HSP? Empath?

When I first started my journey of self discovery – trying to figure out what makes me tick – I was more than a little confused by some of the terminology I encountered. I could relate to much of what I was reading about highly sensitive people and empaths, but I couldn’t really tell the difference. Were these just different terms for the same thing? And why would I even care?

Well, I have since come to understand that having words to describe yourself can be immensely helpful. It can help you identify your needs and wants. It can help you communicate them to other people. It can help you find people who are similar to you and who you can learn from.

And the deeper your understanding of yourself and your “descriptor words”, the more potential you have to reap all these benefits.

So if you are still not entirely clear on the HSP vs empath difference, read on.

HSP vs empath: What’s the difference?

Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)

High sensitivity is an inborn temperament trait possessed by about 20 percent of people.  Highly sensitive people have a more reactive nervous system, and therefore, experience the world more intensely than the average person. They are more sensitive to:

  • Sensory stimuli like lights, sounds, smells, and touch.  
  • Social stimuli like meeting new people or receiving criticism.
  • Emotional stimuli like their own and other people’s feelings.

According to Elaine Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person: How To Thrive When The World Overwhelms You, HSPs differ from non-HSPs in the following four ways:

  1. They are more likely to use areas of the brain associated with deep processing.
  2. Because they are more sensitive to sensory stimuli, they are more vulnerable to overstimulation.
  3. They tend to have stronger emotional reactions and higher levels of empathy.
  4. They are more likely to notice subtleties that other people miss and can therefore appear more intuitive.

You can find out if you are a highly sensitive person by taking a test here.

And you can click here to read how high sensitivity is different from various health conditions and disorders it’s sometimes confused with.


The word “empath” has a couple of different meanings, so whether you “qualify” as one might depend on which definition you use.

Empathy is the human ability to understand and share the feelings of another human being. We have something called mirror neurons in our brains that help us imagine ourselves in another person’s situation and then trigger emotions as if we were in that situation ourselves.

All healthy people are capable of empathy, but it is thought that some people are a bit more capable of it than others. The people toward the more capable end of the spectrum are called empaths, but it’s not clear where exactly the cut-off lies. Like are we talking “you cry whenever someone else cries” or are we talking telepathy?

Well, it depends on who you ask.

Empath = Person With Higher Than Average Sensitivity To Other People’s Feelings

Some people define empaths as those people who have higher than average sensitivity to other people’s feelings.

So if we go by Elaine Aron’s characterization of HSPs as having higher than average levels of empathy, then all HSPs are, by definition, also empaths. And people do often use the terms Highly Sensitive Person and empath interchangeably.

Empath = Person With Paranormal Sensitivity To Other People’s Feelings

Some people define empaths as those individuals who are extremely sensitive to the feelings and energies of other people, animals, plants, and/or physical locations – so sensitive that they are considered psychic. They have abilities that are beyond the current scientific understanding.

According to this definition, the pool of empaths out there would obviously be much smaller. For example, I personally fit the first definition, but not the second. No psychic abilities here other than sometimes my dreams come true. 🙂

So where does that leave you?

So if you consider yourself a highly sensitive person, then you are probably also an empath (although maybe not psychic). And regardless of which term you use, both HSPs and empaths tend to have similar needs when it comes to creating a lifestyle they feel at home in. I hope you find the resources here helpful for doing just that!

About the Author

Hi, I'm Anni! I'm a life and career coach for stressed out highly sensitive people. My mission is to help you discover your true self and create a life you ACTUALLY like.

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