Highly sensitive People & Empaths
It can be so intense to feel both internal and external worlds so deeply.
Empaths and Highly Sensitive People are distinct from one another but have a very important trait in common: heightened sensitivity. This heightened sensitivity can be an absolutely beautiful experience, but also contribute to overwhelm, overstimulation, depression, among other mental health struggles.
Let’s start with empaths. Empaths are individuals that have heightened sensitivity to the emotional states of others. This can feel like taking on the emotional experience of loved ones, the room that the individual is currently in, or even the state of the world when engaging with the media. While empaths can use this emotional sensitivity to do amazing things like deeply understanding the people around them and get inspired to go into helping professions, a huge struggle for empaths can be setting emotional boundaries with the people and world around them. When empaths are exposed to traumatic events including domestic violence, global issues like the pandemic, or social justice issues they feel connected to, the amount of pain that the empath is vicariously experiencing can be extremely burdensome to their nervous system.
Highly Sensitive People, aka HSPs, have heightened sensitivity to sensory input from all 5 senses. This can be a positive thing to experience sensory experiences in depth, but it can also lead to intense overwhelm and overstimulation when the sensory experience is not pleasant. Highly sensitive people can be experienced as highly perceptive and detail oriented in interacting with the world around them, and also having very particular sensory experiences that they gravitate to or avoid.
(Note: In discussing HSPs, there is sometimes discourse about the overlap with Autism, since Autism also can include sensory difficulties. Some Autism advocates go as far to say that HSPs are just Autistic people who refuse to use the Autism label. While it’s true that HSPs and Autistic individuals can share some traits, the HSP trait and Autism are different mental health experiences.)
While the empath and HSP experiences are distinct from one another, it is totally possible for a person to identify with both of them. Whether someone identifies with just one or both, the goal isn’t to try to get rid of this sensitivity, as it is an ingrained part of someone’s being. The goal for therapy for empaths and HSPs is to work to make adjustments to someone’s life to better suit this sensitivity, and/or to develop some coping strategies (ie: stress management) on how to make overstimulating situations more manageable.
If you think you may be an HSP, here is a quiz from the researcher who coined the term: