Fruitful Thoughts & Practices

A selection of thoughtful topics, tips and practices
Jeannette Folan
June 17, 2019

What is the difference between a highly sensitive person (HSP) and an empath?

If you've read the book 'Diary of a Teenage Empath', you'll recall the scene when Adam describes the difference between an HSP and an empath —  "An HSP meets a friend in a coffee shop, and the friend says that they are really sad because their dog just died. The HSP, being tremendously sensitive to the person’s emotions, will feel as sad as their friend and might even start to cry. An empath, standing clear across the room, not having heard any of this exchange or knowing either person, will suddenly be overwhelmed by sadness and possibly cry themselves."

Scientifically speaking, an HSP is someone with the personality trait called Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS).  That term, along with the term HSP, was originated by Dr. Elaine Aron, the researcher who has been conducting this work for over twenty years.  Her first book, The Highly Sensitive Person, was released in 1996 and she has since produced a movie called "Sensitive: The Untold Story".  Dr. Aron defines SPS as having hypersensitivity to external stimuli, a greater depth of cognitive processing and high emotional reactivity.  An HSP processes sensory data more deeply due to the nature of their central nervous system.   Simply put, HSPs are wired differently than the other 80% of the population.

So what about empaths?   How are they different than HSPs?   Most of the reading I've done concludes that empaths are also highly sensitive.  The difference is, in addition to being an HSP, an empath is also clairsentient.   That means that they can sense or feel the (emotional) energy around them without the use of their five senses.  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 had some experience with this.  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 know someone who had a 'gut feeling' that you should stay away from the new kid in school only to learn a week later that the kid is a real trouble-maker. 

Many individuals may not even know they are empaths — they have simply been following their intuition for so long, it has become a part of who they are as opposed to a tool they consciously use.   That said, there is one more distinction to be made.

Remember that the meaning of 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’.

To wrap up, I want to suggest that, if you are new to the HSP/empath thing, it's best not get too focused 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. No labels required.

Jeannette Folan
Jeannette is the author of "Diary of a Teenage Empath", co-author of the Energy Skills Workbook and Integrative Health Coach. When she realized she was an empath, she immersed herself in learning everything she could from healers, coaches, therapists, books, blogs...

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