The Difference Between Empaths & Highly Sensitive People.

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https://unsplash.com/search/emotion?photo=aLnqDp3B3YU

As a psychiatrist and an empath, I often get asked, What is the difference between empaths and highly sensitive people? 

In The Empath’s Survival Guide, I devote an entire section to this important distinction.

Here are the similarities and areas of overlap:

Empaths share all the traits of what Dr. Elaine Aron has called “Highly Sensitive People,” or HSPs. These include a low threshold for stimulation, the need for alone time, sensitivity to light, sound, and smell, plus an aversion to large groups.

It also takes highly sensitive people longer to wind down after a busy day since their system’s ability to transition from high stimulation to being quiet is slower.

Highly sensitive people are typically introverts, whereas empaths can be introverts or extroverts (though most are introverts). Empaths share a highly sensitive person’s love of nature, quiet environments, a desire to help others, and a rich inner life.

However, empaths take the experience of the highly sensitive person much further.

We can sense subtle energy, which is called shakti or prana in Eastern healing traditions, and actually absorb it from other people and different environments into our own bodies. Highly sensitive people don’t typically do that.

This capacity allows us to experience the energies around us in a deeper way. Since everything is made of subtle energy, including emotions and physical sensations, we energetically internalize the feelings and pain of others. We often have trouble distinguishing someone else’s discomfort from our own.

Also, some empaths have profound spiritual and intuitive experiences which aren’t usually associated with highly sensitive people. Some are able to communicate with animals, nature, and their inner guides. In my book, there is a section on intuitive empaths, which include animal empaths, earth empaths, dream empaths, and telepathic empaths.

Being a highly sensitive person and an empath are not mutually exclusive: you can be both at the same time.

If you think about this distinction in terms of an empathic spectrum, empaths are on the highest end, highly sensitive people are a little lower on the spectrum, and people with strong empathy but who are not HSPs or empaths are in the middle. Narcissists, sociopaths, and psychopaths, who often suffer from “empathy deficit disorders,” are at the lowest end of the spectrum.

The Empathic Spectrum

 

Narcissists      Loving empathic people      HSPs             Empaths

___i____________________i____________________i______________i__

Zero                                       Mid-range                               Highest

~

The gifts of sensitivity and empathy are precious, especially at this time of human evolution. We want to keep opening our hearts and break through to new highs on the empathic spectrum.

My hope is that empaths and highly sensitive people can become even more empowered, because we need their gifts now more than ever.

~

Adapted from The Empath’s Survival Guide by Judith Orloff, MD

~

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Author: Judith Orloff, MD
Image: Naomi August/Unsplash
Editor: Nicole Cameron

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Alex Myles Jun 14, 2017 1:19pm

Marley, this is my belief... https://www.elephantjournal.com/2017/06/the-biggest-myth-about-narcissists-that-most-people-dont-understand/

Alex Myles Jun 12, 2017 6:45pm

Marley Decker I am currently writing an article to explain in more detail. Hopefully you will understand my perception of it better that way. I most definitely don't think it is their abiity to be sensitive, or that they always express empathy in the way it is expressed through the general understanding empathy.. Empathy is not as cut and dried as genuinely caring and showing that care, there is far more to it. (Although, it's never been proven that narcissists aren't capable of genuine care in certain circumstances.) Narcissists are human beings with an array of emotions, mostly self-serving, but they are not psycopaths who are known to be incapable of empathy for others.

Marley Decker Jun 12, 2017 6:31pm

Alex Myles, Narcissists lack the ability to empathize. They can be sensitive to someone's emotions, and then manipulate a person based on reading their emotions. But, I believe you are confusing their ability to be sensitive, and a narcissist inability to feel empathy.

Judith Orloff Jun 9, 2017 9:23pm

Alex Myles I think it's wonderful that we have Elephant Journal to have a forum to express our different perspectives. Thank you for all you do with your support of empaths!

Judith Orloff Jun 8, 2017 4:44pm

Alex Myles I can only suggest that you search pub med and the DSM 4 (which is the bible of the American Psychiatric Association) and see why conventional psychiatry views narcissism this way. I don't know what else to say.

Alex Myles Jun 8, 2017 7:37am

Judith Orloff As I explain, many professionals agree that narcissists are extremely difficult to research and study due to the fact that people with npd do not see themselves as having npd, and would be very unlikely to admit it if someone confronted them, so the research that you mention is based on very limited candidates. That being said I have done extensive research on this, and I have not found studies or research that define through proper credible testing that narcissists lack empathy. These tests have been carried out on psycopaths, who are shown to feel empathy for themselves rather than others, but the lack of empathy is merely observation of narcissistic behavior, and there is a lot of misinformation out there about narcissists, so even though it is reported widely and as you say, is the traditional belief, does not make it a truth. Compassion and empathy are often mixed up and while I agree that compassion is lacking, many narcissists can empathise to very great degrees, even if it is purely for their own benefit. And I'm not sure why you've heard my experience was different to others as I have only wrote about it once, in the article "The toxic attraction between an empath and a narcissists" and since that I've heard you've also went on to base a chapter of your book on the same title. My experience reflects almost every other experience I've read about narcissists, and over 6 million people read the article on elephant journal alone. I received thousands of messages from people who said their experience was the same, so I really can't understand why you think this.

Judith Orloff Jun 8, 2017 5:01am

Alex Myles Also The DSM-IV identifies a deficiency in empathy as one of the essential features of narcissistic personality disorder. I also hear that your experience of narcissists is different that what is reported. Thanks for the lively conversation!

Judith Orloff Jun 8, 2017 4:55am

Alex Myles there is a huge amount of research on this--not just the Science Daily abstract. I think you'll be fascinated when you do an internet search.

Alex Myles Jun 8, 2017 12:46am

Judith Orloff Hi Judith, lovely to meet you too. I have read that piece, and I don't feel it is extensive enough research (only studying 17 narcissists - and as it is very difficult to get someone who genuinely has NPD to admit it and be tested on, I believe the candidates used may be questionable as to whether the study is credible.) I also don't feel that it supports what you are saying as in the article it explains how compassion is the thing missing, and not that the person is not able to be empathic. It doesn't explain the entire research well enough, and under the controlled circumstances that the study was done, it would be very difficult to base accurate results upon. For example, a narcissist will behave differently around different people, they may be emotionally connected to a parent or a loved one, and their empathic response would alter depending on the situation and person involved. Empathy and compassion are two entirely different things, and I do believe that generally narcissists lack compassion, but I strongly believe that it is their ability to be highly empathetic that gives them the skills required to fully take advantage of other people and also it is what allows them to get away with their narcissistic tendencies, as they mask it through expressing how they understand and feel what others are experiencing. I think that if you ask most people who are in close relationships of any kind with a narcissist they will say that while their often appears to be a lack of compassion, the narcissist (at the very least in the beginning) seems to understand and read, sense, and feel exactly what the person they are connected to is going through. Through my own experiences and research I would certainly say that narcissists are very capable of empathy, however, they use their empathic skills in an entirely different way than an empath uses them. That being said, they are still capable of feeling hurt when others are hurt and genuinely empathising. They are not entirely devoid of all human emotion and suffering - their are different levels, and different circumstances will bring out a variety or narcissistic responses. Also, just to add, as you are aware having empathy does not define someone as an empath, many empaths also choose not to empathise in certain situations. Empathy is not the sole defining trait of an empath, and, in turn, neither is the lack of it a defining trait of narcissism. Empathy in many situations can be more harmful then it is healthy, however, compassion is never harmful and as far as I have seen, all empaths have compassion, and I have seen a great lack of compassion in people with NPD.

Alex Myles Jun 8, 2017 12:35am

Emmett Corman I personally believe that narcissists certainly can share other people's feelings, it is what they do with what they learn about other people's feelings that defines their levels of narcissism. Of course, like with everything, not all narcissists are exactly the same, and at different stages, and with different people they will respond differently. While I do believe they are able to understand when another person is in pain, and recognise it, what they usually fail to do is to offer authentic compassion and genuine care and consideration. If those things are offered by a narcissist it is usually only on the surface and because they have something to gain through appearing to be a compassionate or empathetic person. There are some people who have become narcissistic purely through feeling too much of other people's pain and therefore they have closed themselves off emotionally to the absorption of external pain, so they protect themselves as a self-mechanism that regulates their own emotions and feelings. Basically, they then function in a manner that purely maintains their own emotional or mental welfare and operate to self-preserve rather than to support and preserve the emotional and mental state of others. Overall, I think the majority of narcissists are fully aware of other people's pain and that they are attentive and understanding and read, sense, and feel other people's emotions solely to then use what they have learnt as a weapon to control and manipulate others.

Judith Orloff Jun 8, 2017 12:15am

PS They can intuitively read people but that is different than empathy

Judith Orloff Jun 8, 2017 12:14am

Alex Myles Hi Alex: Nice to meet you. I think you will find this Science Daily abstract interesting. Narcissists are traditionally thought to lack the wiring for empathy though they can pretend it in the beginning or if it suits their purposes. Take a look at the psychiatric literature on this. It's fascinating! https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/06/130619101434.htm

Emmett Corman Jun 7, 2017 11:56pm

Alex Myles - I don't know the answer but I am interested in your response. Does a narcissist share the feelings of others? If another is hurt, do they feel their pain?

Alex Myles Jun 7, 2017 9:23pm

Gina Davison The universal meaning of empathic - empathic showing an ability to understand and share the feelings of another. "an attentive, empathic listener" In my experience and research all narcissists are attentive and listen intently to the people they intend to manipulate, they most definitely show the ability to understand the feelings of other people as it is this skill that enables them to get away with so much, as well as often tricking the majority of people around them. They are only able to do this due to their ability to read people. It is their self-absorbed intent that differentiates them to empaths and the fact that they have no genuine care or consideration for what they have empathised with. It is psycopaths that lack the ability to feel empathy for other people, not narcissists. Narcissists can feel what other people feel, but generally have no regard for it if it does not suit their own agenda.

Gina Davison Jun 7, 2017 9:18pm

I don't think reading someone is the same as empathizing with them. Narcissists wear the mask of empathy, but it is just that, a mask. And they wear it so well that it can be confused with having empathy. I was married to one and he had me convinced that he knew me better than I knew myself. When I stepped back I saw it for what it was, straight up manipulation.

Alex Myles Jun 7, 2017 9:03pm

There are a few points I disagree with here in this article, but particularly the point you made about narcissits being so low on the empathic scale. My perception is that narcissists can be highly empathic, therefore would be high on the scale. Such is their extreme and inherent ability to understand and read other people, that they become skilled, masterful manipulators. Many people often mistake narcissists for empaths due to this, as narcissists appear to empathise with others to a high degree, particularly in the beginning of a relationship, or when they have something to gain. The difference between an empath and narcissist here is that empaths empathise with others in the hope of supporting and benefitting others, wherears narcissists empathise with others purely to benefit themselves. I personally think it can be quite dangerous to believe that narcissists are not empathic, as this very belief is what leads so many down a dark path with them, not realising that the person that is empathise highly with them is in fact doing it with malicious and self-gratifying intent.

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Judith Orloff

Judith Orloff, MD is the author of  The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People, upon which her articles are based. In the book she educates readers about empaths, highly sensitive people, and offers strategies for anyone who wants to avoid narcissists and transform difficult emotions to positive ones. Dr. Orloff is a psychiatrist and an empath who combines the pearls of traditional medicine with cutting edge knowledge of intuition, energy, and spirituality. Dr. Orloff also specializes in treating empaths and highly highly sensitive people. She is a New York Times best-selling author of  Emotional Freedom, Positive Energy, Guide to Intuitive Healing, The Power of Surrender, and Second Sight. Connect with Judith on Facebook and Twitter. To learn more about empaths and her free empath support newsletter as well as Dr. Orloff’s books and workshop schedule, visit her website. Republished with explicit written permission from the author. Join her empath Facebook community for sensitive souls here.

Read more from Judith here.