Empath vs HSP

November 9, 2022
Woman in nature

Woman in nature

Empath vs HSP: In my last post for Empath Corner I explained the difference between ‘having empathy’ and ‘being an empath’ and within that post I touched lightly on the definition of a HSP which stands for Highly Sensitive Person. I also mentioned that some HSP’s are also empaths but many are not. I happen to be both. In this post I will look more closely at what each are and the differences and similarities between them.

What is a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?

Dr Elaine Aron (“The Highly Sensitive Person”) began studying high sensitivity in 1991 and coined the term ‘Highly Sensitive Person’ (HSP). She continues to do research on it now, also calling it Sensory-Processing Sensitivity (SPS, the trait’s scientific term). 

According to Dr. Aron’s definition, the highly sensitive person (HSP) has a sensitive nervous system, is aware of subtleties in his/her surroundings, and is more easily overwhelmed when in a highly stimulating environment.

But the key quality is that, compared to the 80% without the trait, they process everything around them much more, reflect on it, elaborate on it, and make associations. When this processing is not fully conscious, it surfaces as intuition.

It is important to remember that there is no official highly sensitive person diagnosis, and being an HSP does not mean that you have a mental illness. High sensitivity is a personality trait that involves increased responsiveness to both positive and negative influences.

High sensitivity applies across a few different categories. There are several traits or characteristics common to HSPs:

  • Avoiding violent movies or TV shows because they feel too intense and leave you feeling unsettled
  • Being deeply moved by beauty, either expressed in art, nature, or the human spirit, or sometimes even a good commercial
  • Being overwhelmed by sensory stimuli like noisy crowds, bright lights, or uncomfortable clothing
  • Feeling a need for downtime (not just a preference), especially when you have hectic days; needing to retreat to a dark, quiet room
  • Having a rich and complex inner life, complete with deep thoughts and strong feelings that go with them

If you’re interested in learning more about HSP’s I strongly suggest you watch ‘Sensitive The Movie‘, a groundbreaking documentary about the temperament trait of high sensitivity that’s found in 20% of the population in both women and men based on the findings of author-psychologist Dr Elaine Aron.

Another interesting fact shared by Dr Aron is that 30% of HSP’s are extroverted. So this is not entirely a trait associated with introverts.

Some Famous HSPs

Here are some well known people who are Highly Sensitive People. You’ll notice that they are mostly all very creative people!

Abraham Lincoln, Jane Goodall, Princess Diana, Katherine Hepburn, Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Einstein, Glenn Close, Steve Martin, Eleanor Roosevelt, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Frank Lloyd Wright, Ansel Adams, Frida Kahlo, Barbra Streisand, Mozart, Neil Young, Alanis Morisette, Elton John, Harry S. Truman, Gandhi, Dalai Lama, Mother Theresa, Sir Isaac Newton, Thomas Alva Edison, Woody Allen, Jim Carey, Steve Martin, Mel brooks, Johnny Carson, Oprah Winfrey!

What is an Empath?

We’ve covered the definition of an Empath in the last two ‘Empath Corner’ posts (so please do refer back to Post 1 and Post 2 for more) but for the purposes of comparison to a HSP within this post I’ll repeat a condensed version. 

Empaths are people who are high on the empathic spectrum and actually feel what is happening in others in their own bodies. As a result, empaths can have incredible compassion for people but they often get exhausted from feeling “too much” unless they develop strategies to safeguard their sensitivities and develop healthy boundaries.

As quoted by Dr Judith Orloff:

Empaths are highly sensitive, finely tuned instruments when it comes to emotions. They feel everything, sometimes to an extreme, and are less apt to intellectualise feelings. Intuition is the filter through which they experience the world. Empaths are naturally giving, spiritually attuned, and good listeners.

As an empath, we actually sense other people’s emotions, energy, and physical symptoms in our bodies, without the usual filters that most people have. 

We are supersensitive to their tone of voice and body movements. We can hear what they don’t say in words but communicate nonverbally and through silence.

Empath’s feel things first, then think, which is the opposite of how most people function.

Some Famous Empaths

Ed Sheeran, Nicole Kidman, Larry King, George Orwell, Mel Gibson, Cate Blanchett, Eleanor Roosevelt, Nelson Mandela, Oprah Winfrey, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi.

What is the difference between an Empath and a Highly Sensitive Person?

An empath will be more sensitive to the emotions of others in the room. The HSP will be more quickly overstimulated, leading to slower sensory processing, overwhelm, and greater difficulty in connecting with others in the moment.  If you happen to be both a HSP and an Empath (like me) you’ll be feeling both of these things!

Empaths can sense subtle energy (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 extremely deep ways.

What is similar or shared between Empaths and HSP’s?

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; and an aversion to large groups. It also takes highly sensitive people longer to wind down after a busy day, since their ability to transition from high stimulation to being quiet is slower. Highly sensitive people are typically introverts, while empaths can be introverts or extroverts (although most are introverts). Empaths share a highly sensitive person’s love of nature and quiet environments, their desire to help others, and their rich inner life.

HSP and/or Empath and the Empathic Spectrum

Being a highly sensitive person and an empath are not mutually exclusive. One can be both, and many highly sensitive people are also empaths. I’m one of them being both HSP and Empath! If you think about this distinction in terms of an empathic spectrum, empaths are on the far end; highly sensitive people are a little further in; people with strong empathy who are not HSPs or empaths are in the middle; and narcissists, sociopaths, and psychopaths who have “empath-deficient disorders” are at the far opposite end.

I hope this has helped to clarify what the difference is between a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) and an Empath and to show that they share some commonalities too. Also that some people can be both HSP and Empath, like lucky me!

I look forward to sharing more about being an Empath as I read and learn more about it myself. It may seem a little woo woo to some (it did to me too when I first heard the term) but I don’t think that way at all anymore. My research tells me that around 15-20% of Australians are Highly Sensitive People and that approximately only 1-2% of Australian’s are Empaths. That makes us pretty special don’t you think?

Ciao for now,

Linking up with Denyse Whelan’s ‘Wednesday’s Words and Pics

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  • Reply Leanne | www.crestingthehill.com.au November 9, 2022 at 11:36 am

    Hi Min – that was all fascinating. I’m nowhere near the scale of HSP that you are, but I’m noticing that as I age, I want to surround myself with peace – loud noises, crowds, dark movies, and over-stimulation just don’t work for me and are really draining. It must be extra awful for someone with your personality characteristics – so take care of yourself and don’t let our busy, stressful, “look at me” world suck you dry. xx

    • Reply Min November 10, 2022 at 7:29 am

      Hi Leanne, my friend who I met with yesterday (we had lunch and then saw Mary Poppins the musical) had read my post and said to me that she is definitely a HSP and more so as she’s gotten older. I’ve always been HSP but much much more so as I’ve gotten older. Yes to all you listed! I’m kinda used to how I am but knowing all this now does explain a lot and helps me to understand myself better. It’s not so bad, I just have to pace myself and factor in a lot of quiet, alone restorative time. I still haven’t learnt how to shield myself from absorbing all the pain and stress of others but reading up and hoping to find a way that will work for me. Thanks for taking the time to comment and not thinking I’m talking a lot of woo woo! xo

  • Reply Debbie Harris November 9, 2022 at 4:29 pm

    How interesting Min, you’ve really researched this and thanks for sharing the information with us. I had no idea of the differences between empaths and HSP but have more of an understanding now. Take care of yourself!

    • Reply Min November 10, 2022 at 7:35 am

      Hi Debbie, thanks so much for taking the time to read my post and comment. I have to admit that it has required courage to share my thoughts and write about being HSP and Empath (fear of judgement) but I’m hoping to achieve two things from these ‘Empath Corner’ posts. 1) Understand it all better myself and learn how to protect myself from absorbing the pain and stress of other people; and 2) Educate others on the fact that there are HSPs and Empaths and that it’s not WOO WOO but real personality traits that can be difficult at times to live with but very special and necessary personalities to have in the jigsaw of personalities that make this world go around!

  • Reply Sue from Women Living Well After 50 November 9, 2022 at 6:02 pm

    Hi Min, a very fascinating and informative series thank you. I would say I am an empath but I can have HSP tendencies. Take care of yourself and be comfortable with how you are living your life rather than trying to fit a mould which just isn’t you. xx PS I sent you a message last week via Messenger but I don’t think you’ve seen it as yet. xx

    • Reply Min November 10, 2022 at 7:37 am

      Hi Sue, and thank you! I think you meant “I wouldn’t say I am an empath”. I think many people can have HSP tendencies, especially us women as we get older. I’m very pleased to understand why I am how I am more now and quite accepting of it. I’m keen to learn though how to better protect myself from absorbing so much of the pain and stress of other people. Once I get a handle on that, life will be much easier for me. I haven’t seen any message from you in Messenger?? It must’ve got to a spam folder or something?? I’ll go and have a look now. Haven’t ignored you! xo

  • Reply Denyse Whelan November 10, 2022 at 6:24 pm

    I love how you are finding out more about yourself and as a result gaining not only personal knowledge but, as a true blogger, helping others too.
    I can get to a stage of overwhelm more these days but I also know it’s related to my age/tiredness/emotional state so I guard myself more diligently these days. I try to limit what I expose myself to for example a drive to Sydney to see Dad is two hours of expressway and Sydney traffic driving both ways, then there is the interaction and conversations with Dad, then I often take a brief time out near the water to have some ‘calm’ and ready myself to drive home. A few years back I literally HAD to do this drive back and forth to Westmead and have time in the dental chair and I would be wiped out physically and emotionally for a day and need to regroup. Self care AND self awareness is important as is saying “no thank you”,
    Thanks so much for linking up for WWandP this week, see you next week if you have a post to share. Denyse

    • Reply Min November 14, 2022 at 11:16 am

      Thanks Denyse – yes I’m much the same when it comes to overwhelm. I’m aware we’re more prone to it in the menopausal years so it’s a bit of a double whammy for me. I do know though what I need to do to help myself with it. That drive to visit your Dad is a big thing Denyse so good on you for facing it and doing it. Water is great to calm the senses isn’t it? Living near the waterfront here I often go down there just to chill out for a bit and calm or restore myself. Hopefully I’ll have a post ready for this Wednesday to link up to your WWandP. xo

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