Mistaken Identities: On being a Highly Sensitive Person, an Empath and a “Sensitive”… or not

Once again, the Nash-Messerschmidt household offers up a bit of the conversations we tend to have around the dinner table and while gardening. Please enjoy this latest rendering from my incredible and articulate husband. Do keep in mind that I did not write this, he did! I have his absolute guarantee that I can share this with the world first, here at the OM Times community. Please enjoy, talk amongst yourselves and feel free to share your opinion in the comments section.

A non-scientific look at the blurred distinctions between Empaths, Sensitives and HSPs.

 By Peter Messerschmidt

In the spiritual and self-development field there are always terms that seem get used interchangeably, or are assumed to be part of each other. Typically, nobody really questions these ambiguities, even if they can lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings.

Some terms that have been on my mind recently are “Empath,” “Sensitive” and “Highly Sensitive Person” (or HSP). I have come across so many statements like “I’m an HSP, so I am an Empath,” or maybe “I’m an HSP because I’m an Empath,” or even “I don’t know why you think Sensitive has anything to with ghosts.” In several online venues, I have seen “Sensitives” join groups for HSPs and become disappointed or upset that little-to-none of the discussion has to do with ghost hunting and the realm of spirits.

These terms are used side-by-side in workshops, articles, books, personal assessments and even advertising, often like they are extensions of each other—yet few people seem to clearly understand what any of them actually mean.

This confusion begs a few questions: Are HSPs automatically Empaths, and vice-versa?

Is a Highly Sensitive Person and a Sensitive the same thing?

The more I have looked at these different terms and ideas, the more I have come to realize that they are actually rather distinct concepts. And, interestingly enough, there’s more to it than simple confusion—I have actually come into contact with quite a few Empaths who harbored some mild anger and resentment at being lumped in with the whole HSP “movement.” On the opposite site of the coin, most HSPs I’ve come across “would like to think” that they are Empaths, while many actually are not. Meanwhile, I have had self-professed Sensitives tell me that the description of an HSP is not only “wrong,” but “isn’t what being a Sensitive is about.”

 My (very short!) explanation of the relationship between HSPs and Empaths/Sensitives has ended up looking a bit like one of those Venn Diagrams many of us had to create for homework, back during our school days. It goes something like this:

Some HSPs are Empaths and Sensitives, and many Empaths are HSPs, but being an HSP does not make you an Empath, and being an Empath does not mean you’re automatically a Highly Sensitive Person. None, one, some or all of the above can all be true.


How did I reach such a conclusion?

Before going into a more detailed explanation, let’s start with some simple math. HSPs—being people who possess the innate physiological trait of elevated sensory processing sensitivity—account for an estimated 15-20% of the population, male and female. True Empaths are quite rare, most likely accounting for no more than 2-3% of the overall population, if even that many. An authentic Sensitive is perhaps even rarer, still Thus, to claim that HSP=Empath=Sensitive can’t possibly be accurate because the numbers simply don’t add up.  Let’s take a more right-brained approach to our quandary.

A more thorough look at HSPs, Empaths and Sensitives.

The concept of “a Highly Sensitive Person” (HSP) came about in 1996, as a result of studies done by research and clinical psychologist Dr. Elaine N. Aron, who posited that being sensitive wasn’t necessarily the product of one’s environment, nor a pathology that could be treated with therapy and drugs, like anxiety or OCD. Although the idea of heightened sensitivity was nothing new (Psychologist C.G.Jung identified the “sensitive temperament” 100 years ago), the notion that “there’s nothing wrong with sensitivity” presented an alternative approach to mental and emotional wellness that allowed millions of people to abandon the idea that “something” was wrong with them, and that they needed to seek treatment.

In developing her theory, Dr. Aron created a by now widely used 27-item assessment questionnaire, which consisted of a highly accurate list of attributes common to highly sensitive persons. A number of items on this “HSP Inventory” list dealt fairly specifically with the aspects of the trait related to a heightened awareness of environment and people, their moods, needs, actions and motivations—attributes central to the definition of “Empath:”

Empathy: n. 1. The ability to sense and/or understand emotion(s) from another person, animal, inanimate objects incorporating stimulation to any and or all of the senses (including the 6th Sense) without verbally being told and/or without obvious visual clues. 2. The ability to be sensitive and receptive to outside emotional stimuli. - adj. empathic or empathetic., v. to empathize Empath: n. 1. A person who has the ability to experience empathy towards another person, and/or animate/inanimate objects, in part or from all of the above definition. 2. A person who is sensitive to the emotions in others.

However, of the 27 items on Dr. Aron’s self-assessment quiz, only 6-7 can realistically be stretched to characterize “what it means to be an Empath.” If we use a stricter interpretation—one that assumes Empaths are specifically oriented to people—only three, maybe four, of the HSP inventory items apply. Not enough to make anyone “an HSP.”

Aside from written definitions, I am also drawing on personal relationships with several true Empaths in my life, including my wife, my daughter and a couple of close personal friends from the healing community.

A layer of confusion has also been added by popular culture.

For reasons unknown, it has become quite common to refer to someone with psychic or other extrasensory gifts as “a Sensitive,” although that is neither very scientific, nor even a particularly accurate characterization. Ostensibly, the term could be interpreted as shorthand for “Sensitive to the subtle patterns of spirit energy.” Regardless of its origins, it’s a definition that tends to “stick,” and some HSPs follow an erroneous path of conclusions arising from the fact that they are “highly sensitive,” hence their well-developed sense of intuition (true) makes them “psychic” (not true), and Psychics and Empaths are “pretty much the same thing as HSPs” (also not true).

So why do so many HSPs “claim” to be Empaths? Ultimately, I believe most of it has to do with simply mislabeling heightened awareness of people’s moods as “being an Empath,” perhaps as a result of not fully understanding what an Empath actually is. Perhaps this is not so surprising, as most HSPs have a much above-average ability to feel empathy for others, and the journey from “feeling empathy” to “being an Empath” is pretty short, in most people’s heads. In addition, many HSPs describe their experience of life by saying “I feel EVERYthing!” and it’s not a stretch to segue from that thought to believing one is an Empath.

The line between “Sensitives” and “Empaths” seems a little fuzzier, but from talking to dozens of people about these terms, the clearest delineator appears to be that Sensitives typically are more tuned into the energies of the deceased, while Empaths are more tuned into the energies of the living. However, that is not an “absolute,” and a number of people could be described as being both a Sensitive and an Empath.

Drawing an actual conclusion from the preceding is tricky and would require me to enter the treacherous waters of “judgment,” which I am not prepared to do. Mostly, I write these words as a gentle reminder that it’s important that we fully learn about and understand the “labels” we attribute to ourselves.

Meanwhile, you might be asking yourself why this question even matters.
Personally? I didn’t used to think it did. But then I discovered that there’s a whole set of both “Empaths” and “HSPs” (and “Sensitives”) who are not only getting needlessly annoyed with each other, but hurt feelings are arising over “misused terminology.”

Of course, we should keep in mind that much of the above is subjective and situational. If you’re an HSP and feel that the preceding is “stuff and nonsense” because you are definitely an Empath, you’re probably right. But then pause to consider this venue: A much larger percentage of the HSPs reading an article on a spiritual and healing web site will be true Empaths than the percentage among all HSPs, in general. Likewise, if you’re an Empath and think “this whole HSP thing” is irrelevant to you, keep in mind that you’re very likely one of the Empaths who is not an HSP.

Peter Messerschmidt is a writer, beach comber, rare stamp dealer and eternal seeker who lives in Port Townsend, Washington with the great love of his life and three feline “kids.” When he’s not wandering the beach or the Internet, he facilitates groups (online, and off) and retreats for HSPs, and writes “HSP Notes”—the web’s oldest HSP-specific blog, at HSP Notes

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