Labels are a tricky business. They carry with them entire definitions, preconceived notions, and hefty judgments, all wrapped up in one simple word. While labels can be confining or, in some cases damaging, they are a necessity in conveying our experiences to those around us and ourselves. As I have written before, discovering one label can be a life-changing experience.
But what do we do when a label that seems to fit so perfectly carries with it gray areas? How do we decide if we claim that label or continue to seek a better one?
Obviously, every single person is different and our life experiences can never wholly be reflected in a few letters, so it is important to use labels as a catapult launching us further into self-discovery, not letting ourselves get wrapped up in the details and fretting over their accuracy.
But understanding a little deeper about which seems to be the best fit can aid in additional research and be just the thing one needs to continue forward in their journey of self-discovery. For that purpose, I wanted to touch on the degrees of empathic sensitivity in hopes of offering greater clarity about your individual life experience. These definitions are not hard-wired or set in stone and many will find that they use the terms differently, but based on my personal research, the following seems to be a common understanding for each label.
Highly Sensitive Person
The term Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) was made popular in more recent times by author and clinical psychologist, Dr. Elain Aron. She has found that 15 to 20 percent of the population is born with heightened sensitivity to external stimuli. She describes it as the brains ability to notice more than the average person, giving them a great deal to reflect upon and process.
HSPs have the physical capacity to feel, taste, hear, see, and smell things at a greater magnitude. Tags on clothing which others would hardly notice can drive an HSP insane after only moments. The humming of a fluorescent light can cause headaches whereas another would be unable to hear the consistent tone. Perfumes can leave the HSP overwhelmed and in need of fresh air.
On top of the ability to notice these everyday details, HSPs also tend to be more emotionally in-tuned to those around them. This stems from their ability to pick up subtle clues in body language, tone, or facial expressions. HSPs tend to score higher on social intelligence tests (like this one) due to their ability to read these cues, even without conscious knowledge. This ability leaves them aware of one’s emotions without necessarily understanding why. Their emotional awareness causes higher levels of sympathy and empathy.
For the Highly Sensitive Person, their heightened abilities are all based on an innate, biological sensory survival trait which exists in hundreds of species.
For more information on living as a HSP, check out Dr. Aron’s book, The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You.
An empath is one who has the ability to feel the emotions of those around them, from people to animals to plants. They absorb the emotional energy of others and take it on as their own, causing them to experience exactly the same emotional effects in their own bodies.
Empaths go beyond empathy caused by the heightened sensory of awareness of a HSP and instead physically absorb the emotional energy causing them to feel exactly what another feels even if they are unable to empathize.
While the cause of empathic abilities isn’t well known or understood, the most commonly held theory is that empaths are highly sensitive to the invisible energy which surrounds us and all things.
Let us look at an example using a hotel room. If a couple has a heated argument in their hotel room and then proceeded to act as though nothing had happened upon the entrance of an HSP, the HSP would sense the tone of the room immediately upon entering due to their awareness of the nuances in body language and facial expressions, despite the couple’s best attempts to hide it.
However, if the couple has a heated argument and then leaves the hotel room before an empath arrives, the empath would feel the emotional residual energy from the argument without any obvious physical evidence that it took place.
In most cases, empaths are highly sensitive as well. However, not all highly sensitive people have empathic abilities.
Empath and clairsentient are often used as interchangeable terms. In many instances, the use of either is considered appropriate, however there are slight differences in what each word represents.
Clairsentients, just like empaths, have the ability to sense the emotional energy around them and take it on as their own. But clairsentients (meaning “clear sensing”) are able to make clear sense of the information within the energy around them. They have a sixth sense which allows them to know things beyond the physical understanding. Similar to clairvoyance in which one receives knowing through visions or clairaudience which gives one extrasensory information through sounds or voices, clairsentience offers a knowing or understanding through a feeling or sensation.
Unlike empaths who feel emotions and energies of others, clairsentients find themselves having physical sensations which give them information about people, plants, or objects around them. Things like tingling in the fingers when they are near someone whose energy calls for physical healing or throbbing in their throat (throat chakra) when near someone with a message they long to spread.
Clairsentients are almost always highly sensitive people as well as empaths. Along with their heightened sensory awareness and ability to absorb the emotional energy of those around them, clairsentients also gain great knowing from extrasensory perception.
It is easy to see the many similarities between these three terms. However, the minor differences are just as important when determining which labels best apply to your life. You may find only one or two fit your situation, or perhaps you are all three. Either way, it is my hope that you have gained a better understanding of your own personal abilities in order to continue to grow in self-acceptance.