What a highly sensitive person (HSP) is
Those who are highly sensitive "are really kind, caring, compassionate, empathetic, genuine people who want to help others and the world," sensitivity expert and psychotherapist Julie Bjelland, LMFT, tells ishonest. High sensitivity is an innate trait you can't develop or change. Both men and women fit the profile, Bjelland says, adding that 70% of HSPs are introverts and 30% are extroverts.
About one-fifth of people are HSPs, notes a small study in the journal Brain and Behavior. In that research, brain imaging scans showed that those who scored higher on an HSP scale showed stronger activation of brain regions in awareness, empathy, and responsiveness.
The definition of an empath
- Have I been labeled as overly sensitive all my life?
- Do I tend to absorb the emotions of other people into my own body?
- Do I take on other people's moods?
- Do I replenish myself in nature?
- Do I have a highly developed intuition?
- Can I sense a feeling in a room/feel the negative or positive energy just by walking into it?
- Do I prefer 1: 1 interaction versus large groups?
Empath and HSPs are closely linked
If empaths and HSPs sound similar, it's because they are. Based on her own experience, Bjelland believe all empaths are HSPs, but not all HSPs are empaths.
Dr. Orloff says that an empath indeed carries all of the attributes of an HSP with more developed intuition and a sponge-like ability for absorbing emotions. "You turn up the volume going from HSP to empath," she says.
The challenges facing HSPs and empaths
Both benefit from serious downtime
Highly sensitive people and empaths are deeply connected to those around them. Bjelland advises that HSPs should have at least two hours of alone time every day. "We need more alone time and downtime to process, rest, and recover from everything we take in," she says. You might find that time outside or doing yoga, practicing meditation or mindfulness, and getting good sleep refills a tank that's been wiped out by the din of your surroundings.
As for empaths, they're also quick to overstimulate, and so decompressing by being alone is a must. Says Dr. Orloff: "You can't be on-the-go every hour of the day. You will suffer and crash."
How HSP and empaths can balance their needs with those of others
Drawing a line and putting yourself first is a must for both personality types. If you're dealing with, for example, a random stranger (yes, you probably find that strangers want to spill their life story to you), Dr. Orloff advises using a loving tone of voice and eye contact and kindly explaining that you're having quiet time right now and can't talk. If a loved one needs your guidance and support but you're feeling drained, set a distinct time limit for a phone call and then stick to it.
HSPs in particular need more self-compassion. "While HSPs tend to have so much compassion for others, many of us tend to be really hard on ourselves and struggle with being self-critical and perfectionistic," says Bjelland. Setting those boundaries and indulging in restorative self-care will keep you from overextending yourself so you really can be present for those who need you.