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Am I an HSP, an Empath, or Both? (or Neither?)

Awareness is growing around the term "highly sensitive person"... but what actually does it mean? And how is it different than the term "empath"? Could you possibly be both, or even neither?? I'm going to give you all the info you need to figure this out within this article.

There is so much to discuss when it comes to the highly sensitive trait, but for the sake of keeping it simple, I'll do my best to break it down for you and give you the basics:

Highly Sensitive Person

The term "highly sensitive person" was first coined by psychologist Dr. Elaine Aron, and refers to a specific trait that is  scientifically described as "sensory processing sensitivity". In plain language, having this trait of high sensitivity means your nervous system is more sensitive than the average person - "non-HSPs" make up about 80-85%, or four fifths of the population, whereas we HSPs make up the other 15-20%, or one fifth. That means it is statistically likely than about one in every five people you know (or even in the room around you) could be an HSP.

Our central nervous system is the main communication system of the body, including the nerves along our spinal cord, and our brain. This is where messages are sent back and forth, and incoming sensory information from our environment is processed. To have a sensitive central nervous system means that the incoming sensory information from your environment is experienced more intensely, and is getting processed deeper and more thoroughly. A sound at a particular decibel heard by an HSP may actually seem louder, or more attention-grabbing, than it does to the non-HSP standing right next to them -- but its not actually that the sound is louder, is that the HSP's nervous system is more sensitive to it. This is the main reason why HSPs can often become overwhelmed more easily than their non-HSP counterparts doing normal things like going to the grocery store, or being stuck in traffic.

The hallmark of the highly sensitive brain and nervous system is to be able to pick up on the smaller, more nuanced pieces of information in our surroundings, which if you think about it can actually serve as a very, very useful survival skill-set for ourselves, and everyone around us...

There is much more to be said on this subject, and for the purpose of this article I'm going to keep it short and simple as to not overwhelm those first being introduced to the trait -- However, if all of this sounds intriguing and fascinating to you, I highly recommend that you consider taking one of my online courses, which all include a deep and thorough dive into all that it means to be an HSP!

You may have noticed so far that I keep referring to high sensitivity as a trait -- and it's important that you understand that as it stands today, "sensory processing sensitivity" is considered to be a personality trait, not a disorder or disease. High sensitivity is not something to be cured, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with having it. It's a normal genetic variant among the human population (and in 100 other species, too! And among the same percentage. How fascinating is that!?)

High sensitivity, just like any other personality trait, comes with its advantages and disadvantages. Your skills may lend themselves to excel in some tasks (like detecting body language cues in someone you are speaking with), and pose a challenge in others (like being asked to multitask, or try to focus in a crowded space).

Another interesting thing to point out here is that there is evidence of this trait within the physical body, not just your personality. In fact, the trait is genetic and innate: meaning, there are specific genes that are linked to the highly sensitive trait, and as of now it is understood to be something you are born with. This means that if you are an HSP, it is likely someone else in your family is also highly sensitive.

Below is a small handful of common things many HSPs report experiencing or feeling in their lives:

  • increased awareness of social cues or other people's moods
  • feeling easily overwhelmed by environments that are overstimulating for our senses (like crowds, carnivals and amusement parks, etc.)
  • disliking feeling rushed or asked to multitask
  • having creative skills or tending towards the arts in some way
  • benefitting from an extra hour or two of sleep each night
  • feeling "hangry" (which is a pop-culture term for feeling irritable when hungry) if you skip a meal or go too long between meals
  • tending to feel connected to animals and nature
  • spending lots of time thinking about events or experiences, and even having a hard time letting something go and overthinking it, going over and over the same thing in your mind (this has a lot to do with us wanting to do the right thing, and often going over our own words and actions trying to work out if we made the best decision possible!)
  • and many more...

If all of what I've mentioned so far sounds like you, and you feel strongly that you might be an HSP, you can take the official HSP self-test on Dr. Elaine Aron's website: HSP Self-Test

If it turns out you are an HSP, stay connected to me and my content! The goal of my online presence is to help other HSPs better understand themselves, and give them access to the tools they need to truly thrive in life as their authentic and sensitive selves.




Now, there is another term some of you may have heard of when it comes to feeling as though you are a sensitive, creative, emotional, and/or intuitive person... This term I am referring to is "empath".

What is an empath?

Because the word "empath" is not a scientific term, nor have there been any scientific studies or research around this concept of being an empath, there is a lot of subjectivity when it comes to defining what this term means, and plenty of doubt and skepticism on if it even truly exists... Let's go over some of the theories and expert opinions that are out there:

One of the most reputable and grounded sources for information on this subject is Dr. Judith Orloff, a psychiatrist and author of multiple books on the subject of being an empath. Orloff describes empaths as people on the sensory sensitivity spectrum, like HSPs, but on the very most extreme end of the sensitivity spectrum, which implies that all empaths would also be HSPs (but not that all HSPs are necessarily empaths).

In my own personal experience, I feel as though I have met people who are empaths, but are not necessarily HSPs (and vice versa). But because there is no science to back this up, there really isn't any way to know for sure. The word "empath" is mostly a term that is self-identified and self-described within those who identify with it.

From my understanding, the main difference between HSPs and empaths lies in how much they feel they intuit, absorb, or even take on other people's emotional experiences as their own. Being highly sensitive to me means your nervous system and brain are sensitive; it refers to the way you experience the world around you from a sensory standpoint. Being an empath is an additional emotional piece that comes along with not only being able to sense another person's experience or emotions, but actually feeling another's emotions yourself within our own experience. Sort of like the difference between sympathy and empathy -- seeing and understanding someone's pain or emotions, vs. actually feeling their pain or emotions yourself.

The way I conceptualize these two terms, HSP and empath, is in a sort of venn-diagram, where the awareness of other people's emotions is in the middle, the overlap. And the deep processing of information belongs to the HSP side, and the experience of actually feeling another person's emotions is on the empath side... I could be very wrong, but because there is no science or research forming around the term empath, there really isn't any way to know for sure. Which is why I would encourage you to believe and interpret the term empath in whatever way feels right to you.

I identify as an HSP and an empath, and in my mind, the HSP part of me is the one that gets overwhelmed by sensory information, and has a brain that operates at freakish speeds and then tires out easily... and the empath part of me is my emotional connection and intuition when it comes to other people's emotions and experiences, and the emotions and experiences of animals around me, too.

There are additional theories about what an empath is:

  • There is a school of thought that exists that there are several different categories of empaths (similar to how it is believed there are different categories of intuitive gifts): such as physical empaths, emotional empaths, nature empaths, animal empaths, food empaths, etc.
  • I've also heard of a theory that all of us human beings are actually empaths... That we all have the capacity for profound empathy, and to be able to connect on a more spiritual plane, and that our deep empathy and intuitive abilities are all available to us, any one of us, if we can learn tap into it.
  • I've read several similar theories from different psychologists saying that empaths don't in fact exist, and that "being an empath" is actually a learned skill -- that those who have been through childhood trauma developed a hyperawareness and attunement to the emotions of those around them as a survival and coping mechanism. There are similar theories about the highly sensitive trait perhaps also being possible to be "made" in people who were in fact born as a non-HSP, and then experienced a traumatic event that made their nervous system become sensitive. These theories have not been proven yet.
  • And lastly, I've also heard some rather annoying theories that the term "empath" was created for those of us to use in order to feel different, and better-than other people -- that we are just claiming that we have supernatural powers that we in fact do not. This is frustrating to me because most of the empaths I've ever known have grown up feeling incredibly different, and not in a good way -- and that finding the term empath finally made them feel normal, and equal to those around them. Discovering that empaths exist finally gave them a sense of self-understanding that brought back their self-love and self-respect that they may have lost as a result of feeling like an odd ball out.

If you are someone who feels very connected to animals and nature, perceptive to the feelings and experiences of those around you, feel like you can sense the energy of people, plants, animals, foods, spaces, even past events or future events, etc. -- chances are the term empath may suit you. But again, this is all based on what feels right to you, because there isn't necessarily any concrete proof either way. But in my opinion, that shouldn't matter. The term empath when I came across it, along with the term HSP, felt like big blankets I could finally wrap myself in. I felt like my life experiences finally made sense and were actually normal. If this is how either of these terms feel for you, I would encourage you to keep them.

If you are curious about taking an empath self-test, Judith Orloff has one on her website: Empath Self-Test



What if HSP and empath don't quite feel accurate?

If perhaps you've gotten all the way down to the bottom of the article here and don't feel like either of these terms quite fit you, but you still feel like there are some things about the way you experience the world through your senses that differ from those around you, you may find that another description feels closer to home for you, such as one of the following:

  • Synesthesia: experiencing one sense through or associated with another (like seeing colors associated with music notes). You can read more about synesthesia by googling the term and exploring the search results at will, or you can click here if you want quick access to a reputable source: American Psychological Association: Synesthesia
  • Super-taster: experiencing the tastes of foods more intensely, such as finding the taste of certain foods to be extremely bitter, or that they have a stronger flavor than others experience it, due to having relatively more taste buds than the average person. This website describes what a super-taster is, and even gives instructions for an experiment to find out if you are a super-taster: Scientific American: Super-Taster
  • Autism spectrum: Some HSPs may at first mistake themselves as being on the autism spectrum, or vice versa. Both of the HSP trait and the autism spectrum have a major thing in common: that they are sensitive to sensory input. However, there are some key distinctions between the two, such as those on the autism spectrum typically have deficits in social communication, while this is not necessarily typical of the HSP. To learn more, I recommend reading this article: - Highly Sensitive Person and Autism: What's the Difference?
  • If none of these feel quite right, keep searching! While we shouldn't be too set on needing labels to define ourselves, it can be incredibly helpful if you are someone who has always struggled to feel at peace with who you are, or struggled to understand why you felt so different than those around you. Having terms that help your self-understanding is always beneficial to your health and happiness.

I hope you found this page helpful, and have been able to more clearly learn for yourself whether the terms HSP and/or empath suit you, and if not, what you more clearly feel resonates with you and your experience!

-Tiara Ariel

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