Dr. Elayne Daniels

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!

4 Responses

  1. I’m not sure if I’m an impath but pretty sure Ina HSP. Thank you for submitting this article.
    I’m sitting on my deck on the Blue Ridgr Mountains. Tweeting with my hummers, and going over the past month, 6 Mouths, year.
    My mother, I always heard she was Highly sensitive. I known for some time I am as well. She would’ve been 97 on July 4th
    She passed away June 14th.
    After finding out that the assisted living place I found for her last spring, near where she lived for 56 years and just a few minutes from my sister, was nickle and diming her to death. I lived 400 miles away and my sister was saying that I wasnt doing enough. So, I brought her down to stay with me in October. That only lasted until this January. My mother then move to an assisted living just 20 miles from me. The end of April she fell and broke her leg. After a time in the hospital she was then sent to a local nursing home. She was bed rides and she fell into a heavy depression, stopped eating or talking to a. She was in so much pain they started her on morphine every 2 hours and I then knew she wouldnt last long. She died June 14
    I had no doubt that she would’ve made 100 hadnt she broke her leg.
    There is so much I’ve left out if this condensed version of our last year.
    I put so much aside and there is so much to do beyond handling her estate. Most days I just sit here. Knowing all that needs done, I’m just overwhelmed by emotion as it seems my life passes by. I’m at the point to where I’m not speaking to anyone. The only comfort a get is the beauty and peace of living where I live in solitude. Just looking at all that needs done and not doing. I know nothing will change until a decide to do something, but I have no gumption. After reading your article, you are the only person I have told this to.
    It feels good just to peck this out on my phone.
    Thank you

    1. Dear Gerald,

      I am sorry about your recent loss of your mom. It sounds like you have had a lot of hardship.

      Grief can weigh heavily.

      Emotional healing IS possible. Especially with self care, self compassion, and a sense of connection with another person.

      Blessings to you.

  2. Thank you for this article. I had never heard of HSP Only Empath. I think its a combination of things with me when My Vibration goes down I feel “Numb” but when it’s up I am bouncy hyper happy silly goofy etc also I have Borderline Personality Disorder that goes way into your emotions I cry so EASILY. But When I am down I am really down / depressed. I was for years diagnosed with Bipolar 2 in which was not what I have being I’ve never experienced Hyp-Mania or Mania and BPD is so similar to Bipolar 2 that I was misdiagnosed. I am a Psychic Medium so that comes into play with the High Vibration / Low Vibration. But The crying all the time is a constant. That comes from “Trauma” from Childhood up through my adulthood the BPD – and My Spiritual Awakening started as a child. I have been so sensitive since I was a child. The sensitivity is not so much from others but from my own feelings/triggers/flashbacks etc. If emotions are high on the Negative spectrum I do feel that because of all the negativity that I have seen/gone through. Through My Mediumship, I am more of a Healer than anything I believe. It’s like I want to help but too I sense those that have been hurt and are suffering very hard to explain. It seems I am drawn or people are drawn to me that want to contact their loved ones “Crossed Over” – More than anything and I can channel that spirit / see / hear etc and the message or messages could be an hour long to their loved one. Could be 10 minutes you never know. Most will show me something that is significant to them that the seeker will know about – say a Jewelry box in detail or a special memory, actually you really never know of course but it brings me so much JOY – to be able to do that for the ones on Earth. It’s Mostly My Grandmother that comes around she raised me when I am really down and depressed and feel lost she comes and hugs me — with her head on my shoulder. I didn’t have a good relationship with My Parents so I have tried to channel My Mom for years now and Daddy passed away 3 years ago MOM Just recently came through – I was very very shocked but so grateful as we were able to make peace she showed me visions of when I was a little baby toddler and how she was with me and I would not of remembered at all I feel to show me as I thought She never loved me that she did she was just not capable of being a Mom. Daddy did try to come through once it was very brief but I knew it was him.. Anyway Thanks so much for this Article I really do not think I am an Empath HSP – Yes

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