How To Know if You’re a Highly Sensitive Person—and Why It’s Different From Being an Empath

These two personality types are often mistaken for each other, but the distinctions are important to know.

Do the people in your life tell you how genuine and compassionate you are? And that you're extremely emotionally in tune with those around you? Then you might be a "highly sensitive person" (HSP), a personality type sometimes mistaken for an empath because they share a sense of true empathy for others.

Here's what it means to be a highly sensitive person, how to know if you are one, and why being an empath is actually a different thing, according to experts.

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What Is a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?

Those who are highly sensitive "are really kind, caring, compassionate, empathetic, genuine people who want to help others and the world," said sensitivity expert and psychotherapist Julie Bjelland, LMFT. High sensitivity is an innate trait you can't develop or change. About 70% of HSPs are introverts and 30% are extroverts, according to Bjelland.

About one-fifth of people are HSPs, according to research. In that research, brain imaging scans showed that those who scored higher on an HSP scale showed stronger activation of brain regions in awareness, empathy, and responsiveness.

If you are an HSP, you're generally more sensitive to the environment and social interactions, and you're more likely to pause and digest your circumstances before jumping into a new experience. You probably also read people well, are insightful, and understand your loved one's needs, according to Bjelland. You likely don't have the stomach for violent TV shows or movies, either.

The catch is that you can feel really overwhelmed and overloaded by stimulating surroundings. To feel your best, you need regular rest and self-care.

HSPs tend to be misunderstood. "Most of us have received the message that something is wrong with us for being sensitive. Because we take in more information than most around us, we might take a little longer to process all those details, which can sometimes be misinterpreted as shyness," Bjelland said.

What Is an Empath?

"Empaths are emotional sponges; they feel everything," said Los Angeles-based psychiatrist Judith Orloff, MD, author of The Empath's Survival Guide. An empath intuitively senses what's going on with other people—but they also absorb those emotions.

You might suspect that you're an empath if at least some of the following factors ring true to you, Orloff said:

  • Have I been labeled as overly sensitive all my life?
  • Do I tend to absorb the emotions of other people into my own body?
  • Do I take on other people's moods?
  • Do I replenish myself in nature?
  • Do I have a highly developed intuition?
  • Can I sense a feeling in a room/feel the negative or positive energy just by walking into it?
  • Do I prefer 1:1 interaction versus large groups?

Everyone has the ability to feel empathy; that's when your heart goes out to someone in pain. But an empath "wants to help people so much that it hurts them," said Dr. Orloff. "They feel a moral responsibility to become a martyr and take on the pain of the world."

As an empath, Dr. Orloff said that you wear "an invisible sign saying that you can help people." You may notice that "energy vampires" flock to you, asking you to listen to their problems for hours on end. Though you know you need to set boundaries, it's hard because you're worried about letting someone down who is in need.

Are Empaths and HSPs Closely Linked?

If empaths and HSPs sound similar, it's because they are. Bjelland noted a belief that all empaths are HSPs, but not all HSPs are empaths.

Dr. Orloff said that an empath indeed carries all of the attributes of an HSP but with more developed intuition and a sponge-like ability for absorbing emotions. "You turn up the volume going from HSP to empath," Dr. Orloff said.

What Challenges Do HSPs and Empaths Face?

When you're a highly sensitive person, you're taking in a lot of information from the environment around you. Highly sensitive people and empaths are also deeply connected to those around them. Due to this, you may need additional downtime to recover from all you take in.

Anxiety and Depression

Over time, taking in so much information from your environment can lead to feelings of anxiety, said Bjelland. Similarly, Dr. Orloff noted that empaths often struggle with anxiety and depression.

For people of either personality type, talking to a therapist can be extremely helpful, so that you can practice certain strategies that help you manage the thoughts, emotions, and feelings of being overwhelmed.

How Can HSPs and Empaths Take Care of Themselves?

Researchers interviewed 12 highly sensitive individuals about how they experience and cultivate well-being. The study found that HSPs valued:

  • Time in nature
  • Contemplative practices (such as meditative walks)
  • Positive social relationships balanced by times of solitude

Bjelland advised that HSPs should have at least two hours of alone time every day.

"We need more alone time and downtime to process, rest, and recover from everything we take in," Bjelland said. You might find that time outside or doing yoga, practicing meditation or mindfulness, and getting good sleep refills a tank that's been wiped out by the din of your surroundings.

As for empaths, they're also quick to overstimulate, so decompressing by being alone is a must. Said Dr. Orloff: "You can't be on the go every hour of the day. You will suffer and crash."

How Can HSP and Empaths Balance Their Needs With Those of Others?

One barrier to well-being, reported by highly sensitive people in the study, involved difficulty saying no to others. Drawing a line and putting yourself first is a must for both personality types.

If you're dealing with, for example, a random stranger (yes, you probably find that strangers want to spill their life story to you), Dr. Orloff advised using a loving tone of voice and eye contact and kindly explaining that you're having quiet time right now and can't talk.

If a loved one needs your guidance and support but you're feeling drained, set a distinct time limit for a phone call and then stick to it.

HSPs in particular need more self-compassion. "While HSPs tend to have so much compassion for others, many of us tend to be really hard on ourselves and struggle with being self-critical and perfectionistic," said Bjelland.

Setting those boundaries and indulging in restorative self-care will keep you from overextending yourself so you really can be present for those who need you.

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  1. Acevedo BP, Aron EN, Aron A, Sangster M, Collins N, Brown LL. The highly sensitive brain: an fMRI study of sensory processing sensitivity and response to others’ emotions. Brain Behav. 2014;4(4):580-594. doi:10.1002/brb3.242

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