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The Differences Between Highly Sensitive People and Empaths

Learn differences, similarities, and areas of overlap on the empathic spectrum.

Key points

  • Signs of being a highly sensitive person (HSP) include a low threshold for stimulation and need for alone time.
  • Empaths share all qualities of HSPs but can also absorb subtle energy from other people and the environment into their bodies.
  • Empathy is on a spectrum, with narcissists on one end and empaths on the other.
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As a psychiatrist and an empath, I often get asked, "What is the difference between empaths and highly sensitive people?" The following are the similarities and areas of overlap. (I also devote a section of The Empath’s Survival Guide to this important distinction.)

Empaths share all the traits of what Elaine Aron, Ph.D., 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.

However, empaths take the experience of the highly sensitive person much further: We can sense subtle energy (called Shakti or Prana in Eastern 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 energy around us, including emotions and physical sensations, in extremely deep ways. And so we energetically internalize the feelings and pain of others—and often have trouble distinguishing someone else’s discomfort from our own. Also, some empaths have profound spiritual and intuitive experiences—with animals, nature—which aren’t usually associated with highly sensitive people.

Being a highly sensitive person and an empath are not mutually exclusive: One can be both, and many highly sensitive people are also empaths. 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.

The Empathic Spectrum

Narcissists => Loving empathic people => HSPs => Empaths

The gifts of sensitivity and empathy are precious. We want to keep opening our hearts and break through to new heights in the empathic spectrum. We need these gifts now more than ever.

Adapted from The Empath’s Survival Guide by Judith Orloff, M.D.

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