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The terms “empaths” and “highly sensitive people (HSP)” are often used interchangeably. Both describe individuals who are extremely attuned to their surroundings, emotions, and energy. However, there are subtle differences between the two.

In this article, I will share their similarities and differences. Understanding them can help you better understand yourself and others. But first, let’s establish the definitions of empaths and HSPs.

What Is an Empath?

An empath is someone who not only notices the emotions and energies of those around them but also absorbs these feelings as their own. It goes beyond mere empathy or sympathy.

Empaths have the unique ability to truly walk in another’s shoes, experiencing their joys, pains, and fears as if they were their own. This gift, however, comes with its challenges. Boundaries can blur, and the weight of others’ emotions can be overwhelming.

Yet, it is also a powerful tool for healing and compassion, enabling empaths to reach out and connect on a deep, meaningful level that can be profoundly life-changing for both themselves and others.

Being an empath is about more than sensitivity. Read this article to uncover the 11 unmistakable signs of an empath.

What Is a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?

A Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) possesses an acute level of sensory processing sensitivity. This means they are significantly affected by their environments, from bright lights and loud noises to the emotional climate of a room.

HSP is a term coined by psychologist, Dr. Elaine Aron, and made popular by her book The Highly Sensitive Person. This deep processing of the world around them leads to a rich inner life, full of nuance and depth. It is a trait that fosters empathy, creativity, and insight.

However, this trait also requires HSPs to practice self-care diligently to manage their heightened receptivity to external stimuli. Being a Highly Sensitive Person is about navigating a world that feels intensely vibrant and alive, yet at times, excessively stimulating.

Similarities Between Empaths and Highly Sensitive People

Empaths and Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) share several similarities. Both possess a heightened level of sensitivity, making them more receptive to external stimuli. They also have an acute awareness of others’ emotions and tend to feel deeply for those around them.

Due to their sensitivity, both empaths and HSPs may struggle with being overwhelmed and feeling drained by intense emotions or sensory input. Therefore, both enjoy alone time to recharge and tend to avoid crowded places. Many empaths and HSPs are introverts too.

Despite the overlap, empaths and Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) are distinct. HSP is a subset of an empath. This means that empaths share all the traits an HSP possesses, but not all HSPs are empaths. Empaths possess additional abilities beyond heightened sensitivity and there are some subtle nuances between the two.

5 Differences Between Empaths and Highly Sensitive People

1. Empaths absorb the emotions of others as their own, while HSPs may not.

Unlike empaths, Highly Sensitive Persons (HSPs) do not absorb others’ emotions as their own, but they can easily get overwhelmed by the moods of others.

HSPs possess a delicate nervous system, perceiving information through their five senses and processing it deeply. Encountering someone with intense emotions can disrupt their nervous system and trigger a stress reaction.

Empaths, on the other hand, not only feel the emotions of others but also absorb them as their own. This can lead to confusion about whose emotions they are feeling and make it challenging to differentiate between their own feelings and those of others. This arises from having permeable boundaries, rather than a sensitive nervous system.

In short, HSPs react to someone’s emotions, while empaths match someone’s emotions. You can watch the video below for more examples.

2. HSPs may not be as attuned to others’ emotional states as an empath.

Empaths possess a unique ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and experience their feelings as if they were their own. This allows them to deeply understand and connect with others on an emotional level.

On the other hand, HSPs may not have this same level of emotional attunement and can find it challenging to understand others’ perspectives. Many HSPs are classified as such because they exhibit heightened sensitivities to external stimuli like loud noises, bright lights, or strong scents. This sensitivity doesn’t necessarily extend to perceiving others’ emotions.

3. Empaths may have a weaker sense of self compared to HSPs.

Empaths, due to their porous boundaries, often find it challenging to maintain a distinct sense of self. They match others’ emotions by physically feeling them within their bodies, allowing external emotions to infiltrate their psyche effortlessly.

This blending of emotional boundaries makes it difficult for an empath to discern where their emotions end and others begin. It allows for unparalleled emotional bonds, yet also poses the risk of emotional overload and burnout.

HSPs, on the other hand, may or may not have porous boundaries. They can still be highly sensitive to other people’s emotions but they do not necessarily merge with them. HSPs are more likely to have a distinct sense of self and can separate their emotions from others.

4. Empaths tend to be intuitive, while HSPs may not.

There are many different types of empaths. Most empaths are highly intuitive in one or more areas. They possess a unique sensitivity to energetic fields that sets them apart from highly sensitive people.

For example, intuitive empaths tend to have an open seventh chakra, also known as the crown chakra, which is associated with higher consciousness and spiritual awareness. This open chakra allows empaths to receive intuitive messages and insights from a higher source. They may also have an open sixth chakra, or third eye chakra, which is associated with intuition and inner wisdom. This heightened sensitivity may manifest as clairvoyance, enabling them to perceive things beyond the ordinary sight of others.

Conversely, emotional empaths, often clairsentient, easily pick up on emotions, vibes, and energies even without tangible evidence. They tend to have an open second chakra, also known as the sacral chakra, which is associated with emotions and feelings. They may also have an open fourth chakra, or heart chakra, which is associated with love, compassion, and empathy. This open heart chakra allows them to deeply connect with others and sense their emotions.

HSPs, while deeply sensitive to their surroundings and the moods of others, may operate more on a sensory level than an intuitive one. They may pick up on subtle cues and changes in tone, expression, or atmosphere, which inform them how someone else might be feeling. But they may or may not possess the same level of intuitive abilities as an empath.

To learn more about the chakra system, read this article on the 7 chakras.

5. Empaths often have profound spiritual experiences, which HSPs don’t.

Empaths often report having profound spiritual experiences that seem to transcend the tangible aspects of life. For example, they may have intense feelings of connectedness with nature or other people, experiencing a deep sense of unity and oneness.

Some empaths may even encounter out-of-body experiences, sensing their consciousness separate from their physical body. Others may have a heightened awareness of synchronicity, where events and circumstances seem to align in meaningful ways.

In contrast, HSPs are more attuned to their physical surroundings and external stimuli than the spiritual realm. While they may also experience a strong connection to nature and the world around them, these experiences tend not to be perceived through the five senses. Their sensitivity allows them to appreciate the beauty and complexity of the world on a purely sensory level, which, though deeply moving, are more grounded in the present moment and tangible aspects of life.

However, this does not mean HSPs cannot also have spiritual awakenings or experiences. Just that when we talk about the term “Highly Sensitive People”, we are referring to their deep processing of sensory inputs, not their spiritual sensitivity. HSPs may or may not delve into the spiritual or energetic realms like empaths do.

Are You an Empath or a Highly Sensitive Person?

So are you an empath, a Highly Sensitive Person, or perhaps both? Being someone who embodies both traits, I believe the specific label you choose isn’t crucial. It matters mainly when seeking information online. What supports an empath might not necessarily benefit an HSP, and what overwhelms an empath may differ from what affects an HSP.

If you are still uncertain about being an empath, read this article to find out more.