Ep.199 The Empath vs The Highly Sensitive Person

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In this episode, I discuss:

  • Breaking down the meaning and inner workings of the highly sensitive person (HSP)
  • Understanding the meaning and inner workings of Empaths
  • Shedding light on the intersection points of HSP and Empath
  • A sacred invitation to return home to your truest self + reclaim your personal power

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QUIZ: Empath Quiz

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Episode Transcript:

When we allow ourselves to bring back, reel in all aspects of our identity, we come back home to ourselves.

This is a Soulfire production.

In today’s episode, we’re going to talk about the difference between an empath and a highly sensitive person. This is a question that I’ve gotten so many times. And I want to say before we jump in, that it’s up to you to what extent and whether you even do or don’t want to carry any of these labels. It’s not about the label, it’s not about the title, but it’s more about the nuances that come along with the empath and the highly sensitive person that can inform you why you are the way you are, what strengths you’d have, what challenges you’d have, and how you can utilize this in your life. So if it feels empowering to you to understand the differences or to be able to have a name to what you experience and how you experience it on this planet, then, by all means, grab it, carry it, take it with you. And if it doesn’t, this could also just serve as information to digest and have an understanding of.

Breaking down the meaning and inner workings of the highly sensitive person (HSP)

So I see this as a Venn diagram, where we have the empath in one bubble, one circle, and the HSP or highly sensitive person, which I’ll probably continue to refer to as the HSP, in the other bubble or circle, but there’s overlap in the middle. That middle part is where there are absolutely similarities and shared traits between the empath and HSP. There are also traits and characteristics that are unique to the empath and unique to the HSP that stand alone within those bubbles. So that is the visualization that I carry, that I hold of how these two types of people can be one and the same. And that’s my life experiences that I identify with being an empath and an HSP. And at the same time, there are other people who only resonate with empath and people who only resonate with HSP. So again, this is for you to just be playful with, to explore, to experiment, to try on for size and see what lands for you.

Let’s start with the HSP. That’s likely what at least this community of listeners is potentially a little bit less familiar with because I tend to talk more about empaths. The HSP was coined…the term highly sensitive person was coined by Dr. Elaine Aron and this was about 25, 26 years ago only. If we think about that, it’s such a short blip in time that we’ve even had the language to describe the highly sensitive person. This actually reminds me of a conversation I had recently with my realtor, of all people. She listened to the podcast and she listened to the episode on “I Had a Baby” and the birthing experience of my daughter, Emmersyn. And it was really cool because she came over to my house and she was telling me about how she didn’t even know that empaths or highly sensitive people existed, that there was a name for this. And I shared with her, that makes a ton of sense. Number one, we’re not talking about it all the time, but also it’s a recent term that’s even been coined that’s been available to us to describe these things.

So overall it’s believed that about 20 to 30% of the total population are highly sensitive people. So HSPs are thought to be more affected by external stimuli. This can be violence; this can be tension. It can be overwhelm, it can be lights, sounds, noises, textures. And HSP, that highly sensitive person, is a name for the person who experiences sensory processing sensitivity. I know that’s a mouthful, but we have HSP, the highly sensitive person, experiences SPS, sensory processing sensitivity. Now the formal definition of sensory processing sensitivity is a temperamental or personality trait involving an increased sensitivity of the central nervous system and a deeper cognitive processing of physical, social, and emotional stimuli. So we can see, HSPs can also be affected by people’s emotions the way that empaths can.

I’m going to try to stick to just talking about HSPs in this first part, then empaths, and then talk about the overlaps in that Venn diagram. But moving on, HSPs have the sensory processing sensitivity, and with high levels of SPS, they display increased emotional sensitivity, stronger reactivity to both external and internal stimuli. So think about internal stimuli that may have a strong effect on us, whether it’s pain, hunger, light, noise, this can mean that HSPs tend to get a little bit more hangry. That…this is my life experience; I have the experience of living with chronic pain, fibromyalgia. I know that my nervous system is wired to such that the pain I experience is heightened because of being an HSP.

My body got injured when I was young, about 15, 16 years old. And the way I understand it is my nervous system then felt like, okay, this is the neural pathways that are meant to be here, that are meant to exist, and it’s this constant sort of pain messaging, signaling to my central nervous system to my brain that pain is supposed to exist. Now that pain that exists is amplified simply because I’m an HSP. So again, light noise, bright sounds, flashing lights, even dark rooms. I am an HSP who…I cannot eat in the dark. It bothers me. I need to be able to see my food that I am eating. I also feel extra stimulated by really bright sun. I’m someone who always has a hat and sunglasses with me because I do not like being outside and it being too bright where I have to constantly be squinting my eyes.

HSPs also have a complex inner life. And this makes natural sense because we can think about all the stimuli that’s coming in and how we’re starting to absorb, process, and digest this in different ways than maybe more neurotypical people, and that’s going to create this complexity within us. What’s also interesting is that studies have shown that HSPs have more active mental circuitry and neurochemicals in areas of their brain related to attention, action, planning, decision-making, and they have strong internal experiences. So while again, this term is fairly recent and wasn’t coined that long ago, we’re now starting to see some of the science, some of the research back up what parts of the brain are more active within a highly sensitive person.

I’d love for us to reflect on what external sensory stimuli we’re most affected by, whether that is changes in light, light stimuli, whether it’s strong smells. Have you ever gotten into a rideshare like Uber and had somebody have…or even a friend’s car and they have a air freshener or something, some sort of smell in the car? Maybe they’re just wearing strong perfume or cologne. That has been my experience where I get in and it’s almost unbearable for me. If I’m at an Airbnb, similar experience. If they have those plugins to the wall with scent, I immediately go and unplug them. I open up all the windows because it’s so overwhelming to my nervous system to have those strong smells.

So do you have sensitivity to light? Do you have sensitivity to smells, sounds? So it can be specific sounds. I hope this doesn’t bother anyone, the nervous system, by me saying this, but there is a specific noise on this planet that just irks my nervous system into such discomfort that I almost get nauseous and it’s when you are walking on the beach and you squeak your feet on the sand. I can hardly say it; it’s bothering me right now even to just say it. That sound makes me nauseous. It’s obviously a very specific sound, but there may be sounds for you that they don’t have to make you nauseous but that you have a harder time processing or that bother you in some way. Same thing with textures. So whether it’s a specific type of fabric on your skin or even just something that you don’t like touching. My sister has an example of someone who hates touching cotton balls. I have just a harder time with clothes that are on my body. And I don’t like anything that’s tight and I definitely cannot wear anything that’s even a tiny bit itchy.

The other traits and characteristics that show up for the HSP include needing to withdraw and being alone after a lot of commotion, after a lot of that stimuli that they had experienced, whether it’s in public or even just in their own home if you have a lot of people moving around or a lot of things happening in your home, which is me this week because we’re moving across the country in two days. HSPs can also be shy or seen as shy. We might not actually be shy; we might just be protecting ourselves. But we can definitely be seen as shy and sometimes we truly are. HSPs are also naturally highly observant of their surroundings. So they’re taking in all of those different senses, all the sensory information that exists that’s within their space. They can also intentionally avoid overwhelming situations. So if you know that’s going to be too much for my nervous system, then we can intentionally avoid it. I would even argue that we can unconsciously avoid it as well. So your body’s going, that’s not going to be good. And so, we can find reasons why not to be in that space or to have that conversation.

HSPs also get stressed when too much is expected of them in a short period of time. Again, it adds to the overwhelm. It feels like an internal chaos in our body and in our nervous system to do too much in too little time, and so there can be some panic that arises. Now, we talked a lot about the external world and the external stimuli for a highly sensitive person, but HSPs also are deeply moved internally by art, by music, by beauty, by sunrises and sunsets, by artwork, by the song on the radio that brings you to tears. And that is the internal emotional sensory system that is also on board and alive and again, creates that rich inner life and can require a lot of alone time to also decompress, process, release, and get back into our center, our grounding, our homeostasis when the world does feel so vibrant as an HSP.

You may have seen me posting about a company called Paleovalley in my Instagram Stories lately and that is because their products are top-of-the-line. My husband and I have been drinking the Supergreens on a daily basis. We literally cannot get enough. They actually taste really good on their own, which I find is hard to find in green powder products. The Paleovalley Supergreens taste delicious. I’ve also been using their Neuro Effect. This is a capsule that has eight whole mushrooms. You’re going to want to listen to this if you use any mushroom products. Most mushroom products on the market are not really mushrooms at all, and instead, they’re just part of the mushroom, which is called mycelium and it’s grown on grain. Hello, celiac friends. Then the entire mycelium and grain combination is used in the product. So what you end up getting is actually 50% starch and not the actual full benefit of the mushrooms.

So Paleovalley‘s Neuro Effect has eight whole mushrooms so we get all the benefits and over 26% beta-glucans, which are the actual medicinal elements of a mushroom. So this has been super helpful for brain and immune support and function. And then we have been traveling a ton lately. Baby girl has already been on eight different flights. We’re about to move across the country. I’ve been talking about how we haven’t been getting much sleep either. So the Essential C Complex has also been really integral to my wellness lineup, whether it’s preventative measures or when I feel like I’m starting to get a sore throat or get sick. You can get really creative with these little capsules. You can just take them internally with your water in the morning or you can actually create a wellness tonic by opening up the capsules, putting them into your filtered water with even a little pinch of Stevia, and drinking them that way. So super fun to switch up how I use them and a super integral part to my wellness routine. If you want to try any of these Paleovalley products; paleovalley.com and enter the code empath at checkout for 15% off of your entire purchase. 

Understanding the meaning and inner workings of Empaths

Now let’s move on to the empath. So the empath has the capacity…here’s the formal definition: the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference; that is the capacity to place oneself in another’s position. So I feel your emotions as if they were mine. And it can be at times very hard to discern is that mine or is that yours? Is that yours or is that mine? An empath is a person who is highly attuned to the feelings and emotions of those who are around them. Their ability to discern what others feel though, goes beyond just empathy and extends to actually taking on as if they are mine. So it’s not just, ooh, I feel you, girl. It’s, I am experiencing this with you, girl. I’m taking on your feelings. I am feeling what that other person is feeling on a deep, emotional level, to an extent in which I’ve almost taken ownership or co-ownership over it. This is why empaths need such strong, healthy boundaries and clearing-cleansing-releasing rituals.

What we also know about empaths is that there’s more research, just like with the HSP, that has come up in more recent history, and there’s the discovery of mirror neurons. This is really interesting, fascinating research that we go into more detail in inside of my coach training program, which is called Illuminated. This is where we train empath healers and coaches to not only have the skillset, the toolbox of modalities, but also to build a sustainable, scalable business so you can stack wealth and change the world. Inside of there, we talk in more detail around mirror neurons. But this discovery of mirror neurons in our brain helps us to understand why empaths experience other people’s emotions as if they are their own and it allows us to mirror the emotions of the people who we come in contact with. Or, arguably, the research hasn’t proven that we can use mirror neurons over long distances, but my personal experience is that it does not have to be somebody who is in the same space or that I’m seeing. My energy body can feel their energy body.

And this is especially true with people who are closest to me in my life and family members especially, especially, so that a family member across the country, I can still feel their energy when I’m in conversation with them. And then the mirror neuron research shows us why, when we’re in closer contact with somebody in the same room as them, that our mirror neurons make it so that we have the stimuli, the sensory experience, the emotional experience as if we are doing what the other person is doing, feeling what the other person is feeling, experiencing the world as if we’re experiencing it through their lens. It also, according to research, appears that some people may have more mirror neurons than others; meaning some people are more or deeper empaths than others and have the capacity to feel what other people are feeling on a deeper level.

Some other things that come along with being the empath include random people, strangers, or even just friends. So if it’s a random person or a stranger, they may open up to you and it may feel like whoa, I don’t even know you. But when it’s a friend, it just could be that you’re the go-to person to share their life with because your heart feels like a safe place for them to be held fully. You’re a mirror for people. Think that’s how mirror neurons got their name, right? We’re literally mirroring other people. And so, when they share these big stories with you, it feels as if they are being held almost by themselves in some way. But you’re listening with every cell in your body, you’re holding them with every cell in your body, and so, it feels safe for them to do that communication, to do that, or be in that expression.

It can also, as an empath, feel hard to separate your feelings from other people’s feelings. So this is the classic what’s mine, what’s yours? Let’s discern whose is whose, what is whose, and know what I can let go of and then what I need to take sacred responsibility over. Empaths can enjoy exploring spirituality, anything in the energetic realm. They can be natural healers. They will often do everything in their power to resolve or problem-solve without violence or aggression. And hopefully, you can see or understand how, if there were violence or aggression and then the empath is being all spongy and taking on that violence or aggression, it can feel dysregulating for their nervous system. So they avoid that at all costs.

As empaths, we can also cry easily or get just really emotionally invested in TV shows and movies, or even in real-life stories or scrolling through your Facebook feed. We can get really emotionally invested in them and feel like not only do we care, but also we have an emotional reaction. We can also, like I said, sponge, so absorb other people’s emotions, which brings in the importance of cleansing often, rinsing out, wringing out that sponge. We can feel a deep calling to help people and to change the world. And I believe, this is a personal belief, that part of the reason that there are so many empaths and lightworkers and highly sensitive people on the planet right now, as well as this whole category of divergent minds, is that we are here to help the world, that because we see, feel, experience differently than the neurotypical person, we can also use the information and the depth of experience, the depth of emotion that we start to absorb within us and use that to inform how to change, what to change, what first step to take. I can use this emotional intelligence to have a deeper awareness of even being in communication with people who are different from me and trying to find common solutions.

Empaths, and this is so real for the last almost two years, where we can feel the suffering of the world. We can feel the chaos of the collective conscious, we can feel tragedy, we can feel the pandemic. And because we feel that so deeply on a mass scale, massive level, that can also fuel the desire to create change. It can also have the opposite effect where it makes us feel like we need to go crawl into a closet and turn off all the lights. But if we have the toolbox, we have the skillset to work through, transmute, move energy, then we don’t need to be hiding in any closets. We can be out in the world and we can be using this to our advantage to create impact, to create legacy, to know what our unique mission, assignment, purpose is.

So motherhood and breastfeeding have been so truly deeply emotional for me, far more emotional than I would have ever realized. And my daughter is going through a progression, which is leading to a sleep regression, which means we are low-energy over here. And I’m looking for anything to make my life just a little bit easier these days. So LMNT Electrolytes have been absolutely lifesaving for my supply and for my overall hydration so I can get through the days with a now five-month-old. Y’all time flies and these little ones are just such a gift. I love spending my days with her. My husband also loves these electrolytes. He’s always asking me when we’re going to get more in the mail and he uses them before his workouts. I’ve also started sharing them with some of my mom friends. And now I’m just dealing LMNT Electrolytes down the street in our neighborhood and everyone is loving them.

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Shedding light on the intersection points of HSP and Empath

So in summary, the HSP scores high in sensory processing sensitivity and has a more challenging time with external stimuli; so sound, light, textures, places, but there is still a component of internal stimuli like emotions as well. The empath scores high in empathy and has a more challenging time with energetic stimuli; energy, emotions, pain, moods, people; and this can also include a room, a house, a place. So both empath and HSP feel deeply. They both have increased mirror neurons in the brain, they both can benefit from alone time. They both are powerful healers and leaders on this planet that I believe are here to activate the shift.

Now, you can take more formal quizzes that will help you understand your extent of each of these and whether you’re one or both or all of the above, like I said in the beginning, to the extent of which it feels supportive for you to know and to maybe carry a label or not. I have an empath quiz that will link in the show notes that has fun questions for you to go through and get your quiz result to understand more specifically what style of empath you are related to some goddess energy. And you can go to hsperson.com to, through Dr. Elaine Aron, take a quiz there to see if you’re a highly sensitive person. Now, is there room for error in quizzes? Absolutely. There absolutely is. So take it with a grain of salt. But that can be supportive if you’re looking for follow-up information, follow-up guidance, follow-up insight on the HSP and/or the empath. So check those out.

And what I want to leave you with as a take-home message is that when we allow ourselves to bring back, reel in all aspects of our identity, we come back home to ourselves. We reclaim and retrieve all parts of our soul, of our emotional, energetic, and physical being, of our spiritual body. When all parts are home, they can all sit at the table and they can work in cooperation with each other. And when all parts of us are at the table in the room inside of our home, our mission on this planet becomes more crystal clear. Our ability to problem-solve, to brainstorm, to be creative and imaginative expands exponentially.

A sacred invitation to return home to your truest self + reclaim your personal power

So I invite you to call back in and retrieve any parts of you as either HSP and/or empath that you have disowned, that you’ve left to the side, that you’ve thought have been too weak, too much, to this, to that, to let it come back home to you. And with all of you here, all of you at the table, whoa, your power is felt, your being moves people. It spurs them into action, it heals them. So be all of you. Integrate the shadow into the light so you can shine so fucking bright and we can release any language around the shadow that makes it feel like it’s negative or bad or scary in some way, and realize that your shadow is your biggest teacher. And the more you integrate it, the brighter you shine. And the more whole you feel as a sensitive being, all your resources are on board. All the lessons are right there in front of you. Reach out, grab them, take them. This life is yours to live.

If you’re looking for more support as an HSP and/or empath, then I invite you to come on over to Instagram, my playground. As of recently, I’ve been playing with reels and been playing with offerings that feel sacred. It’s @theuncensoredempath. And you’ll see in my stories and my post and the link in my bio, just the most recent offerings and invitations I have for you. So if anything feels true and right in your soul, then your invitation is to say, hell yes. Let’s go, let’s do this. I’m here for it. All right, my loves. I would love to hear from you as far as what you identify with, what parts of you have come online. And I will see you next time.

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November 18, 2021


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