June 7, 2017

The Difference Between Empaths & Highly Sensitive People.


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

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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.

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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. Her new book Thriving as an Empath offers daily self-care tools for sensitive people along with its companion The Empath’s Empowerment Journal. 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. Learn more about empaths and her free empath support newsletter as well as her Empath Support Online course and speaking schedule. Join her empath Facebook community for sensitive souls here.

Republished with explicit written permission from the author.