As more and more people share their experiences with mental health, you may have heard some folks use the terms Empath or Highly Sensitive Person. For some individuals, these terms can offer clarity and a ‘name’ for experiences that may have never been previously recognized. You may have been called ‘sensitive’ growing up. Or maybe you have been taught that being sensitive is unusual or a ‘bad thing.’ However, empathy and sensitivity are not uncommon or negative traits. In this blog, we’ll talk about what it means to be an Empath or a Highly Sensitive Person. Plus, how you can take care of your sensitivity, whether or not you decide to identify with these specific terms.
What Does it Mean to be an Empath?
Empathy is the ability to connect with others and to share and understand their emotions. If your friend shares terrible news, you may feel sad or upset on their behalf. Even though you aren’t experiencing the same thing. An empath is a person who has a heightened ability to feel and understand the emotions, thoughts, and energies of others. They can keenly sense how others are feeling, and can even feel others’ physical symptoms as their own. They may even find that they can become a ‘sponge’ to emotions. But also sensations, and even energies from others – good or bad, happy or sad, and everything in between.
This sensitivity can lead to empaths feeling deeply affected by those around them, making it difficult for them to distinguish between their and others’ emotions. They may feel a strong urge to help alleviate others’ emotional pain and suffering, sometimes even to their own detriment. This deep sense of compassion and innate ability to connect with others can help them succeed in helping professions. But while this ability to connect can foster strong relationships, it can also result in difficulty with setting boundaries. If an empath does not know where their energy begins and where the other person ends, they may experience imbalance and burnout in their relationships.
Different Types of Empaths
Empaths have the ability to sense and understand the emotions and energies of others on an intuitive level. This sensitivity can manifest in different ways. One individual may identify with more than one type. Here’s a little bit more about the three main types of empaths:
- Emotional Empath: The best-known type, an emotional empath is a person who feels the emotions of those around them as if they were their own. These empaths can pick up on the subtle nuances of others’ emotions and energies, including hidden or unspoken ones.
- Physical Empath: This type can feel the physical sensations of others in their own body. These empaths can experience the pain, discomfort, and illness of others as if it were happening to them personally. They are often drawn to healing professions and can be incredibly effective at helping others to overcome physical ailments.
- Spiritual Empaths: This type possesses a deep understanding of the spiritual and energetic aspects of life. These empaths can sense the energy fields of people, places, and objects. They can often pick up on spiritual messages and insights that others may miss. They are often drawn to spiritual practices, such as meditation and energy healing. As a result, they can be powerful guides and mentors for those seeking spiritual growth.
In addition to these types of empaths, there are many other variations and combinations of empathic abilities. Whether it’s the ability to sense the emotions of animals, plants, or even the environment, empaths possess a remarkable gift that can bring understanding, healing, and connection to those around them.
What Does it Mean to be a Highly Sensitive Person?
The term “highly sensitive person” was coined by Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D., in her book Highly Sensitive Person. Aron explains that being a highly sensitive person, or a person experiencing Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS), is not an indication of a disorder or condition. Rather, it is a manifestation of a neutral trait that has evolved in about 20% of humans. This sensory processing sensitivity can provide advantages in some situations. But, it can also be disadvantageous in others.
Individuals with SPS may have heightened sensitivity to sensory stimuli, emotions, and environmental cues. So, they may be more aware and responsive to external conditions. As a result, highly sensitive people (HSPs) may feel overwhelmed or overstimulated by their surroundings. Thus, they may need more time and space to process their emotions and thoughts. Managing overwhelming or overstimulating environments may be challenging for highly sensitive individuals, and self-care strategies or support from healthcare professionals may be helpful. High sensitivity is not considered a diagnosable or medical condition. But, identifying as an HSP can provide individuals with a greater understanding of their experiences.
Considerations for the term HSP
The term “HSP” has been a topic of debate and controversy in neurodivergent communities. While some individuals embrace it as a part of the neurodivergent community, alongside other neurocognitive variations such as ADHD, Autism, Sensory/Auditory Processing Disorder, etc., others have been hurt by its use in ableist ways that undermine these communities, particularly the autistic community.
It is necessary to acknowledge, recognize, and affirm neurodiversity, and to appreciate and respect these natural variations in human brains and minds. When using the term HSP, we do not want to diminish or disregard any other group or community, particularly those who face discrimination and marginalization. Another term to describe this sensitivity is “sensitive feeler.” Whether you choose to identify as a highly sensitive person or a sensitive feeler, we encourage you to claim the identity that resonates with you in an empowering way.
What’s the Difference between Empath and HSP?
It can be difficult to distinguish between being an empath and being a highly sensitive person, especially since both identities involve sensitivity to others and to one’s surroundings. Some folks even use both terms interchangeably and identify as both an Empath and an HSP.
Being an empath looks like experiencing sensitivity and emotional connection on a deep, intuitive level. Some empaths describe their ability to feel and understand others’ emotions as energetic or somatic, and their experiences of others’ emotions can be intense and complex. On the other hand, being a highly sensitive person involves knowing and understanding others’ emotions through a heightened sense of observation and the ability to process sensory information. Highly sensitive people may also experience more sensitivity and overwhelm in regard to sensory stimulation in their environment.
Considerations for the Impact of Trauma
The terms empath and highly sensitive person have gained significant attention over the years, and while some individuals have resonated deeply with these terms, others have questioned their legitimacy. One main area of consideration is trauma and its impact on an individual’s ability to be hyper-aware and hyper-sensitive to their surroundings and others’ emotions. When a child experiences trauma (e.g., physical or emotional abuse, a parent struggling with addiction, or a lack of safety and security), they can grow to become highly sensitive as a way to understand their experiences and protect themselves from further harm. The traumatized brain can become accustomed to this hypervigilant state, constantly scanning the environment and the emotions and expressions of others.
On the outside, it can be difficult to distinguish between an empath, a highly sensitive person, or a person who has been impacted by trauma. To add to this difficulty, empaths and highly sensitive people may have experienced trauma or may have had strong reactions to trauma due to their heightened sensitivity. For example, an empath may have difficulty coping with the loss of a loved one, or a highly sensitive person may have been deeply affected by a dysfunctional childhood home. Whether you identify as an empath or a highly sensitive person, it can be important to address these sensitivity needs with a mental health professional, especially if you are experiencing symptoms like anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress.
Taking Care of Yourself and Your Emotional Sensitivity
In addition to seeking professional support, it is also important to practice self-care routines and incorporate coping strategies in order to manage your emotions and maintain healthy relationships.
Here are Some Tips:
Learn to say “no” when you need to, and set limits on the time and energy you give to others. It is important to have energetic, emotional, mental, and physical boundaries, and to have regular periods of quiet and solitude to recharge and process your emotions. This can help prevent burnout and emotional exhaustion.
Take some time each day to be still and orient to the present moment. This can look like practicing meditation or orienting to your surroundings. These practices can help you to stay grounded and notice your own emotions without being overwhelmed.
Spend time in nature:
Being in nature can be very calming and rejuvenating for empaths. Take a walk in the park, go for a hike, or simply sit outside and enjoy the fresh air.
Engage in creative activities:
Engaging in creative activities like painting, drawing, or writing can be a great way to express your emotions and recharge your energy.
Take care of your physical health:
Make sure you’re eating a balanced diet, getting enough sleep, and engaging in regular exercise. Our mental and physical health are connected, so when we feel good in our bodies, it can help us feel good in our emotions too.
Energy protection visualization:
Use visualization techniques to protect or cleanse your energy. This can look like creating a safe energetic bubble around you and mentally putting away stressful feelings and situations into a container for you to tackle when you are ready. This can also look like taking a long shower where you can imagine washing away any emotions or energy that do not belong to you.
Connect with other sensitive people:
Finding a community of like-minded individuals can be very validating and supportive for empaths and highly sensitive people. Consider joining a support group or online community.
Begin Therapy for Highly Sensitive People and Empath Therapy in Los Angeles, CA, and NYC, New York
Here, at Yellow Chair Collective, we understand that heightened sensitivity can impact your mental, emotional, and physical health and that it can be exhausting to navigate your daily experience. An individual therapist can provide the compassionate space that you may need to process and let go of your experiences and others’ emotions. By learning to manage your own sensitivity, you can learn to prevent burnout and improve the balance in your relationships.
Our Los Angeles, CA, and New York City, NY-based therapy practice has many neurodivergent-affirming, trauma-informed therapists who specialize in supporting empaths, highly sensitive people, and emotionally sensitive individuals. For your added convenience and simplicity, we offer online therapy for anyone in the state of California or New York. We know that your mental health is important, and we want to help you work through whatever’s holding you back. Follow the steps below to begin.
- Fill out the contact form to get connected with us.
- Get matched with a skilled sensitive therapist.
- Start understanding your sensitivity and improving your self-care today.
Empath and Sensitive Feelers Support Groups
We also have Empath and Sensitive Feelers Support Groups available for you to explore your sensitivity and connect with others with shared experiences!
Learn more about our Empath and Sensitive Feelers Support Group for APISA folks.
Learn more about our Empath and Sensitive Feelers Support Group for folks of all backgrounds.
Other Services at Yellow Chair Collective
There are many options for treatment using online therapy in California and New York, it just depends on what you’re needing. And while we certainly service Asian American folks, we also work with individuals from other cultures, too. So, whether you’re needing support in overcoming anxiety, burnout, trauma, or PTSD, we can help. Likewise, we serve teens and couples in need of support, too. So when you start online therapy with us, you can bring your whole self, including past struggles, cultural impacts, and more.