The Difference Between an Empath and Highly Sensitive Person

Lately, there’s been a lot of buzz about the misuse and inappropriate interchange of the terms “empath” and “highly sensitive person”. Among countless reasons, one issue seems to be that some empaths are annoyed with highly sensitive people for clumping themselves to the empath’s sacred namesake and highly sensitive people are frustrated to be automatically categorized in some woo-woo out-of-this-world term that undermines who they are biologically.

Reading a recent heated HSP vs Empath discussion on a popular online forum, I couldn’t help but think of our current election woes in America. One person insults another. The other attacks back. Hurt feelings abound. And around and around we go. A never-ending cycle of blame, shame and fear.

All the while, no one remembers the most important topic, which is… WE ARE ALL HUMAN.

Beyond being human, we are so much more than that. We are souls.

So let me just say this once and for all.

If you are part of these mudslinging debates (and assuming you want peace and joy in your life), then…

Stop. Just STOP.

Have we not been excluded enough our entire lives?

Do you not remember your childhood? Did you numb yourself or block it out because it was too overwhelming? Do you not know how it feels to be judged because you’re different, criticized because you cry more easily than the other kids in school or shamed because you’d rather be home alone reading a good book than go out with friends?

Have you ever been told you should be different than who you are?

Maybe they told you you shouldn’t be “so quiet” or that you should “toughen up” or just “smile and be happy, why does everything have to be such a big deal”?

My hunch is if you’re reading this article or if you’ve been following me for a while, you know EXACTLY how that feels. And you know EXACTLY how deeply wounded this has made you.

How deeply wounded do you suppose this has made others, as well?

You may have felt like an alien, like you don’t belong here in this life, or aren’t good enough, or maybe you’ve lived your life with an intangible, can’t-put-your-finger-on-it, generalized sense that something’s “off”, not quite right with you or this world, but you don’t know how to explain it.

If this is you, you are welcome here in my little online haven. I don’t care what label or term you attribute to yourself.

If this is not you, you are welcome here too. I don’t care what you call yourself either.  But my guess is my writing will soon bore you, if not already. So no hurt feelings if you want to leave.

Now, let’s get down to the fundamental difference between these 2 terms, NOT the people, but the TERMS. I’m talking about the definitions, the human-made words used to understand, label and classify one human from another. 

What is a Highly Sensitive Person?

“HIGHLY SENSITIVE PERSON (HSP)” is a term coined in the mid-1990’s by psychologist Dr. Elaine Aron and husband Dr. Arthur Aron to describe one who has high sensory processing sensitivity, the scientific term for the innate trait.

This description is from Wikipedia:

What is a Highly Sensitive Person?

What is an Empath?

Starting with a Google search, it took me less than 5 seconds to find a solid, fact-based description of “Highly Sensitive Person,” one that is grounded in credible authority and backed by scientific evidence. I’ve been searching for over an hour looking for a similarly solid, research-based definition of an empath, but if it exists, I have yet to find it.

The reason is simple. “Empath” is NOT a scientific term. It’s not based on extensive experiments carefully performed in a lab with Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scans of real human brains, nor is it founded on a respected doctor’s decades of interviewing and studying real live human beings.

Here is Wikipedia’s description of an “Empath” (click on the image to go to the Wikipage):


What is an Empath?


And here is Google’s definition of an Empath:



Of course, we all know that neither Wikipedia nor Google are authorities (though we tend to treat them as such sometimes). In fact, Google linked me to countless “authority” sites with varying and often opposing definitions of both HSP and Empath, including my own site here.

But in the end, all “empath” inquiries ultimately led me to other people’s personal experiences and opinions published in a book or on the web (very much like my site).

So to finally answer the question this article poses, here’s my own personal answer.

What’s the difference between an Empath and a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?

The term “Highly Sensitive Person” originated in science, whereas the term “Empath” originated in science fiction.

If you consider yourself an empath, this can be pretty jarring information. Especially coming from someone like me, a self-professed empath.

While I can’t tell you what this means for YOU, I’ll tell you what it means for me.

I identify with the term, “Highly Sensitive Person.” I realize this is based on science and cold-hard measurable-in-a-lab facts. I know my neurology and human brain is wired in a certain way that is attune to the scientific definition of a “Highly Sensitive Person.”

I also identify with the term, “Empath.” I realize this is based in science-fiction and personal identifiers that no one can (as of yet) scientifically prove in a lab. I know my spirit is connected and aligned with my own intimate definition of an “Empath” and this feels right to me.

Science & Spirituality Combined

“Highly Sensitive Person” appeals to my analytical, rational, earth-bound mind. Understanding how my neurology is different than others helps me make sense of why I am the way I am.

For example:

Why do I cry at Hallmark commercials?

Why do sudden loud noises disturb me?

Why do I generally take longer to make certain decisions?

Why does a loved one’s slight lie feel like a deep betrayal?

Why can’t I tolerate meaningless chit chat?

Why do I notice subtle things that others don’t?

Why do my thoughts chatter non-stop?

Because of Dr. Aron’s work, I now understand why. And it makes me, finally, for once – after decades of feeling like something was terribly wrong me –  feel OK with myself. I am forever grateful to Dr. Aron’s work. Her research gave me hard, physical evidence that I’m not crazy. And it gave me permission to breathe and allow myself to JUST BE and stop trying to change myself all the time to suit the whims of what everyone else seemed to need me to be.

After reading her book, “The Highly Sensitive Person,” I woke up to myself. And I loved what I finally discovered to be strengths rather than weaknesses in me.

But it was only part of the answer.

I’m more than a personality trait.

There’s more to me than this physical body and how my brain works. Being a “Highly Sensitive Person” didn’t explain why I’ve felt other energies around me since I was a little kid (even when no one was around). It didn’t explain why I have a deep sense and knowing that there’s something so much MORE than what we see, hear, touch, taste, smell and can measure with all our advanced technology and research combined.

It didn’t explain why when I hug a tree, I actually FEEL its life force flowing through me, through my hands, arms, cheek and chest into my entire body.

It didn’t explain why when I’m in the waiting room at my doctor’s office, I can feel the emotion of the person sitting next to me as if it were my own. And it certainly didn’t explain why I can focus on someone I love in a different part of the country and sense what they happen to be feeling in that exact moment.

It didn’t explain why I’m brought to my knees in total surrenderous joy when I see a beautiful sunset, and why sometimes I hear music coming from somewhere in the sky and even inside me as the sun sets.

It didn’t explain why, ever since I was a child, people would put their hands on me and feel an instant calm wash over them. When I acted in theater, some of the actors would feel so nervous before going on stage that they would put their hands on me to ground themselves and “soak up my calm,” they said. But while they would become calmer, it would make me more nervous because I soaked up all their nervous energy. I didn’t know how to manage energy back then.

It didn’t explain why, as a teenager, every time I saw Counselor Deanna Troi read someone else’s energy in Star Trek: The Next Generation, something inside me stirred. Something inside me came alive, something not based on science-fiction, instead, it was something very real. It was a sense of recognition and validation. I knew she was a fictional character in a fictional TV show. But the fact that some writer out there had to come up with the idea meant that maybe there was one person in the entire world…. just one…  who understood me. And that gave me hope. Not for the world, but for me, who I had written off as a lost cause long ago.

Even with all the scientific research and learning that I’m an HSP, while it helps me here in a tangible, every day sense, in navigating my life, I still feel as though I am not part of this world, that we humans are here in some sort of temporary form that cannot yet be explained. And possibly even shouldn’t be explained, as perhaps it should be kept sacred and holy (in a most non-religious way).

The HSP (earth, science, physical, tangible) and the Empath (otherworldly, paranormal, metaphysical, intangible) are both labels I resonate with. I suppose it’s a microcosm of the bigger struggle of mankind. Science vs God. Creation vs Evolution. Who are we and why are we here?

To me, there is no struggle anymore.

We are love and we are here to love.

The rest are just details.