HSP, Empathy and Empaths: What does it all mean?

pexels-photo-146003.jpegProtecting your emotional energy as an HSP

I have recently been pondering the difference between what we mean when we talk about ‘empathy’ someone who is ‘empathetic’ and the term ‘empath’.  All these terms are often used when the subject of the High Sensitivity trait comes up, and I think it is helpful to understand the concepts as a means of being able to unpick a main contributory source of our overflowing buckets, what it means for us and how to deal with them.

Empathy is a tool that we humans deploy when we are connecting with someone on an emotional level.  We usually think of it in response to someone sharing a difficult situation they have faced or are facing, and it is how we show that we truly understand what they are going through, as a means of providing them with emotional support. It is different from Sympathy, which is ‘feeling sorry’ for someone, but without the understanding ‘in their shoes’ and compassion that comes from empathy.  (if you want to see a great explanation of the difference check out the  RSA Short of the Brené Brown talk on the subject).

Empathy serves an evolutionary function, it is one of the primary means by which we are able to connect with and relate to others in our social group, and as such it also works for positive feelings too, when we experience the joy or excitement that someone is feeling.

Scientifically we are now able to show what happens in our brain when we are displaying and experiencing empathy, and it is to do with things called ‘mirror-neurons’.  What neuroscience has discovered is that these particular neurons activate in the same way when we undertake an action, or experience a feeling, as when we see someone else doing that same action or experiencing that feeling.   It is therefore thought to be the process behind empathy.  It’s also seen as an explanation for one of the key features of autism, i.e. insufficient mirror-neurons causing less empathy.

Someone who is empathetic, or empathic, is simply someone who is showing empathy in a situation.  HSPs are naturally rich in empathy, and there is some evidence to show that their brains may have more mirror neurons than the average person, and also that they are more responsive.

Being an ‘empath’, though, seems to be something a little more than this and although I’m not sure I can buy the ‘paranormal’ or ‘spiritual, intuitive super-power’ definition of empaths – I do believe that some people experience empathy at a much deeper level.

People who are empaths identify with feelings of overwhelm in response to other people’s emotions, especially negative ones, which are extremely energy depleting for them, in way that doesn’t seem to be the case for the vast majority of people.  It is also likely that if you are an introvert ‘empath’ that this overload will happen more quickly, especially in a room full of people, because your introversion also causes overwhelm in that situation.

For me, then, being an Empath it is perhaps best described as a more ‘intense’ experience of empathy such that the emotional connection dial is turned on full, meaning that we are much more receptive to the emotional cues than others.

This is wholly consistent with the general knowledge we have of the HSP brain, and it makes absolute sense to me that if your nervous system is more highly attuned to environmental cues, we are as likely to more readily pick up on emotional cues, as we are to notice other subtleties.   Because only a minority of people are wired this way, and even fewer, perhaps, are consciously aware, this ability to ‘intuit’ and to empathise so deeply, is often seen by others as a bit of a mystical superpower – a sixth sense.

I believe, though, that many HSPs are natural ‘empaths’ and I also believe that it is a significant cause of overwhelm and energy drain for many HSPs, particularly if they are unaware that they are acting as an emotional sponge, and/or if they have not developed the skills to be able to discern what is ‘theirs’ from what they are absorbing from others.  We are more prone than others, I believe, to be deeply affected by emotional contagion.

People commonly catch other people’s feelings when in groups, and it is believed that this ability to synchronize moods with others is crucial for good relationships. HSPs experience this, like so many other things, so much more intensely, and whilst it therefore makes them natural listeners and counsellors for others, it also means that they are more likely to experience emotional overwhelm, and even burn-out.  It’s therefore a key skill for HSPs to be able to out in place measures to help prevent and manage this so  that they can empty their bucket and look after their own needs, and those of others.

These are my Top Tips:


Set yourself boundaries so you know what level of ‘negativity’ you are able to and want to cope with, and there are two distinct scenarios for me.

Firstly, there are times when people who you care about, who are important to you,  go through a difficult time, and this inevitably will be charged with negative emotions.  If we want to be there for them we have to sometimes accept that we may experience deep drain from our contact with them, but for the greater good we have to ‘live’ with that.  But in this case, we need to give ourselves permission to actively seek more opportunity to unload our bucket so that we can continue to be there for that person.   This could be by ensuing that we have more nourishing time, whatever that looks like to us, to compensate.  It may mean withdrawing from others whose needs are not so great at this time.    Whatever it takes you need to do it, to help ensure that that the relationship is maintained.

Secondly, there are other times when you are faced with people who just seem to be constantly exuding negativity: there is no particular issue they are struggling with, they just seem to want or need to snipe and gripe and to be unkind, uncharitable and snide, they also tend to be self-absorbed and manipulative, trying to manoeuvre others to get their own way, using emotional blackmail to try to get what they want.  In other words, they are ‘toxic’.  Empaths/HSPs are natural deposits for such people, because of our natural empathy and listening skills, and because we dislike being unkind and rejecting others.  However, what I have learned is that the only result of allowing such people to connect with your deep empathy is that your reserves get thoroughly drained, and you come away from every interaction with that person feeling so full of negativity, that your needs have been completely stamped all over, and that there is no reciprocity in the relationship.  In this case the only real option is to distance yourself.  This may be possible by reducing the amount of contact you have with the person or changing the nature of the contact, alongside actively seeking to find counterbalancing nourishing activities to allow you to empty your bucket and to offset the negativity.

Sometimes, though, that is not enough, and there can come a time when you feel that the only option is to cut all contact with that person.  That is not always easy, especially if the person is someone who has close proximity to you because of family, friend or work connections.  If all else has failed, and being mindful of the ramifications, you may need to just give yourself permission to cut contact, perhaps for a period of time, despite the difficulties you know it will cause.  Making the break may be the lesser of two ‘evils’.

Down Time

Make sure you create protected down-time to enable you to empty your bucket.  Find the things that work for you and work hard to incorporate that into your day and your week, and when you have been depleted more than normal, try even harder! Cancel things if you need to, lock yourself in the bathroom, put headphones on!

Practice deploying your emotion shield

When you have been interacting with someone and you are feeling drained, or low, or whether your mood has changed for seemingly no identifiable reason: take the time to reflect on whether what you are feeling is ‘yours’ or whether you have soaked it up from the other person.  Sometimes it can be a case of leaving the room temporarily to take-stock.  The more you can do this, the more aware you become of the process happening, and the more able you will become to put up your protective shield to prevent your emotions becoming saturated by someone else’s.  Also, when the interaction has finished, try to consciously think about letting go of all of the emotions that are not yours – give yourself permission to stop feeling for someone else, you are not responsible for their emotions!

Do you have any tips?  I’d love to hear from you!

One thought on “HSP, Empathy and Empaths: What does it all mean?

  1. very interesting read, gave me a lot of insights, empathy and sympathy is something I have been striving to understand, on a deeper level, particularly…. found this really useful ‘It is different from Sympathy, which is ‘feeling sorry’ for someone, but without the understanding ‘in their shoes’ and compassion that comes from empathy.’…… thanks for sharing


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