For HSPs/Empaths

Are you an HSP or Empath. What's the difference?

Is there evidence defining the difference between a highly sensitive person (HSP) and an empath?

There are a lot of sensitive people asking the question, but is there any research or hard evidence to prove anything one way or another?

The answer is yes. And no. Or rather, a definitive answer will come when the work of biophysicists like Beverly Rubik and others becomes accessible to the general population; but in the meantime, we can piece together what actually has been scientifically validated with the personal experiences and opinions of the sensitive population and see what we come up with.

But before diving in...

If you are struggling with your identity and are looking to sort out who you are so that you'll know what to do with your life, then I lovingly say to you that you won't find the answer here, nor in any book or youtube video either. Sure, there is a lot of worthwhile information out there. I, myself, strive to create fun, thought-provoking material. But it's generalized, based on the Many versus the Individual. You may resonate with some of it, and if you feel a strong connection, then run with it and see where it takes you; but please be wary of 'authority hypnosis' where you blindly follow the doctrines and directions of anyone who is popular on social media or who says they have a 'proven' product to sell you. They don't know you. Not really.

The reason for my cautionary rant is because over the last several years as I've studied, attended conferences, interviewed experts, and worked with high-integrity, intelligent professionals from both ends of the philosophical spectrum (and I've come across some not-so-high-integrity individuals who muddy the waters of divine truth just to make a sale), I have realized that no one has all the answers and there isn't any one product, solution or "fix" that works for everyone. And the problem with believing that there is, is that when you try it and it doesn't work for you, you think there is something wrong with YOU.

So before you read on, consider this: whether you identify as an HSP or empath, as a male or female, as asian, black, white or all the demographics put together, you are still energy. You are wholly and completely energy. Just like everything and everyone else on the planet. And just like everything and everyone else on the planet, you are in a constant state of change. But guess what? You have more control over it (energy) than you probably think. And my hope for you is that you focus on learning how to work with your energy rather than worrying about labels.

Nuff said.

Let's dive in...

Since 1996, over 1,200 scientific articles and research findings have been published naming the Sensory Processing Sensitivity trait (aka Highly Sensitive Person). [Go to Google Scholar and use "quotation marks" around your search term]. From these we have learned that the fundamental characteristic of a highly sensitive person is that they experience a low threshold of excitability in the amygdala. In other words, their central nervous system is more perceptive to their environment and as a result, it is more easily stimulated and overwhelmed with sensory information. (Kagan, Aron)

To find out if you identify with the HSP trait, take the quiz! WARNING: The quiz was created for teens, and while the questions and results translate to all ages, there's a chance it will make you laugh. Out loud. Don't say I didn't warn you.

We also know, based on the work of Dr. Aron and other researchers, that HSPs represent roughly 20% of the population and that they are mostly introverts (though I personally think there should be a new classification called "bi-overts" because a lot of us are in the middle)!

HSPs love and need to be connected to nature. They have a powerful sense of intuition. They have an aversion to violence and confrontation, they are often people-pleasers with an innate ability to know what people need in the moment and how to bring balance and harmony among others. They need regular down time to process the energy they've accumulated throughout the day (from the environment, people, etc) and don't perform well when under pressure or being observed by others. (No wonder I never pursued being a concert pianist!)

HSPs have heightened proprioception (awareness of one's muscles/joints), cutaneous receptors (skin/pain), and interoception (awareness of inner organs) — which is why HSPs get so irritable the instant they're hungry! And, in my opinion, this heightened awareness might contribute to  why HSPs are prone to chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia and other autoimmune disorders.

Now for the Empaths...

Experts who work in the field of sensitivity, such as Dr. Michael R. Smith and Dr. Judith Orloff, agree that:

  • people who are empaths are highly sensitive, but not all highly sensitive people are empaths  
  • empaths account for roughly 5% of the population (or 25% of the HSP population)

Many also agree that:

  • empaths have some type/level of psychic abilities and are in tune with the paranormal  
  • they have an expanded ability to detect and work with subtle energies (clairsentient) – like in animals and nature or in a healing capacity such as with animal and human illnesses

A few believe that:

  • empaths are the primadonnas of HSPs – who don’t want to be clumped into the HSP bucket and would rather form their own country

The defining factor for ME is this:

  • regardless of any psychic or healing gifts, empaths feel a spiritual calling to use their sensitivity for good – and to live a life of the highest integrity they can

* A distinction on Empath vs. Clairsentient

The literal meaning of clairsentience is "clear sensing".  It is probably the most basic of all intuitive skills and, whether you realize it or not, you've probably encountered people with this or had some experience with it yourself.  For example, perhaps you know a counselor or care-giver who was called to their vocation because they just seem to 'understand' the needs of others.  Or perhaps you had a 'gut feeling' that you should stay away from the new kid in school and learned a week later that the kid is a real trouble-maker. 

Many individuals may not know they are empaths, but they have been following their intuition for so long, it has become a part of who they are — as opposed to a tool they consciously use.   So here is the distinction to be made:  clairsentient is someone who has clear sensing.  People with this gift not only can sense the energy around them, but they understand clearly what the energy means.  So although an empath might have the ‘sensing’ part, if they don’t understand the significance of the information held in the energy waves, then they are not actually a clairsentient.   Or perhaps another way to put it is that they are a ‘sentient’ but not ‘clair’ about it.

 In closing, I'll risk repeating myself for the importance of this message: Learn as much as you can about who you are, but don't get hung up on the labels.  Notice instead the environment around you (people, places, objects, smells, noises…) and pay close attention to your reaction to them.  Have your thoughts changed?  Your emotional state?  Is your body reacting in any way?   The more you become aware of the energy around you and your reaction to it, the easier it will be for you to understand where your range of sensory sensitivity is.  Mostly, I hope you’ll hold on to the truth that you are exactly who you need to be.



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Jeannette Folan
Jeannette is the author of the novel "Diary of a Teenage Empath" and two HSP/Empath workbooks for children & teens. She is an Integrative Health Coach who, with her mentor Dr. Wendy Nickerson, launched the first-ever accredited HSP training program for mental health professionals. She leads an HSP community group in Halifax.
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