Talking about sensitivity can be so…well…sensitive. It can even feel like splitting hairs because of the way every little difference and every little nuance matters. Teasing out key differences between an empath and a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) is a perfect example. 

The overlap is significant. 

And so are the differences.

To the non-empath/non-HSP, the need for distinction of key differences between an empath and a Highly Sensitive Person may seem tedious and unnecessary. Empath, empathy, empathic, empathetic — so much semantic mumbo-jumbo that really doesn’t make any difference.

Ahh, but to the person with a sensitive makeup, distinctions are everything.

Like most things in life, sensitivity exists on a spectrum.

And within that spectrum are other spectrums, much as there are infinite galaxies within the universe.

Think of narcissists, sociopaths and others with antisocial personality disorder (APD) as the scale’s black and dark shades of gray.

These are people whose conscienceless behaviors and self-absorption blow the minds of even those with only average sensitivity.

They are also the ones most likely to show up as booking photos on the evening news or on your social media news feed. Their glazed-over eyes reflect no life, no conscience, no remorse, no capacity to feel for others.

They are – at the farthest, darkest endpoint of the sensitivity spectrum – the Hannibal Lecters of the world.

This population is so far removed from sensitivity, empathy, and the capacity to love that their spectrum – at least for this discussion – is, at best, shades of gray.

The vibrational frequency that accompanies sensitive qualities like empathy and moral, ethical behavior, on the other hand, is at the opposite end of the spectrum. 

This is the “colorful” part of the spectrum. The journey through the rainbow, so to speak, where shades and densities of color define the subtle yet key differences between an empath and a Highly Sensitive Person.

On this sensitive end of the spectrum, relationships, communities, and entire societies can be formed, precisely because of the presence of empathy.

It is also on this end of the spectrum that self-awareness presents itself in ongoing, stirring questions like Why am I so sensitive?

If you’re so aware of your own sensitivity and how it affects your life, then you have probably passed the fulcrum of “average” sensitivity. 

While most of society hovers around (generally) empathetic and loving behavior, HSPs and empaths are at yet another level.

They’re so similar in their fundamental sensitivity characteristics that the average person not only won’t recognize the differences. S/he will speak of HSPs and empaths interchangeably.

Empath. Psychic. Overly sensitive. “You know…those mind-reader people.”

Want to know why some people are highly sensitive and most aren’t

Pay attention to how a person refers to sensitivity.

The more sensitive you are, the more you push to the right of the sensitivity scale. And the further to the right you are, the more the distinctions in sensitivity matter.

Why? Because, as a counter-balance to the darkness of sociopathy and its ilk, the empath not only notices everything, but feels everything.

And herein lie key differences between an empath and a Highly Sensitive Person.

Let’s talk about it another way…mathematically.

Remember learning about sets and subsets in grade school?

 “The big circle contains everything relative to the topic. The small circle inside is composed of specific components of the larger set. And, if the two overlap in just one section, it’s because they have some things in common and some things not in common.”

Distinguishing key differences between an empath and a Highly Sensitive Person is similar.

First, a quick review of High Sensitivity….

We speak of High Sensitivity with the acronym “DOES,” if only for convenience and as a way for HSPs to quickly remember and grasp the details of their trait.

  1. D: Depth of Processing

    HSPs are constantly processing information. So much to think about, so much to solve, so little time.

    Everything in the HSP’s world is cataloged by layers and layers of detail and information. And it’s all “important” to the HSP’s experience of the world and purpose in it.
  2. O: Overstimulation/Overwhelm

    The propensity for becoming overstimulated and/or overwhelmed is perhaps the most experientially defining characteristic of High Sensitivity. The HSP is aware of ev-er-y-thing.

    The average person is able to (unconsciously) shut out extraneous details that would otherwise overload the nervous system.

    The HSP, however, doesn’t have that luxury.

    The HSP is wired to perceive – and ultimately feel and process – darn near everything.
  3. E: Emotional Sensitivity/Empathy

    HSPs pick up on emotional subtleties. They can walk into a room and read the tension (or the calm). They can “just tell” when another person or animal is in distress, even without direct disclosure.

    As mentioned above, it’s this quality of empathy that is, at least on a relational level, the foundation of societal development.

S: Sensitivity to Sensory Stimulation/Sensory-Processing Sensitivity

Simply put: Don’t gift your HSP friend with a high-neck, itchy wool sweater and tickets to a hard rock concert, especially when it includes a fireworks display.

Just. Don’t.

So where does the empath fit into this High Sensitivity model? Don’t “empath” and “empathy” mean the same thing?

Yes and no.

The key differences between an empath and a Highly Sensitive Person, subtle as they may seem, can be found in the “O” and “E” of “DOES.”

Let’s go back into that room where the HSP picked up on the emotional energy of the room. 

Hmm. Seems kind of stuffy for a Christmas party. And John and Cynthia seem a little distant with one another. I hope everything’s OK. And Louise isn’t looking at or talking to anyone. She actually seems sad.

The empath will not only pick up on these same emotional cues, but will feel them. She (or he) will, if not taking proactive personal care, absorb that energy into her own body.

It’s a distinction between simply reading unspoken emotions and actually feeling them. And that’s in spite of the possibility that both the HSP and empath may be inclined to take compassionate action in response to the emotions they perceive.

In this same scenario, while the empath will be busy with emotional sensitivity, the HSP’s brain will likely default to the “O”: overstimulation. 

Too much noise. And too many smells. Too many emotional cues. Too much, too much, too much….

See the difference?

The empath is like the big circle in our math analogy. All the qualities of High Sensitivity, with the added feature of intense, “absorbing” empathy.

(For a greater perspective of consummate empathy and the spectrum of sensitivity, read here about renowned animal empath and communicator, Temple Grandin.)

The HSP registers just to the left of the empath on the sensitivity scale because of this subtle but important distinction.

Also, while most HSPs and empaths are introverts, many more empaths than HSPs are extroverts, as well.

Whether you are an HSP or you tip the scales as an empath, self-care is paramount for your well-being.

That means scheduled alone-time, regular escapes into nature, boundaries around how/where/with whom you spend your time, and conscious protection against taking on the weight of the world.

Living life in full color, after all, is a privilege that comes with a lot of responsibility to yourself.

Ah. The color…the color!

Dr. Elayne Daniels is a psychologist and coach, specializing in helping Highly Sensitive People thrive. Other areas of expertise include eating disorders and body image.

Please reach out and say hello!