Why, as an HSP, I Don’t Relate to the Word “Empath”

When I first found out I had the HSP Trait I was so relieved.

I couldn’t believe how everything just fell into place.

So much made sense to me now.

Why I dreamed the way I did, why I could smell scents others couldn’t, why I could endlessly ponder the deeper meanings of life, how and why my brain processes information differently than a non-HSP, and why nature just felt like “home”.

Finding out I had the HSP Trait was and is super helpful to me, and went a long way towards helping me accept I had the trait.

But for me, finding out I had the trait was one thing. Accepting it was a whole different thing. And be thankful for it? Well, that took a while too.

First I had to process this new information and that happened over time with a lot of intention and learning more about the trait.

But it wasn’t long before the word “empath” was popping up, interrupting my journey of understanding, acceptance, and gratitude for my trait.

Because people were asking me if I was an empath. I didn’t know what that word meant so how could I answer?

I found this annoying frankly. Here I was still processing and accepting I had the HSP trait, and now there was something else I was supposed to figure out?

Regardless I began looking for more information, specifically—how is an empath different from an HSP?

Guess what? I couldn’t find valid scientific information. I had been finding valid scientific information on the HSP Trait though (otherwise known as Sensory Processing Sensitivity).

All I could find was vague information claiming a small percentage of HSPs were also empaths.

I did find a lot of similarities between an empath and an HSP. These are the similarities I found:

  • Vivid dreams
  • Picks up on “vibes” in a room
  • Picks up on others’ emotional states
  • Heightened senses
  • Very creative
  • Appreciates the arts
  • Doesn’t like loud environments
  • Aware of subtleties in the environment
  • A strong connection to nature
  • A high degree of empathy and compassion for others
  • Can become overwhelmed with too much going on or to do
  • Has a rich, complex inner life

There’s more but basically, you get the gist. They have a lot in common.

But some of the information I found on empaths was confusing to me.

For example, “…empaths take the experience of the highly sensitive person much further. We can sense subtle energy, which is called shakti or prana in Eastern healing traditions, and absorb it from other people and different environments into our bodies.”

To me this is vague

As an HSP I can pick up on others’ moods, overall energy in a room, etc. But the “absorb” thing? That’s confusing, because for me not “absorbing” it is simply a matter of having strong boundaries.

For example, if I walk into a room that’s highly charged with tense energy, I’m going to sense and pick up on that in a variety of ways from all my senses.

My senses are linked to my body—smell, touch, sound, sight, etc. So to some degree, I’ll be “absorbing” this energy and it’s going to affect me, as it should because I’ll need to make decisions based on this information.

But if I have strong boundaries I’ll know what’s mine and what isn’t.

I didn’t use to have good boundaries. Didn’t even know what those words, “good boundaries” meant until after I discovered I had the trait and began learning more about it, and how it’s super important for HSPs to have strong boundaries.

So until the term “empath” is scientifically proven, and the difference between an HSP and an empath is scientifically proven, I’ll only be identifying as an HSP.

It’s straightforward and has helped me stay on the path to continuing to accept my trait, learn and begin using helpful tools, use my trait in a way that feels good to me, adjust my life in a way that’s supportive of my trait, and finally to be thankful for my trait.

That’s not to say I may one day change my mind about how I relate to the word “empath”, but for now, I’m keeping it simple.

How about you? Do you consider yourself an HSP, an Empath, or both?


Pic credit via danigeza

Rayne is one of the Content Creators for HSP World. She's a curious traveler, yup an HSS too, who loves reading, writing, spending time outdoors, and playing in new projects.


  • Eileen Burns


    I can understand why you don’t relate but as a highly sensitive empath, I definitely relate to both. For me, boundaries have always been a challenge. Something I have worked on as a healer for the last 28 years. In many ways, boundaries have never felt natural I have always just known things about others not just their emotional pain but often their physical symptoms. I would feel others’ stuff emotional and physical at times like a large dial that had been turned up and exaggerated. This became an even greater challenge after surviving life-threatening sepsis, other than such extreme sound sensitivity that triggers seizures. I became so sensitive and empathic that others people’s emotional anxiety, fear or anger could literally knock me over. Interestingly I have spent most of my life with very rare medical health challenges. Quite a few very advanced healers have suggested that I am so highly empathic that I have took others dis-ease on, know that I can’t say. But what I do know science is still very behind in a lot of these areas

    • Rayne Dowell

      Hi Eileen,

      Thank you for taking the time to share your perspective, I appreciate it. I completely agree there are many opportunities to learn more through science.

      As you know the HSP Trait operates on a spectrum, some have it to a higher degree than others – and this sensing of others energies (physical, emotional, etc.), to me, is part of having the HSP Trait – I don’t see it as something separate, or in addition to having the HSP Trait. I understand that others understand the word “empath” as having the ability to pick up on others’ emotions, but again I don’t understand what the difference is. It seems to me it’s more a matter of personal perspective.

      Like, how would you know if you pick up on emotional vibes more than an HSP, unless you could remove yourself from your consciousness and put yourself in the consciousness of someone who only identifies as an HSP?

      For example, Elaine Aron, the researcher who discovered the HSP Trait, a personality trait, speaks about the D.O.E.S. acronym to explain more about the trait – “D” for Depth of Processing, “O” for Overstimulation, “E” for Empathy and Emotional Reactivity and “S” for Sensing the Subtle.

      So I’m not able to see where an “empath” would experience D.O.E.S differently than an HSP. If an HSP has strong boundary setting skills, (and it’s just a skill and can be learned with intention and effort right?) wouldn’t that give the HSP the ability to severely limit what they allow themselves to pick up on? Thereby limiting how much effort to spend sensing the subtle? Or on the depth of processing they give a person, situation, emotion? Consequently, impacting how overstimulated they feel? And at the same time their emotional reactivity?

      I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but I’ve noticed since I began practicing setting healthy boundaries – it’s working. I feel healthier, calm, less stressed and overall happier. It just takes discipline and intention. I still have a ways to go mind you, but I’m seeing and feeling the positive results.

      I like to focus more on the Vantage Sensitivityaspect of having the HSP Trait, in other words, if we have the tools we can create a lifestyle where we actually do even better than our non-HSP counterparts (not that it’s a race or a comparison).

      I can also relate to what you’re saying about boundaries “not feeling natural”, but isn’t that the way with everything until we learn it and master it? When we first learned to ride a bike we weren’t very good at it, we wobbled and probably fell over a few times, and it felt awkward and not natural at all. For me setting healthy boundaries felt awkward and I wasn’t very good at it at first. But I kept at it.

      I can’t say if it would help you, but I do know it’s helped me. I hope you #staysafeathome and that your health challenges subside Eileen. Thank you again for sharing your perspective and helping me learn more about what the word empath means to you.

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