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Not Talking About Empaths is Hurting Highly Sensitive People

One of the most frequently asked questions in any sensitive community: are HSP and Empath the same thing?

It’s by far the most controversial topic, but I don’t believe it needs to be.

I’m both a highly sensitive person and an empath. They’re not the same; I speak and write about them differently.

Scientific research conducted over several decades has demonstrated every highly sensitive person (HSP) expresses these four temperament characteristics:
- Depth of Processing
- Overstimulation from our Environment
- Emotional Responsiveness and Empathy
- Sensitivity to Subtleties

If you’re not familiar with this innate trait present in at least 20% of the human population, I invite you to visit to learn more.

What’s often said is sensitivity has been scientifically researched, while empath has not. It’s a true statement. However, this ranking of validity has spread widely across our field to shut down HSPs who are also Empaths from talking publicly about our experiences as both. We’re told in sensitive communities: your weird, unvalidated experiences are not welcome here. You might make us look bad, why don’t you go join a private empath group?

Yes, I read that type of message recently in an HSP FB group. Dagger to the heart.

Surprisingly, I also understand where it comes from. I’ve learned science is a tough field in terms of gaining respect and acknowledgement. Especially psychology. It takes researchers years to secure funding, to find a representative sample, time to analyze the data as well as an onerous process to get peer-reviewed and published.

However, in deepest respect to the advances science has brought to our world, there are more things we do not understand than what we do. Uncovering mysteries is what inspires people to pursue a career in science in the first place. Theories change frequently, as one new discovery leads to another.

Some in the field of sensitivity are really uncomfortable with the dictionary definition of empath: one who has paranormal or psychic experiences. They worry, how can the sensitive trait ever be taken seriously if we publicly make this ‘woo-woo’ association?

A valid concern since many (not all) in scientific research lean more towards agnostic or atheist viewpoints. Just the facts, what’s real is only what can be observed. Anything that evens hints at something beyond our physical reality is usually quickly discounted. Of course, everyone’s entitled to their chosen approach and beliefs.

I don’t subscribe to the dictionary definition of empath. Or the more commonly described definition of being able to sense others emotions as your own — certainly a part of what many empaths experience but not really broad enough to fully describe ‘our norms’.

What I’ve observed in my own life and through coaching and teaching others, is an empath could be defined as having the ability to sense subtle shifts in energy fields.

Since science tells us everything is energy in motion, it stands to reason a certain percentage of humans would be born with the ability to sense these shifts. You’re welcome to read more about my thoughts about this here.

Just as research has demonstrated Vantage Sensitivity (an evolutionary advantage to being a sensitive person) there could also be Vantage Empathy. We just don’t understand why — yet.

We don’t understand why I’m able to feel my mother’s arthritis pain in my own left shoulder from 900 miles away. How I can sit across from someone who’s grieving and feel a ball of painful energy rising inside like it’s my own emotion? Or why so many empaths have difficulty knowing where they stop and another begins.

I’d love for science to offer an explanation for the myriad of mysterious experiences empaths have shared with me. Perhaps current research on mirror neurons will begin to uncover some answers.

I’ve led workshops for hundreds of sensitive people and without fail, someone always brings up empath. *I’ve observed somewhere around a third to half of HSPs in the room report having empath experiences; the rest of HSPs do not. *Not a scientific statistic, just my observation over the past five years.

HSPs who are not Empaths cannot relate, not because empathing isn’t real, simply because they don’t have these experiences. Just like those on the low end of the sensitivity scale have difficulty relating to what HSPs experience; their nervous system does not respond to stimuli in the same way.

Here’s where the controversy always comes in.

I believe one has to be an highly sensitive person (with a finely tuned nervous system) in order to also be an empath. Empaths are extremely sensitive to energetic stimuli, we couldn’t fall anywhere except the high end of the sensitivity scale.

Every empath I’ve met also identifies with the four HSP characteristics. I’ve heard it proposed one could be an empath without being highly sensitive. That’s certainly a possibility, I’ve just not personally known any who weren’t both.

I recently attended a training with a small group of other HSP professionals to dive deep into historical and current research on sensory processing sensitivity (the scientific term for HSP).

At one point in the training, the floor was opened for an frank discussion about empaths. Several professionals took turns speaking from differing viewpoints and we all listened respectfully to each other with an intent to understand.

Then came my turn. Taking a deep breath, I knew what I had to say was not likely to be the popular opinion.

I disagreed with the philosophy that HSPs who are also Empaths need to hide who we are. I’ve been personally hurt by the message that part of my sensitivity is valid, a strength and should be shared openly while another aspect of my sensitivity needs to be hidden because others don’t approve or believe in it.

I asked the group: who are we serving? Are we so eager to pursue approval from the rest of mainstream society that we forget most of the 1.4 billion sensitive people on our planet don’t even know about our trait? And of the ones who do identify as sensitive, many need our support to heal and step into their empowerment!

I care so much about other HSP+Empaths who might have been hurt like I’ve been, that I was willing in that moment to risk my professional reputation. I also recognized that everyone else in the room, regardless of their opinion on this matter, cares just as much about sensitive people as I do. We’re just approaching it from different and complex perspectives.

The energy was intense and we all left that day reflecting where to go next.

I’d like to take a moment to highlight numerous times in history when a minority group has fought for mainstream rights and acceptance.

Right when they begin to gain respect from the majority, they distance themselves from other minorities so they’re not brought ‘back down’. It saddened me to think that perhaps our HSP-Empath community might be playing out this same destructive pattern.

HSPs have often been told, we’re ‘too sensitive’ or ‘toughen up’ or ‘why are you so emotional?’ These messages hurt us deeply. As a publicly open empath, I’ve been called a witch and told I’m living in the Dark Ages. Or I just imagine these experiences, they aren’t really happening.

The hardest criticism I’ve faced though, is being asked by my own community to deny my gifts.

I will never ask a anyone to hide their authenticity in the name of the greater good. As a matter of fact, I believe that has the potential to be psychologically and emotionally damaging.

As conscientious, sensitive leaders, we shouldn’t be asking anyone to hide who they are, not in our Meetup communities, our Facebook groups, in our workplaces or our families.

I seek a release for this long-standing tension, to be a bridge and a unifier. To role model that it’s just fine to openly embrace both science and mystery. Our world is changing and more people than ever before are open to exploring new possibilities in consciousness. It’s the perfect time to invite this conversation across our field.

I invite each of us to be open to a diversity of HSP experiences, especially when they’re different than our own. It’s our greatest opportunity for growth and learning.

I thank those who offered a different opinion than myself; I gained a completely new understanding of what you are facing.

I sense now the energy has shifted; it’s the right time to openly recognize HSPs+Empaths. It’s time to openly recognize HSPs+extroverts and HSPs+high sensation seekers. Especially to openly recognize the strength of the sensitive masculine. All sensitive diversity should be honored.

Bringing this controversy out in the open and healing our wounds around it can inspire research and scientific validation that will allow HSPs+Empaths to be recognized instead of ostracized.




Mentor for Spiritual Leaders → Join the Empowered Sensitive Leaders community at

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Bevin Niemann

Bevin Niemann

Mentor for Spiritual Leaders → Join the Empowered Sensitive Leaders community at

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