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