Are You Highly Sensitive or an Empath?


This article is based on our podcast episode, Being an Empowered Empath Series, Episode #1. Listen to the full episode here.


In modern times, more people are identifying as sensitive or empathic. In spiritual circles, you might hear people refer to themselves as intuitive or psychic. When you hear someone describe themselves using these terms, do you ask yourself, “How do I know if I'm one? What's the difference?” Many of us don't realize that sensitivity, empathy, intuition, and psychic abilities are part of the same spectrum (see picture below). They are all connected, and the root ability is the same: being sensitive to energy.



What is a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?

In psychology, a highly sensitive person is hyper aware of what's going on within their environment. This could be noise, smell, taste, or even proximity to others. An HSP feels very impacted by the world around them because they're sensitive to the information they are receiving. Unlike others, it isn't easy to ignore the stimuli around them because they pick up energy at a higher level. This might cause an HSP to have a lot of emotions and feelings because they are more attuned to their internal environment as well.

If you're an HSP, this could mean in a crowd of people you start feeling overwhelmed or uneasy. You might feel panicked or flighty, or even feel an uncomfortable pressure in your stomach or chest. Some HSPs are sensitive to sound and hear high tones or, in general, everything sounds as though the volume is turned up. If you're an HSP, you might have trouble sleeping unless it's very quiet, or even need a sound machine at a low volume to help your nervous system relax.



Living as a Highly Sensitive Person

One defense mechanism of an HSP is to intellectualize your experiences to give yourself some space from the stimulation you’re experiencing.

If you’re feeling a lot, it’s easy to go directly inside of your head rather than staying in your body because it can feel uncomfortable to stay open to big sensations. This strategy can cause an HSP to feel awkward, uncomfortable, or afraid of connecting with their body, or others.


If you're an HSP and want to feel more empowered, a psychotherapist might help you practice sensing into your body when you experience loud noises and other stimuli to see how your body reacts. If you practice observing the response and learn to regulate your nervous system through breath and other techniques, you can learn how to ground yourself.

Being sensitive doesn't have to be overwhelming. It can become pleasant when you realize you get to experience life on a bigger scale.

If you're an HSP, it’s easy to gloss over simple mindfulness practices because you are usually trying to avoid how you feel. You're used to everything being overwhelming. Looking inward requires that we become quiet and stop moving. This can temporarily feel like a lot, but when you sit with big sensations, they typically diffuse with our attention. Our attention is like lifting a pressure gauge to let the steam out. The first step to opening to psychic abilities is regulating your reactions to your sensitivity. If you can experience energy and still stay centered, you are more likely to experience clear seeing, aka "clairvoyance." Sometimes people who are highly sensitive actually identify as having ADHD, or other diagnoses that are characterized by inattention, difficulty regulating emotions or body-based discomfort (needing lots of movement, fidgeting, restlessness). With so many things going on around them, it can be hard to focus or feel grounded. Many people diagnosed with ADHD are sensitive, and processing far more information in their environment. For someone diagnosed with ADHD, mindfulness practices can feel brutal because of the inability to focus only on the body. Working with a clinician that is seasoned in this diagnostic area might take on a different treatment strategy to meet that person's individual sensitivity needs.



Am I a Highly Sensitive Person or an Empath?

When you walk into a room and see someone crying, do you feel sensitive to that person's behavior AND feel their sadness? If you're impacted by this person on an emotional level, you are probably an empath. An empath is someone that is both an HSP (though they might feel empowered in it) and also feels other people's feelings and emotions. Empaths often experience this all the time; they walk into a room and instantly know how someone is feeling. Whether they know how to have boundaries with this ability is another story.


With the big gift of feeling, empaths are often naturally compassionate because they can empathize with another person's situation. When you are sensitive, you often feel emotions at a larger level. Simply put, you can recognize the deeper emotional levels in others because you have that experience in yourself. However, it’s a delicate balance of being compassionate towards other people's emotions and struggles, while not taking their energy on. Many empaths have murky boundaries and confusion can arise between knowing what is and isn't their own feelings and experiences.



Living as an Empath

Empathy, for some people, can feel like a learning journey. Many empaths take careers in fields that focus on people and helping. Without realizing it, empaths can often try to save other people and "heal them" out of a desire to be of service, but also to eradicate their own discomfort. The long journey of being an empath will typically involve a lot of lessons of thinking you can "save" or "heal" someone, when in truth, we are each responsible for our own healing.

Last summer, I attended a music festival in Colorado. At that time, I had not been in a large crowd for several months due to covid restrictions. It was fascinating to see my nervous system respond to all the people, sights, and sounds. As a highly sensitive person, not only was I taking in the cluster of concentrated energies around me, but as an empath, I walked past people and instantly knew what they were feeling. Because I am empowered in my sensitivity, I was able to recognize the low levels of anxiety that arose by being around other people and release them. As an empath, I was able to recognize the emotions of others and how my body can naturally match these frequencies.

While in line for food, I turned to talk to an acquaintance I hadn't seen in several months. As I listened, I could sense their sadness, though they were speaking about something positive. I felt their emotional overwhelm in certain aspects of their life and could feel my heart become tender to this realization. Empaths pick up on these key differences in others, but often don't know how to trust these subtleties if a person doesn't validate this inner knowing. Because I have spent years recognizing when someone else's emotions come into my space, I now feel grateful when this happens. By seeing people at a deeper level, we can also send love to them and wish them well in a bigger way without needing to fix it. Deep down, I believe humans would thrive more consistently if they felt more loved and cared for by others. Loving someone with trust and neutrality empowers the other person. Trying to "heal" someone else out of our own discomfort creates dependence and unfair power dynamics.



Which Do You Identify With?

So, where do you fall on the spectrum? Do you feel other people's feels? And if you do, are you empowered in it? Do you know how to put down energetic boundaries when you're feeling really sensitive?


If you’d like to work on rooting into your power and finding more strength in your abilities, let’s connect and see how I can guide you.

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