Empaths and HSPs aren’t very different from one another and I’ve stated elsewhere on the site that most of us possess a mix of both traits. Writing in Psychology Today, Dr. Judith Orloff, author of The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People, make a compelling case for an empathic spectrum where we can see where those with different degrees of empathy (or the complete lack of it) relate to one another. In the article that is adapted from her book, she writes the following:
Empaths share all the traits of what Dr. Elaine Aron has called “Highly Sensitive People,” or HSPs. These include: a low threshold for stimulation; the need for alone time; sensitivity to light, sound, and smell; and an aversion to large groups. It also takes highly sensitive people longer to wind down after a busy day, since their ability to transition from high stimulation to being quiet is slower. Highly sensitive people are typically introverts, while empaths can be introverts or extroverts (although most are introverts). Empaths share a highly sensitive person’s love of nature and quiet environments, their desire to help others, and their rich inner life.
However, empaths take the experience of the highly sensitive person much further: We can sense subtle energy (called shakti or prana in Eastern healing traditions) and actually absorb it from other people and different environments into our own bodies. Highly sensitive people don’t typically do that. This capacity allows us to experience the energy around us, including emotions and physical sensations, in extremely deep ways. And so we energetically internalize the feelings and pain of others — and often have trouble distinguishing someone else’s discomfort from our own. Also, some empaths have profound spiritual and intuitive experiences — with animals, nature, or their inner guides — which aren’t usually associated with highly sensitive people.
Being a highly sensitive person and an empath are not mutually exclusive: One can be both, and many highly sensitive people are also empaths. If you think about this distinction in terms of an empathic spectrum, empaths are on the far end; highly sensitive people are a little further in; people with strong empathy who are not HSPs or empaths are in the middle; and narcissists, sociopaths, and psychopaths who have “empath-deficient disorders” are at the far opposite end.
The Empathic Spectrum
Sociopaths Narcissists Loving HSPs Empaths _______|_________|____________|___________|______________|
(figure modeled from Psychology Today)
For me, Dr. Orloff’s construct of the empathic spectrum makes perfect sense. Like you probably can, I can place a lot of the people I know on this scale. There are a few narcissists in my life as well as a few loving empathetic people (like my girlfriend, Karen). I also know a few HSPs and empaths who sense the world in the same way that I do.
The empathic scale is useful for not only determining where we are on the scale of empathy, but also for placing others in our lives on the scale and determining how best to relate to them.
For example, my mother occupies a position more toward the left side of the scale and I am at the extreme right side. This sets us up to experience a one-sided (usually negative) dynamic where the flow of negative energy flows my way. Most narcissists don’t have the cognitive awareness that they are affecting people this way; it’s simply their instinct to seek those who can be easy targets for their self-gratification.
Loving empathetic people are perhaps the best people for us to be around. They are naturally free from the negative energy that drains us. I have a few coworkers who I’d place in this position. They are aware of my menpathic nature and often check in because they care (since we all share the same work environment). However, our interactions aren’t a one-way communication. I often perceive what’s going on with them before our encounters and use this general sense of knowing to simply be present and supportive, and follow the course our conversations take.