Am I an empath or Highly Sensitive Person/HSP? What is the difference?
This is the question I get from clients all the time! Let me share another point of view here, including yogic and Chakra healing aspects of sensitivity!
Exploring the world of energy
I want you to take a moment to visualise this experience... Take a moment to get comfortable, close your eyes and visualise that you are enclosed in a large personal bubble. Inside this bubble, you feel a lot of activity going on in your body and inside the bubble – Visualise the flow of energy running up and down your spine, interacting at different points (Chakras) along your spine – feeling the flow also expanding all around you in your bubble. Then visualise that the room or place that you are in has a sea of energy surrounding your personal bubble – And that the flow inside your bubble also extends outwards or interacts with the mass of energy flow in this surrounding sea space. There is a beautiful dance and movement between your personal bubble and this energy sea that you are imersed in. This is a simple way of explaining how our energy moves and interacts throughout the day. Add to this other factors that influence the way our personal energy and the surrounding energy flows/interacts together – like our own personal stress levels, emotions etc. There is a powerful subtle intelligence in what we can’t see but often feel (especially when we are sensitive).
Everything is energy and the growing awareness of this is probably part of the reason why over the last 10 years, the topics related to being an empath and highly sensitive person/HSP has exploded. But with this awareness, I also feel there is a lot of confusion between labels. I understand why labels can be important when we are doing research because it can shed light on information that we may need – but I also see how many find it even more confusing because they might not always fit the description of that label completely. This has been my observation with clients in my therapy work for over 15+ years, as well as the online sources of information out there. This has also lead to furious debate on many different community platforms on this topic.
It makes me wonder: Does it really matter what label we use?
I think this is a deeply personal thing to reflect on. Let me share some key points – As always, I tell everyone to see what feels right for you and keep doing your own research as there is always new information coming out, especially in science.
☀️ What is a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?
A Scientific approach?
The start to my search
Many years ago, when in search of answers to why I was so sensitive, I came across this book. It explained a lot of things to me about why I am the way I am. This was before I started to look deeper into other related topics – like being an empath, being introverted or extroverted etc.
Over the last few decades, scientific studies have been done, in both humans and animals. A fundamental part of this explores a few foundational traits. These traits were originally documented by Dr. Elaine Aron, and have been expanded and verified by other researchers.
These are the four main traits that define a Highly Sensitive Person/HSP, represented by the acronym D.O.E.S:
D.O.E.S: 4 Traits of HSPs
✨ D: Depth of processing. Whether it’s a via travel experience to a new country or teasing out what a certain symptom means in the context of your health, everyone processes information…literally, all the time. HSPs process on a deeper level, though, finding meaning in a pattern or symbols, comparing current events to past experiences, and cementing feelings into their memory. This quality lends HSPs heightened intuition and recall, but also a tendency to read between the lines and overthink.
✨ O: Overstimulation. HSPs pick up on a lot of stimuli, so they tend to reach their capacity quicker, not dealing well with excess chaos in their environment. They get tired in social settings and need alone time to recharge. A noisy concert or city may overwhelm them, and packing their day full of activities will probably prove too much for their energy. This is because they’re overstimulated often, and are more sensitive to the common stimuli of everyday living.
✨ E: Emotional reactivity. HSPs react more strongly to the positive and negative experiences in their lives; their highs are higher and their lows are lower. They might feel overwhelmed with joy when they win an award, but be deeply and intensely saddened when they’re in conflict with their partner. “E,” Dr. Aron says, is also code for “empathy.” That’s because HSPs aren’t only attuned to their own emotional world; they also quickly pick up on the feelings of others, and often end up feeling those sensations themselves. This means they may personally feel anger when someone gets treated unfairly at work or proud when their child reaches a milestone at school.
✨ S: Sensing the subtle. HSPs pick up on subtle differences and details that others may miss. Maybe they taste a hint of strawberry and a note of cocoa in a glass of wine when their significant other missed both entirely. An HSP also might pick up on a little shift in a person’s mood. For instance, let’s say a couple has been fighting but trying to mask their issues in front of others. An HSP will sense something is up.
So, what does this tell us about the differences between the brain of HSPs and a “typical” brain?
Well, according to recent research, there is a lot of differences in how we process many things. As I dive in deeper, I always enjoy how science can fuse with holistic health, to explain the things that were seen as “alternative” in the past. Apparently, we can learn a lot from our sensitive brain functions and the way we are naturally wired. I found a wonderful article on this and I feel it explains it fully – Click here to read!
Now for the main question: How is HSP different from being an empath? For now, I have found it much easier to find information and supporting scientific research for HSPs. There is a more analytical and science-based approach of understanding it. The word Empath seems to be a term that brings in other elements, like spirituality and the holistic metaphysical side.
☀️ What is an Empath?
The Empathic Spectrum
Exploring what it means to be an empath through this book
Dr. Judith Orloff is a psychiatrist, an empath and the author of the book “The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People”. She is one of the sources that I would recommend if you are looking for information as an empath.
I personally love how she explores the topic of being an empath through a holistic point of view as well. She also mentions the Empathic Spectrum, which I find to be a great guide in explaining the differences, based on how sensitive we are and where we feel we fall on the spectrum.
“Empaths take the experience of the highly sensitive person much further. We can sense subtle energy, which is called shakti or prana in Eastern healing traditions, and actually absorb it from other people and different environments into our own bodies. Highly sensitive people don’t typically do that. This capacity allows us to experience the energies around us in extremely deep ways. Since everything is made of subtle energy, including emotions and physical sensations, we energetically internalize the feelings and pain of others. We often have trouble distinguishing someone else’s discomfort from our own. Also, some empaths have profound spiritual and intuitive experiences which aren’t usually associated with highly sensitive people.”– Dr. Judith Orloff
As you can see from the spectrum, we can walk our way through the range of sensitivity that each description gives, starting from the lowest awareness of sensitivity, the Narcissists – right through to the highest awareness of sensitivity as an empath. This spectrum gives us a visual way to reflect on where we stand on the spectrum – and if our awareness of sensitivity has changed throughout our lifetime.
We are constantly evolving in our sensitivity. Some people have always known that they were on the higher spectrum of sensitivity from childhood, then there are others who I have worked with who found that through life (and life-changing experiences, such as near-death experiences, illness etc), their awareness of sensitivity actually changed from one side of the spectrum to the other. The changes in the lifestyle of our modern age has also had a big impact in how we are now processing energy in our daily life – I will talk about this more in the next point.
An inspiring podcast with Dr. Judith Orloff
If you have some time, brew a cup of tea and tune in to her. I love several themes she brings up of being an empath.
By blending the information about being an HSP and empath, I find a good balance. I have always enjoyed using both my right and left brain in understanding any topics. And as a therapist and yoga teacher, I am always looking for ways to combine the yin and yang to see the bigger picture of everything. For this reason, I often use both terms together. The scientific research from the information of HSPs and the holistic perspective of empath information works nicely together.
Looking deeper into holistic health and my own experiences working with energy healing clients and yoga students has been a real eye-opener for me in this topic too. Let me dive deeper into this with you…
☀️A Yogic Perspective
We are all sensory humans evolving in a changing era
Think about the life and times that we are now living in, compared to just 10-15 years ago. How much faster does everything seem? How much more do we process in our daily life now, compared to the earlier years of our life? Think of the technology that we are using, the way social media (and media in general) has started to seep into the energy of our lives. Then, think of past generations and centuries – in comparison to right here, right now. It used to be that generations would pass on the way of work to the next (for example: the shoemaker of the town would pass their skills to his/her children to do the same) – and having one career path during the whole lifetime was normal. The same with our personal lives – In older times and generations, we may have had an interaction group of friends and family just from our immediate environment, we may have been with 1 person in marriage for life and so on. Of course, many of you may still have this in your life which is great! However, the general pattern is that we are now beginning to see how over a lifetime, we can change our careers, friendships, relationships etc… We are processing more karma and lifetimes in just one life now (through our work and personal life) than ever before! There is so much going on… In order to do this, we are now having to evolve in our awareness of sensitivity and energy management as we are being bombarded with so much more in life than before – and it is not stopping. Even if you live in the middle of nowhere, don’t listen to news and are connected to nature – You may still feel the global energy surrounding you. I have a few friends who live this lifestyle and still know when there is something chnaging or something big has happened in another part of the world.
It seemed that 2020 has been the year where the majority of the world had to literally stop and take note of this – and how we have feel about it. We have had time to think. As I write this post, things seem very uncertain and the energy is thick. With more reason, people will start to want to learn new ways to take care of their energy.
n response to these demands, humans are beginning to evolve a sensory system that allows them to live as intuitive, multi-faceted beings. As we develop a subtle sensitivity to our being, we will experience a sense of completeness within ourselves and the energy that we once used to compensate for our perceived limitations and to get validation from outside, will be available to attract what we need to make our unique contribution to the world. As we establish a sense of our own identity, our destiny will be revealed to us.
We can cultivate our sensory system by consciously connecting to our breath, strengthening our nervous system, activating our glandular system, balancing our emotional energies, and channelling our mental energy to intuitive awareness.– Link FOR MORE INFO: THE SENSORY HUMAN, 3HO
We are evolving rapidly in how we process energy! We have to in order to cope fully with everything. For me, I notice that the different generations of people I meet are a reflection of this as we move into what is known as the Aquarian age – the age of information and awareness. For this reason, many of us who grew up without internet in our childhood years (try explaining that to a child now and see their reactions 😱😀) and a slower pace have probably seen our changes of sensitivity to energy grow enormously (even if we were already a sensitive soul from birth), while generations born after 2000s are already wired to what we know now. Each generation offers a different insight as to how energy can be processed and it is important to also say that those of us who were born before 2000s also have an important role to play in bringing the gifts we had that are now missing.
What does this have to do with being a HSP and empath? If our awareness, sensitivity and the way we process energy and information is changing – so too is the idea that what we used to think of as sensitive souls making up only a small % of the population (as a lot of sources on this topic say) is now no longer applicable. I am a strong believer that we are all, in one way or another, sensitive because of the times that we are living (and evolving) in. It no longer feels right to only just use certain theories and models to explain what it means to be an empath and HSP because it is changing all the time – and will continue doing so.
Let me add another holistic approach to explore sensitive souls like us and why it is often too complex to just stick a label on what we are…
☀️ The Chakra System
Every empath and HSP will use their Chakras differently
Chakras are an amazing tool to use in our daily life! Since the 1990s, when I first started exploring energy work up until now, I am STILL learning new things all the time about this holistic system. I like to see them as energy train stations running along our spine line and beyond – where energy trains arrive/depart, energy gets on/off at each energy station and travel through different lines. Think of a busy city train station at peak hour and you get the picture! There is A LOT going on. While many sources of information on the Chakras speak of the 7 main Chakras, in Kundalini yoga we speak about the 8 Chakras and their properties – Click here to read more! It is also important to remember that there are MANY other Chakra points within and around us that are constantly reacting and interacting towards our overall state of wellbeing. We are all unique in how our Chakras work, although there are often general patterns that we can use as guidance.
Exploring the Chakras of empaths and HSPs – It’s not just our brains that work differently from a person who may be on the less sensitive side of the empathic spectrum. I have worked with energy healing clients who come from all walks of life and these patterns seem to always come up! I will write a full blog post going into details very soon!).
4 General Chakra observations
✨ Our Chakras seem more absorbent – Think of a porous sponge. I notice that the flow of energy throughout the Chakras seem to pick and collect much more easily than people who feel less sensitive. Like sponges, it often takes more conscious effort to release what has been absorbed.
✨ Our Chakras seem to be more top-heavy – This is one of the first things I notice with the overall Chakra system… Empaths and HSPs are usually more active with their top Chakras (Chakra 4 to 8 – and above). In many ways, it makes more sense because the higher Chakras are connected to the more subtle 5D energies Vs the lower Chakras that are more earthly 3D level energy. This explains why sensitive people generally have strong intuition and why grounding is important to gain balance.
✨ The qualities of our dominant Chakra(s) will be the best way we can show up in our daily life. Each one of us will have a certain Chakra(s) that we naturally work with more strongly. This can show us how we can use our energy and how to process it to release energy using our natural sensitivity. For example: People who have dominant 2nd or 3rd Chakras will find that their emotions are the way they process energy and their creativity is the best way to release and channel their energy into their daily life.
✨ Boundaries and aura barriers become a real health issue – Many sensitive souls can swing from either having a very leaky/porous energy aura to a full-on shutdown of their aura. This is usually a result of unhealthy coping mechanisms we have learned through our life – Fort example: When people feel overwhelmed and unsure how to deal with what they are picking up from others. And finding and learning to develop healthy boundaries is vital for our health and how we relate to the world. This is a HUGE topic, which I will share in other posts too.
There are many other general energy observations – but these seem to come up the most! From this point of view, we can see that how we work with our Chakras will impact the way we evolve with our sensitivity. It can also explain why some sensitive people will say that they are more introverted or extroverted – or both – in different situations and with different people.
Introverted, extroverted or ambivert? More labels!
What if you don’t fit any label again? This fascinated me because I would be working with energy clients who are performers, musicians, artists and people in the public eye who told me how they never felt they fitted any label because they could easily swing from being a complete extrovert on stage performing and then feel like a complete introvert with people on a personal level. It can make labels more confusing to try and find the perfect fit of how we describe our Self. There are SO many factors to mention.
Going on a general energy observation on the Chakras, the Solar Plexus plays a huge role for extroverted sensitives. Our Chakras interact with each other all the time, so there can be a few Chakras working together. But when the Solar Plexus is activated in the mix or when a person uses their Solar Plexus Chakra as a dominant Chakra, the extroverted qualities come out. This can be activated by inspiration, an environment that feeds our energy into interacting freely and a natural love for challenging our Self out of our comfort zone. People who have a dominant Solar Plexus usually project their energy extremely strongly outwardly (yang/masculine energy), channelling it into everything in life. Equally, they can experience a crash of energy when the energy battery runs out. So there is this sharp ups/downs in their energy system that can be a classic sign of an extroverted empath/HSP. If this sounds like you, it can mean that your extroverted energy also needs to be balanced with a receptive Self-care routine – little and often, recharging our energy so the energy crash is not so harsh! On a positive side, extroverted sensitive souls shine so brightly when their energy is “out there” – This is why performers and people who naturally express their energy attract a lot of attention.
Introverts, on the other hand, may use their receptive Chakras more strongly. Receptive Chakras are usually the more yin/feminine energy Chakras – For example: The 2nd Chakra. These Chakras often work best in receiving and internalising energy so people who relate to being more introverted will find it easier to connect to the way this flow works. The energy is held more within their system, inspiration becomes an inner spark. And of course, there is a whole spectrum related to introvert to extrovert.
Some people might not care about what type of personality did they have, but some are curious.
According to Myers Briggs, perhaps the most widely popular and accepted personality test, extroverts are action oriented, seek breadth of knowledge and influence, prefer frequent interaction, and get energy from spending time with people while introverts are thought oriented, seek depth of knowledge and influence, prefer more substantial interaction, and get their energy from spending time alone.Introversion and extroversion are commonly misunderstood. Just because someone is shy, doesn’t mean she’s an introvert. Someone who is bubbly, gregarious and the life of the party can, in reality, be an introvert.LINK FOR MORE INFO: CLICK HERE
☀️ Conclusion: A time for personal reflection…
I shared several approaches with you and now it comes down to what you feel works and reflects your energy! Although I am not fixed on labels, I will still use empath and HSP as a way to describe my Self and my clients/yoga students. I also find that my approach to doing my work has changed since I have focused on fine-tuning what I do for us.
It’s all good! Maybe you fit a label completely, maybe you prefer not to define your Self by any! It’s OK because this is our own personal Self-exploration journey.
🦋 Reflection questions to get started…
Did any label feel right for you? Which label do you prefer to describe your Self?
Do you feel you are more introverted or extroverted?
Do you feel that certain people or environments bring out the introverted or extroverted side of you?
What other sources of information on this topic has inspired you?