Mistaken Identities: On being a Highly Sensitive Person, an Empath and a “Sensitive”… or not
A non-scientific look at the blurred distinctions between Empaths, Sensitives and HSPs.
By Peter Messerschmidt In the spiritual and self-development field there are always terms that seem get used interchangeably, or are assumed to be part of each other. Typically, nobody really questions these ambiguities, even if they can lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings.
Some terms that have been on my mind recently are “Empath,” “Sensitive” and “Highly Sensitive Person” (or HSP). I have come across so many statements like “I’m an HSP, so I am an Empath,” or maybe “I’m an HSP because I’m an Empath,” or even “I don’t know why you think Sensitive has anything to with ghosts.” In several online venues, I have seen “Sensitives” join groups for HSPs and become disappointed or upset that little-to-none of the discussion has to do with ghost hunting and the realm of spirits.
These terms are used side-by-side in workshops, articles, books, personal assessments and even advertising, often like they are extensions of each other—yet few people seem to clearly understand what any of them actually mean.
This confusion begs a few questions: Are HSPs automatically Empaths, and vice-versa?
Is a Highly Sensitive Person and a Sensitive the same thing?
The more I have looked at these different terms and ideas, the more I have come to realize that they are actually rather distinct concepts. And, interestingly enough, there’s more to it than simple confusion—I have actually come into contact with quite a few Empaths who harbored some mild anger and resentment at being lumped in with the whole HSP “movement.” On the opposite side of the coin, most HSPs I’ve come across “would like to think” that they are Empaths, while many actually are not. Meanwhile, I have had self-professed Sensitives tell me that the description of an HSP is not only “wrong,” but “isn’t what being a Sensitive is about.”
My (very short!) explanation of the relationship between HSPs and Empaths/Sensitives has ended up looking a bit like one of those Venn Diagrams many of us had to create for homework, back during our school days. It goes something like this:
Some HSPs are Empaths and Sensitives, and many Empaths are HSPs, but being an HSP does not make you an Empath, and being an Empath does not mean you’re automatically a Highly Sensitive Person. None, one, some or all of the above can all be true.
How did I reach such a conclusion?
Before going into a more detailed explanation, let’s start with some simple math. HSPs—being people who possess the innate physiological trait of elevated sensory processing sensitivity—account for an estimated 15-20% of the population, male and female. True Empaths are quite rare, most likely accounting for no more than 2-3% of the overall population, if even that many. An authentic Sensitive is perhaps even rarer, still Thus, to claim that HSP=Empath=Sensitive can’t possibly be accurate because the numbers simply don’t add up. Let’s take a more right-brained approach to our quandary.