Empath vs. HSP. The age old debate. If you’ve been doing any sort of research on empathy, you may have stumbled upon the term HSP at some point or another. I’m all about words and definitions, so let’s go over what this acronym means, shall we?
HSP is an abbreviation for a term coined by Dr. Elaine Aron that stands for “highly sensitive person.” The description of this term sounds similar to empathy, so you may find yourself wondering, what’s the difference between an empath vs HSP? Are they the same thing?
The answer to this question is… generally yes, but not always.
What qualities do HSPs have?
According to Dr. Aron’s research, HSPs are more sensitive to the world in general. This includes sensitivity to physical, mental and emotional stimuli. Below is a brief list of some of the qualities HSPs may possess:
- Sensitivity to physical stimuli such as bright lights, loud noises, scents, etc.
- Easily flustered with having to do more than one task at a time
- Tend to avoid violent movies and TV shows
- Need lots of alone time to decompress and avoid stimulation
- May be called “too sensitive” by their peers
Dr. Aron has done extensive research in this area and has concluded that 15-20% of the population identify as HSPs. According to her website, it is an innate ability that has been discovered in over 100 other species, and has been determined to be a type of survival mechanism, one that emphasizes being observant before acting.
She goes on to further explain that in cultures where sensitivity is not valued, HSPs tend to have low self esteem. Hmm… This sounds an awful lot like being an empath. So what’s the real difference between empaths vs HSPs?
The difference between empath vs HSP
While HSPs share some similar traits to empaths, they are not the same. HSPs are sensitive to the world at large, but they do not have the ability to feel what other people are feeling. On this site, I talk a lot about how an empath is somebody who can feel the emotions and/or physical sensations of other people as if they were one’s own. Notice how nowhere in the description of an HSP does it mention being able to feel the emotions of others. This is what the main difference between the two is.
Through my own personal observation, a lot of empaths I have come across are HSPs in addition to being empaths, but not always. While a lot of the traits and struggles that both empaths and HSPs experience are similar, the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. It is possible to be one without being the other, but it is also possible to be both.
The bottom line
The research that Dr. Aron has done on HSPs has been immensely helpful to many people struggling in an insensitive world. In fact, I myself identified with being an HSP before I realized I was also empathic. Having a legitimate, researched trait to identify with made me feel so much better about myself, like I was not crazy after all- I was just sensitive! The same sense of relief can come about when one realizes they are an empath, too.
While it can be very helpful to have terms to describe the things we are going through, it is important to not use these labels as crutches to avoid having to do the necessary work that will help you thrive in the world with such abilities and sensitivities.
While being an HSP or empath (or both!) can pose some challenges to modern living, it doesn’t mean you can’t learn to successfully manage your sensitivities. There is a ton of information at your disposal to help you on your journey. Make good use of it to learn how to be a happy and thriving HSP and/or empath!