear to myself the differences between sensitivity, empathy, and compassion.


My current thoughts on the differences have evolved through reading and writing poetry, not fiction, and through getting older. Nothing like life experience to knock a person’s youthful errors into strong relief.

Here goes:

Sensitivity is the strength of a person’s reaction. That reaction may be physical or emotional and will vary widely from one individual to another.

Empathy always means that one “feels within” another person (from Greek empatheia em- ‘in’ & pathos ‘feeling’); it is an inward response to external stimuli. As Daniel Goleman notes, there are several types of empathy psychologists have identified–here’s a brief article on that topic.

Compassion, while a noun, must be active. I think of it as behavior, as action, as verb in noun form. It is a response or reaction to suffering in others (empathy) that is accompanied by an urgent desire–the word desire isn’t strong enough to convey the feeling–to help alleviate the suffering.

That’s where the activity comes in. Until I feel a desire to act, I am “merely” empathetic and sensitive.


Recently, I have begun to recognize that my desire to write poetry is partly compassion-based. Art of any kind is process as well as result, and process is action. Additionally, my career as an educator has compassionate action structured into the job description. There are other ways we–I–can be compassionate in the world. This matters to me.

We can learn from the practice of tonglen: “Breathe in for all of us and breathe out for all of us. Use what seems like poison as medicine. Use your personal suffering as the path to compassion for all beings.” ~Pema Chödrön

And we can live in the world and begin to use our sensitivity to pain, and our sense of empathy, to activate compassion–as a verb.






7 comments on “Empathy & compassion

  1. moishmoish says:

    I really like the way you broke it down and made it like a hierarchy of the three different terms. I think you have original thoughts and a very helpful way of looking at it. I also think about this a lot and notice that there are people who say “I’m sensitive,” and they are often narcissistic, never thinking that they should use their sensitivities to be empathetic and compassionate.They only use it as a means to get people to say what they want. Also for myself, I used to feel sorry for myself because I was so sensitive and everything hurt me. But in my old age, this feeling disgusts me and I find it pretty useless. The source of my sensitivity is my huge ego, and it’s only useful if I use that knowledge. If I use my sensitivity, and ask myself if something someone did to me, hurt me, then do I myself do that to other people? Then, like you said, I’m able to turn it into compassion.

    Liked by 1 person

    • When I first met you, Moishe, I was 17 and really sensitive and clueless. It’s interesting that I was bashing my young self before I wrote this; it seemed to take an inordinate amount of time for me to figure out what compassion is.

      Then I thought, I had best be compassionate to myself as well. If I was a slow learner–well, we all travel at differing paces, don’t we? Thanks so much for replying!


  2. I think about the same issues, round and round. My colleague’s book of a few years back, Empathy and the Novel, was a big spur, because she takes on the common argument that reading promotes empathy. It might, but there’s some evidence we then spend our empathy on fictional characters, and give less to real people. Did you read that little piece in the NYT recently about how people who bring recyclable bags to the market then buy more junk food? We seem to make all these little unconscious exchanges in ourselves, one virtuous act short-circuiting other values. And yet, I agree, writing DOES feel like adding goodness to the world, sometimes. Hard to sort out.

    Liked by 1 person

    • No, Lesley, I missed the essay in the NYT…but I return to Remembrance of Things Past, which (in Swann’s Way, I think) describes an episode with the maid that reminds me of the difference between empathy and compassion that has always stuck with me. Françoise (was that her name?) is found weeping copiously over the poor young soldiers who died in some distant ill-considered battle. And the young narrator is full of wonder at this display of emotion, since she could be rotten to the delivery people and said mean t hings to beggars, or something like that.

      So here’s Proust “just observing,” “just writing,” after all–and that action gave this young reader considerable pause. Because, alas, I recognized a bit of myself in Françoise’s behavior (though I was never outright mean to beggars…)

      Which goes round, doesn’t it? Because maybe fiction DID help me become a more compassionate person. Or maybe non-fiction, and poetry, and other human beings, helped to sort that out as well.


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  5. KM Huber says:

    Wonderful post and discussion. I know I will re-visit it often.

    Liked by 1 person

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