The ancient Romans gave the world a great many things that remain with us to this day. One of them is the expression “still waters run deep”.
While it originally held a somewhat different meaning, in more recent times, this poetic phrase often implies that those who tend to be calm and quiet on the surface may often have a lot going on privately in their hearts and minds, which they choose to keep to themselves or to speak up about quite selectively.
I believe that in many respects this expression can be applied in varying degrees to each of the categories of people that we are going to explore in this post.
Today we’re going to take a look at what it means to be an empath, a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), and/or an introvert.
The aim of this post is to be a primer and a reference point for future writings that I’ll be sharing here pertaining to these highly interesting and far-reaching topics.
It is also, and above all else, here to help, support and inform those who may be searching for information regarding empaths vs highly sensitive people vs introverts.
The word versus is used simply as a comparative term in this instance, not as one with any tangible sense of competitiveness, hostility or aggression – all things that a good many people who fall into the above mentioned three headers are often keen to avoid or limit!
But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself there.
First, I’m going to share with you a little bit about my own relationship with each of these terms, then we’ll hop right into what an empath is, what an HSP is, and what an introvert is, as well as take a brief look at other somewhat similar ways of being, including shyness and social anxiety disorder.
Hi, I’m Autumn, an introverted HSP empath
If I had a crystal for every time I wished I’d been wearing a nametag or t-shirt that said that statement, you could probably see my house from the moon given how much sheen and sparkle those crystals would be giving off. 😄
For the sake of brevity and to focus on the bigger picture at the heart of this post, I will not give you an extensive history of my life as it applies to these areas.
Instead, I’ll share a brief overview that I hope will allow you to get to know me better, as well as to understand why I’m in a natural position to discuss each of these three ways of being.
I was born, a stone’s throw away from Vancouver, Canada, on a sizzling hot evening in July 1984. This was my mother’s first labour. It was long, fraught with challenges, and incredibly difficult.
More than once, we both nearly perished before the night of what was surely one of the very longest days of my mom’s life finally culminated in my birth.
We made it through, a young mom and her tiny infant ready to face the world and all it had to offer us both in our new roles.
I have no way of proving, nor am I necessarily even implying, that the difficulty of my birth played into the fact that I am an introvert, an HSP, and am empath. I’m as certain, however, as I am of the colour of my eyes or of my dear mother’s name, that these traits were with me from birth – if not from the womb itself.
Some of my earliest memories are of realizing – or having it glaringly pointed out to me – that I was “very sensitive”.
That I felt and perceived the world, my own emotions and those of others extraordinarily deeply. That I was quiet, introspective, caring, focused, intellectually driven, passionate and compassionate alike.
And that confrontation (save for if I’m defending a person or cause I care deeply about; I reach new levels of Spartacus-ness in that case), hostility, anger, aggression, some types of competition, injustice, cruelty, disrespect, and being unkind were akin to bullets being fired at my soul.
Like many who are either introverts, HSPs, empaths or any combination of the three, I quickly realized that being sensitive, feeling deeply, and taking things to heart to such a degree was not what society often wanted, or even demanded at times, from me.
As quite a few others also have throughout history, I learned to adopt and mirror certain more extroverted and outgoing behaviours and mannerisms. Even if a leopard puts on a lion costume though, its spots still remain and my own natural inclinations had an endearing way of shining through a lot of the time.
I wish that I could say I grew up in an environment where I was appreciated for who (and how) I was as a highly sensitive, shy, introverted and empathic child, but such was not the case. For many years I felt like a fish out of water – always wondering how others around me seemed to breathe with such relative ease when I was silently suffocating a lot of the time.
Despite the challenges involved with being an introverted HSP empath, coupled with many other difficulties of my youth and the homelife it entailed, I was fortunate to realize early on that being the way I was, while difficult at times, was an incredible blessing as well.
Sure, classmates’ birthday parties, listening to my relatives’ screaming matches, or (some) group projects in school, for example, were extra tough. But at the same time, the fact that I could read and feel someone’s emotions within seconds of meeting them, pre-emptively know how to behave in response to how a person was acting, and that I had (have) the ability to see and delight in seemingly small everyday pleasures that may move me to tears or to create poetry or art was, and is, empowering.
As I got older, my voracious appetite for reading lead me to discover what each of the three terms – introvert (introversion), highly sensitive person, and empath – meant and to immediately recognize myself in each of them. (Nowadays, I keep an ever-expanding Pinterest board about being an empath, introvert, HSP, and INFJ, where I pin some of the most interesting and informative online content I encounter about these areas.)
There is great catharsis, support and liberation that comes from knowing that you are not alone. That there are others out there like you. That you’re not “odd” for being the quiet one or the thoughtful one or the one who lives in their head most of the time.
And that it is not only possible but highly beneficial to use these gifts – because I personally believe that is what each of the three traits we are exploring in this post are – to both our own advantage and that of others in our lives.
Hop ahead a good many years and I’m now a well adjusted, happily married woman in her mid-30s who continues to read, research and honour these important facets of who I am.
I tap into the power and beauty of these gifts on levels spanning pragmatic daily happenings to my spiritual journey as a Pagan witch.
Being an empathic HSP introvert isn’t the whole of who or what I am, of course, but each of these things is an integral neurodiverse pillar that helps to inform and shape innumerable aspects of my daily existence.
Before we go any further, I should note that I am not a psychologist, therapist, doctor, scientist, or other healthcare professional.
The information in this post – all of which is my own original writing – is informed by a combination of my own firsthand experiences and from credible sources, many of which were written by those who hold these sorts of academic and professional credentials.
In all cases, if you are struggling with any aspect of your health or well-being, whether it pertains to the areas discussed in this post or elsewhere, please seek professional assistance.
What is an introvert?
Of the three main terms at the heart of this post, the word, and associated concept, of what it means to be an introvert is likely the one that most people are familiar with these days.
Though, that said, greater awareness and understanding of all three are starting to take hold in mainstream society, thanks in part to some excellent books that have been published on each of them, the availability of resources on the internet, and more people openly discussing the fact that they are introverts/HSPs/empaths.
The groundwork for the concepts that we know today as introversion and extraversion (as well as ambiversion, which is a middle ground between these two) were laid down by none other than Carl Jung.
However, the actual act of being an introvert, ambivert or extrovert is now believed to be genetic and something that is with us from birth onward, as research is showing that introversion is influenced at least in part by how our brains process a naturally occurring chemical called dopamine.
Most introverts have a tendency to prefer situations that are quieter, less “in your face”, less confrontational, or more singularly (or small group) focused, which allow them to delve deep into their thoughts.
Whereas extroverts often thrive in social settings such as rambunctious team sports, lively parties, or the bar scene, introverts have a natural tendency to feel better, happier, and more like their true selves in quieter environments. As well as when they are able to rest and recharge their personal energy levels after being involved with many types of social settings or interactions with others.
It is important to note that, despite the persistent stereotype, many introverts are not anti-social or misanthropic. Like most people, introverts enjoy and even crave human relationships.
However, introverts generally prefer to have a smaller number of close, friendly, meaningful bonds with a select group of individuals, instead of being a social butterfly who knows everyone in town, but might not be able to tell you anything about most of those people beyond their first name.
Introverts tend to generate and maintain their own personal energy levels in large part through quiet, reflective personal time away from crowds, groups, loud noises, aggressive or hostile energy, and stimuli that they personally find draining or exhausting.
Most introverts thrive when they have ample opportunities to focus on solitary activities, be alone with their own thoughts, feelings and interests; and when they’re not constantly having to alter or mask their true introverted selves all the time in order to fit in/please others/hold down a job/etc..
It is presently believed that between about 25 – 40% of the population are introverts, which means that even if you’re not an introvert yourself, chances are you know multiple people who are.
As introversion, ambiversion, and extroversion are hardwired genetic personality traits, it is rare for someone who begins life as one of these types to switch from being, say, an extrovert to an introvert or an ambivert to an extrovert later in life.
In other words, if you were an introvert as a child, you are likely to be an introvert your whole life.
It is very important to note that while introverts, ambiverts and extroverts all have natural strengths and weaknesses, being one of these three is not better than the others.
They are simply different – much like how having brown eyes isn’t inherently better than having green, blue or grey eyes. Your eye colour and whether you’re an introvert, ambivert or extrovert are simply two ingrained aspects of who you are.
If you or someone you love is an introvert, you are apt to find that several of the following points apply:
-Many introverts tend to listen more than they talk, though some may love to speak at length on topics that they’re passionate about or which excite them. Likewise, introverts are often told by others that they are great listeners.
-You have a natural tendency to be analytical, to think deeply, and to enjoy and derive a lot of positive benefits from your own thoughts, as well as from ideas and knowledge in general.
-Introverts focus a good deal on moods and feelings, and are often comfortable with being highly self-analytical.
-You enjoy learning by watching or teaching yourself how to do something, and may be hesitate to try a new activity/skill/experience (especially publicly) before you have a solid grasp of the concept at hand.
-Unlike extroverts, you do not generally get most of your personal energy from being around others. Quite the opposite, social settings can be highly draining for you (even if they’re enjoyable or pleasant experiences). You tend to derive your personal energy primarily from within yourself and require adequate amounts of quiet, peaceful downtime to recharge your energy levels.
-Introverts generally prefer one-on-one or small group interactions to big groups, crowds, teams, parties and so forth.
-You are naturally inclined towards jobs, hobbies and activities that allow you to operate/work solo or with as much personal independence as possible either some or all of the time.
There are many different careers where this can apply. The following are just some of the many possible jobs for introverts.
Writing, the arts, music, cooking, counselling, accounting, working with computers (programmers, graphic designs, data scientists, technical writers, etc), photographers, laboratory research (and many branches of science in general), forest or park rangers, landscapers, floral designers, librarians, genealogists, paralegals, radiologists, truck drivers, mail carriers, social media managers, pet walkers and sitters, mechanics, and various self-employed jobs that can be done independently or with small numbers of staff.
-You may find certain social settings – including public speaking – more stressful, anxiety inducing, difficult to handle, or uncomfortable than ambiverts and, especially, extroverts, who often thrive in such situations.
-It can be hard for you to focus on, let alone do your best work or thinking, in environments with too much noise, too many interrupts, or too great a degree of stimulation from the space you’re in and the people you may be sharing it with.
-You are highly self-aware and often have a clear sense of who you are and what you want/need in life.
-You enjoy, crave, and need solitude, and by extension, often love being by yourself.
-People sometimes characterise you as being shy (whether you actually are or not), aloof, reserved, private or even distant.
-You do not feel the need to go out or socialize as often as your more extroverted friends, coworkers and family members.
-You love to throw yourself into an in-depth project and can happily devote large amounts of time, be it continuous or in spurts, to said project. Completing it brings you great personal satisfaction, sometimes regardless of if others see, praise, or acknowledge your efforts.
–Small talk can feel tedious or even needless, or you may prefer to conclude your interaction with someone by engaging in a little bit of small talk, following a more in-depth, intimate or cerebral discussion.
-You may find things such as loud noises, situations where aggression is naturally involved (e.g., some types of sports), violence, seeing other people or animals in need or discomfort, or being unduly pressured to be highly stressful and counterproductive to your natural ways of operating.
-You love it when people allow you time to finish what you’re saying, pay attention to your words, value your impute, and don’t rush you when you’re speaking.
-Being the star of the show, life of the party, or most popular person in a group setting may not matter much, if at all, to you.
-You love to read, create, and focus on passions that allow you to be alone.
-You have a deep, nuanced, and fascinating inner life.
Again, this is not an exhaustive list and there are certainly other traits that are associated with introverts as well.
In addition, it is important to remember that extremely few of us are so far down the spectrum of introversion or extroversion that we do not sometimes possess, embody, or adopt characteristics of the other – be it naturally, subconsciously or consciously.
While it is relatively common for introverts to also be highly sensitive people and/or empaths, not all introverts are one or either of these things.
How are being shy and being introverted different?
One of the most common misconceptions about introverts is that they are all very shy individuals – or that the words shy and introverted are synonymous with one another.
It is easy to understand where this mindset comes from. Both shy people and introverts tend to prefer small groups to large crowds, need plenty of alone time to recharge, and may have rich inner and personal lives that they try to focus on as often as possible.
However, shyness is not an inherent trait of introverts. Anyone can be shy. As at odd as seeing these two words together may seem at first glance, there are in fact some shy extroverts out there.
Again though, shyness is not implicitly or inherently tied to introversion, ambiversion or extroversion.
Shyness – which often presents itself very early in life, though can develop at any age, particularly in the wake of certain types of traumas – is a fear or extreme sense of uncomfortableness around people and/or social situations.
Whereas introverts may simply prefer to spend less time (as a general rule) than ambiverts and extroverts in the company of others, an actual intense fear or serious physical and/or mental discomfort stemming from being around people is not typically included in the definition of what being an introvert entails.
It is, however, there in the definition of shyness, which also encompasses such things as a fear of being socially judged and a deeply seated fear of confrontation.
As someone who is both shy and introverted, I can attest firsthand to the fact that not all introverts are shy by any means. I have known plenty of fellow introverts who were also shy, but I’ve also been around scores of introverts who seemed positively gregarious and outgoing compared to their shy introvert peers.
What is social anxiety disorder?
Much like introversion is not the same as shyness, nor is it is identical to having a social anxiety disorder. Though, again, it is certainly possible to be shy and/or introverted and to also have social anxiety disorder.
This mental health condition is defined as a persistent, intense fear of being watched, judged or confronted by others. Immense stress and/or anxiety arises – or existing levels are intensified – in social anxiety suffers when they think about, or find themselves actually in, social situations.
People with social anxiety disorder will often try to actively avoid situations such as being in groups, making eye contact, engaging in small talk with strangers or people they barely know, talking on the phone, entering rooms or public places where others are present by themselves, public speaking, and eating in front of others. As well, they may experience anxiety or panic attacks in certain social situations.
This condition can leave those impacted by social anxiety disorder unable to function properly or to the degree they may ideally wish to in social settings. And it often has far ranging, serious impacts on one’s daily life, personal relationships, and career.
This may stem in part or in full from the fact that for many, social anxiety presents itself not “just” on a mental and emotional level, but on a physical one as well.
Those who experience social anxiety may find that “trigger” situations can cause such physical symptoms as muscle tension, tinging/burning sensations in the extremities, rapid heartbeat, feeling like your mind has gone blank and/or you struggle to make words come out of your mouth, sweating, light-headedness, dry mouth, feeling out of breath, gastrointestinal issues (including things like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea), a heightened internal fight or flight response, blushing, shaking or trembling, the sudden need to urinate, hot flashes, headaches or migraines that come on rapidly, and hives.
Unlike the other character descriptors in this post, social anxiety disorder is classified as a medical condition. It is a form of social phobia for which suffers may need to seek professional help.
And again, it is important to note that social anxiety differs from introversion, shyness, being an HSP or an empath.
For a solid chunk of my life, I thought that I was just an extremely shy, introverted HSP empath and brushed some of my most severe aversions to public settings or experiences off as a result of being very shy and introverted.
However, as my twenties progressed and I began to research and talk more with medical professionals about the topic of social anxiety disorder, I came to realize that it was something I’d been battling my entire life.
There have been times when it was more prevalent/stronger for me than others, but at the end of the day, now in my mid-30s, I now have no qualms publicly admitting that social anxiety disorder is a very real part of my life. It is one that I consciously work on coping with, managing, and not allowing to hold as much sway over my existence as it once did.
If you also suspect or know that you have social anxiety disorder, please know that you are not alone and that the stigma around this mental health condition needs to go the way of the dinosaur, pronto!
I promise you that you are not alone, that your feelings and experiences are valid and real, and that there are various methods and strategies you employ to help you manage your social anxiety.
What is a highly sensitive person?
It is a sad truth that being told you’re “highly sensitive” is sometimes done in a judgemental, critical, harsh, or even pejorative manner.
While extreme sensitivity to the point where it interferes with almost every aspect of one’s life is not ideal, few amongst us are that sensitive, even within the realm of HSPs.
Highly sensitive people (commonly known as HSPs) are individuals with a powerful need for alone time, a low threshold for stimulation, sensitivities to things such as light and sound, who have a harder time than many unwinding and quieting their minds, who feel emotions extremely deeply, who may go to great lengths to avoid or minimize confrontation and being in aggressive situations, who love peaceful setting, often adore nature, and who may really struggle to watch or be around violence, aggression, abuse and mistreatment of others or themselves.
It is thought that as much as 20% of the population may be highly sensitive (and that of that percentage, an estimated 30% of HSPs are extroverts and about 70% are introverts; I could find little in the way of research that explored how ambiverts would fit into that equation, though of course there are ambivert HSPs as well).
This trait is often present from birth. Heartbreakingly, it is often misunderstood, mishandled, or ignored completely by some or all of the adults in a child’s life, who may be unaware that being an HSPs is a thing, so to speak, and thus may not know how best to parent, teach, or otherwise nurture and support highly sensitive children.
HSP kids who did not receive support and understanding as youngsters may have a more difficult time adapting to adult life and the pressures, demands, responsibilities and social constraints involved with being a grownup in a world that often anything but HSP-friendly.
While some might view the concept of being an empath with greater skepticism than the more scientifically and clinically established traits of introversion and HSPism, I would argue that of the three, being an HSP may, in some respects, be the most understood at present.
The following are some of the characteristics that are commonly seen amongst highly sensitive people of all ages. Again, this is not an exhaustive list, nor does one need to embody all of the following characteristics to be an HSP.
-As a child you were extremely sensitive. You may have been prone to crying or having your feelings hurt or upset more easily than many of your peers or young family members.
Adults may have (unkindly!) told you things such as “don’t be so sensitive”, “grow a thicker skin, why don’t you!”, “it’s not a big deal, just get over it”, “you don’t see Johnny/Jenny crying about this do you?”, “only babies cry”, “no one like a crier”, “stop being a wussy”, “no one is that sensitive about X”, “get over it already”, or worse!
Your peers, and possibly even teachers, may have singled you out/bullied or harassed you for being highly sensitive, and you may have struggled to relate to other children (or people in general) because of how far removed their own levels of being sensitive were from your own heightened sensitivity.
-You have a tendency to be extremely self-critical and may replay events, conversations, and even personal thoughts that happened in the past over and over again in your mind, especially if you perceive them as having gone in a less than ideal or desired way.
–You’re naturally prone to feeling overwhelmed, over-stimulated, drained, exhausted, stressed, or anxious, especially in situations that many others appear to handle with relative ease.
-HSPs have a wonderful ability to naturally pick up on behavioural cues, body language, facial expressions and to interpret and respond accordingly to these things.
-You may battle with issues pertaining to self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-worth.
-You thrive when you are in nurturing, gentle, quiet, and harmonious environments inhabited by friendly people that you get along well with.
–You may feel (or have felt) guilty, ashamed, embarrassed by or otherwise negatively at times about being highly sensitive.
-You find yourself apologizing for things that others do not say they’re sorry for, including times when an apology is not needed or may even be a bit out of place.
-The intensity and range of your emotions is generally higher/more extreme than other peoples.
-You may have a strong drive and desire to be a people pleaser (which often begins subconsciously early in life for HSPs) as a means to try to avoid or minimalize situations that would cause confrontation, being on the receiving end of anger or hostility, or which would make the other person upset at you.
-Feeling overwhelmed, flustered, or anxious is something you experience in various aspects of your life and may manifest itself in various physical, mental and emotion ways.
-You have a natural propensity to be intuitive or in tune with your inner voice, and will generally listen to what it is telling you to do or to avoid doing.
-HSPs often like to have as much information as possible before making a decisions, acting on something, speaking up, or presenting their point of view.
-Downtime and the ability to quietly, peacefully recharge and be alone with your thoughts and feelings is critical to your well-being.
-While both of these things can be experienced by non-HSPs too, of course, you may be prone to various forms of clinically diagnosable anxiety and/or depression.
–You carry intense and often far-reaching negative impacts of traumatic events, a difficult childhood, emotionally painful experiences or other situations that sent your emotions into a personal sense of overdrive.
-HSPs may experience gaslighting (when someone else either unintentionally or intentionally causes you to question or doubt your own sanity and/or known reality) from others who do not understand or believe that you are able to experience and feel things as deeply/powerfully as you actually do.
Gaslighting is awful and can happen to anyone, but those who are highly sensitive/empathic may be at especially high risk of experience it.
-Seemingly minor remarks, interactions, or criticisms that many people would brush off or quickly bounce back from can throw you greatly off track and potentially ruin or substantially disrupt your day/week/longer.
-You may struggle with saying no to people, setting important personal boundaries, and/or doing things that you know in advance may end up causing any form of discomfort/hurt/stress for others.
-HSPs have a tendency to be easily and intensely impacted, and usually not for the better, by a wide range of stimuli, such as crowded spaces, strong smells and tastes, loud noises and voices, loud music, flashing or strobing lights, sirens and alarms, people yelling (even if it is not directed at the HSP themselves), various textures and types of fabric and other materials, and even certain foods and medications.
-Being an HSP has made it harder at times for you to forge and maintain close personal relationships, including those with romantic partners.
In romantic relationships in particular, you absolutely need someone who is patient, understanding, and at least somewhat sensitive themselves so that you feel safe, comfortable and secure to let your true HSP self shine through in your interactions with that person.
-You may find that being online, especially on social media, is overstimulating, highly anxiety inducing, and something you may describe as a “double-edged sword” type of situation for you. You might enjoy and benefit from it at times, but it can also being highly challenging to deal with or to know when to step back from for a while.
-You internalize an incredible amount of what you experience and have a strong tendency to rarely forget events, people and experiences that caused you pain, fear, stress, anxiety, or other negative emotions.
-It may take you a while to warm up to and/or trust someone, and you have a tendency to be quite private, especially when it comes to your emotions, fears and concerns in life.
-HSPs may, sometimes, take longer than their peer groups to reach certain milestones or to achieve things that society expects them to do by a certain age. (I have a theory that, conversely, some HSPs also feel drawn to accomplishing certain milestones earlier than most people, however, because they want to try and relieve themselves of the inherent societal pressure and stress of the decision making process involved with major milestone events such as getting married, throwing themselves into their career choice, or having children.)
-You may have a strong tendency to put the needs, wants and well-being of others above your own, and as a result, might experience resentment, guilt or other negatives (including potential health issues) from not making your own self-care a priority.
-Being creative and artsy may come naturally to you and/or you may feel a strong connection with others, both living and deceased who are, or were, highly creative individuals.
–You have a powerful moral compass, sense of what is right and wrong, and desire to be as truthful as possible in all areas of your life. This often serves you well and people may acknowledge and praise you for being such a stand-up, honest and caring individual.
-You care deeply about the well-being and happiness of others, and may be drawn to careers, volunteer positions or other circumstances, such as activism, that allow you to help, support, and nurture people, animals, nature, and important causes.
–HSPs often have an immense love for nature, animals, and being outdoors, and may feel a powerful spiritual connection to these things.
-Though little in the way of clinical research has been done as of yet on this subject, I strongly suspect that HSPs may be more prone to PTSD, including Complex PTSD.
If you believe you are an HSPs with PTSD, I recommend reading this article called 7 Strategies for Highly Sensitive People to Heal Trauma and PTSD by world-leading expert and author on the subject of HSPism, Judith Orloff, MD.
-Events or experiences that you enjoy or may want to have happen can still cause you stress, anxiety, intense emotions, exhaustion, and/or feelings of being overwhelmed or incredibly worn out (and you may have naturally realized that you’ll need time and space to process these feelings so as to get the most out of a given positive experience that you realistically can).
It is important to remember that Sensory Processing Sensitivity (aka, HSP) is not a medical condition or disorder. It is a neutral trait that has been observed and well documented in both humans and a wide range of different animals as well.
Research has shown that who are highly sensitive have more activity in a part of the brain called the insula, which means that these individuals have a greater ability to perceive their environments and to be more self-aware.
There are evolutionary pros and advantages to being highly sensitive, and those who are HSPs can – and should – try to embrace and find joy (or at least some measure of positivity) in being fortunate to feel and experience their own life and the world at large so intensely.
What is an empath?
While I could wax poetically and passionately about all three of the character types discussed in this post, it is the act of being an empath that sets my inner Wordsworth, Rosetti, or Longfellow most alight as a general rule.
Much as I would love to do just that, right here and now, we’ll get down to brass tacks and explore what being an empath means in more pragmatic, less poetic terms.
An empath is someone who perceives and feels not only their own emotions, energy, body language and facial expressions profoundly deeply, but who quite literally feels those of others as well.
It is like we’re magnets that attract every (or at least most) emotion(s) in a room or other space to us, whether we want that to happen or not
We feel the energy that others radiate and which is inherent to a degree in everything on earth extremely powerfully (this energy is sometimes called shakti in parts of Asia), and have the ability to pick up and absorb energy and emotions for people, animals, environments and even inanimate objects.
This energy and those feelings are then experienced in much the same way as those generated within ourselves by our own bodies, thought processes, memories and emotions.
Not only are we magnets, but we’re sponges, and can often absorb the feelings and emotions of others, sometimes to the detriment of ourselves (and as such, we can easily find ourselves as unwitting victims for energy vampires).
Many empaths are highly spiritual individuals who feel an incredible connection to humanity, the universe, nature, animals, and, in some cases, to those on the other side of the veil as well.
Whereas both introverts and, especially highly sensitive people, often experience their own emotions very deeply and may be compassionate and prone to being empathic towards others, it is generally only empaths who literally feel and internalize the energy and emotions of others throughout their whole lives.
While there can be a wealth of beautiful, important and highly meaningful elements involved with feeling and absorbing other peoples’ emotions and energy, as you might imagine, this can also be draining and challenging to navigate at times.
As such, it is crucial that empaths learn, develop and implement efficient shielding, releasing, grounding, coping, self-care, recharging, and healing techniques that work for them. (Trust me when I say that I understand firsthand that this can be easier said than done. It is possible though, especially with some trial end error, and a whole lot of being kind to yourself.)
I think that – at least once they’ve become familiar with the term empath and what it means – many people clearly know that they are in fact empaths.
However, it is always helpful to have a list of ways to know if you are an empath (or if someone in your life is an empath).
Just as with the previous introvert and HSP lists, this is not an all-encompassing possible list of empathic traits, but rather a selection of relatively common characteristics that help to define what it means to be an empath.
-Empaths are generally excellent, patient and compassionate listeners.
-People, even complete strangers open up to you immediately or extremely quickly. Some may even pour out their life stories upon your first meeting.
–Empaths are prone to feeling overwhelmed or overstimulated in busy, crowded, noisy, chaotic, or highly disruptive settings, as they (we) have extremely sensitive nervous systems.
-You often feel, absorb, internalize, and must process/deal with other peoples’ (and/or animals) emotions as though they were your own.
-You have a strong tendency to put the needs, emotional well-being and happiness levels of others above your own.
-As an empath, you may have an extremely strong aversion to violence, cruelty, injustice, and witnessing or knowing others, including animals and the planet itself, are in pain or suffering.
–People tell you that they feel like they’ve known you forever, even though you’ve only been acquainted for a short amount of time.
-Empaths feel their own emotions extremely deeply and may struggle to keep those feelings under wraps at times.
Conversely, some empaths let almost nothing out and may seem, at first glance, to be aloof, shy, or even unfriendly, when in truth, they are most likely very friendly, warm and loving people who have simply learned to guard and be very careful with who they open up in any sort of personal or vulnerable way.
-Empaths are prone to deep levels of stress and anxiety, and may also experience depression. (Though, of course, these things can be experienced by non-empaths as well.)
-You may have an almost photographic memory when it comes to times that you experienced strong emotional reactions, were hurt by others, felt highly self-conscious, or were especially sad.
–Empaths tend to have strong personal energy fields, but find that they’re easily and quickly drained or depleted by the interactions they have with other people – especially those who are struggling, emotionally needy or dependant, or with energy vampires.
-You adore nature and find it to be soothing, grounding, comforting, and somewhere that you generally feel safe and happy. Empaths often also find that being in nature greatly helps them to recharge, heal and restore their personal energy levels.
-It is not uncommon for empaths to feel as though they don’t entirely fit in, belong, or that they have much in common with most people in their life.
It may seem a touch ironic, given how much we absorb and feel other peoples’ emotions and moods, but sometimes it can be difficult for empaths to fully relate to others – especially those whose behaviours, actions, words and deeds differ greatly from our own instinctually sensitive and caring ones.
–Identifying as being an old soul is a common trait amounts empaths.
-Empaths are often extra sensitive to things like noises, scents, tactile sensations, tastes, and bright/harsh or otherwise intense lighting.
-Like the word “empath” implies, you have an incredible amount of empathy and compassion. Caring, supporting, looking out for, championing on behalf of, tending to the needs of, and providing assistance in many different forms comes naturally to you.
-Your intuition is almost at superhero level and you’ve long learned to heed what it tells you to do or to avoid.
–Empaths will often bend over backwards to avoid conflict. As your own emotions are highly sensitive and continually vibrating at an elevated level, this aversion stems in part from the desire for self-preservation and pain avoidance, as well as from not generally wanting to hurt or upset other people with your words or actions.
-You have the ability to read the energy of a room like no one’s business. Ditto for reading people and getting a very decent sense of who they are and what they’re about right off the bat.
-Some, though not all, empaths may find that they sleep better if they’re alone or in a bed of their own, as they need the downtime of sleep to unwind, relax, recharge and experience some physical distance between, quite literally, anything else they can absorb feelings/pain/trauma/stress/etc from.
-The ability to feel what others are feeling and experiencing doesn’t stop “just” at emotions for some empaths, who may also quite feel actual physical and mental pain, trauma, suffering and injury that another person is going through or has previously endured.
-It can be quite difficult for someone to BS an empath, if we’re being totally frank. We can often spot dishonest, manipulative, overly needy, dangerous or frightening people – and liars – a mile away and know that it’s usually best to turn and run at least two miles in the other direction (or at least to limit our interactions with these individuals).
-Even if you wanted to, it can be extremely hard for you to not care and feel for others – particularly if you’ve absorbed their emotions and are now processing them internally yourself. While this is sweet and wonderful in some respects, it can easily lead to becoming burned out, compassion fatigue, and the potential for both mental and physical health challenges.
-You may experience times, both in public and in private, when you’re around at least one other person and find that you suddenly have extremely strong emotions that seem to have come out of thin air (in reality, you’re absorbing and downloading, so to speak, the emotional energy of others around you).
-Empaths are often drawn to careers and other roles, including volunteerism, that allow them to provide care, support, and guidance to others.
-You may find that some people do not get you (or even like you for that matter) and that as a result, you may go out of your way to explain yourself, your thoughts or your feelings in great detail to others in the hopes of being understood.
-It is not uncommon for empaths to be highly in tune with paranormal activity, to feel/see/otherwise sense spirits or residual energy bodies, and, in some cases, to have those on the other side of the veil intentionally seek these comforting living beings out.
-While this is not always the case, many empaths find that – whether they are parents themselves or not -they adore children and have a profound desire to ensure the wellbeing, safety, emotional support, and healthy upbringing of our youngest generation.
Likewise, children (much like animals) often instinctually flock to empaths, feel very comfortable in the presence of empaths, and may able to talk to and confide in empaths more than most other people in their lives.
-You have a natural propensity for learning, trying new things, creating, and delving deep into thoughts and topics that spark a certain something-something in deep within your core.
-There are certain environments, be they natural or manmade that elicit extremely strong emotional, physical, and/or spiritual responses inside of you. This could be anything from the beach to the top of the Empire State Building, the forest to a graveyard, just depending on the person.
-Many (if not most) empaths have a strong lifelong connection to, and love of, animals and may find that they need to have pets or animals around them as often as possible. In general, animal welfare, animal rights, looking after animals, and being in the presence of animals aligns with the soul of an empath.
And by the same token, a lot of empaths find that animals are naturally drawn to them and that they may be the type of person that a dog or cat, for example, that is scared or hostile towards most people will warm up to and feel safe around quite quickly.
-Some empaths are prone to getting sick and experiencing longer-term (chronic) illnesses more often than other people. This may stem from the impact that heightened emotions responses, stress, and anxiety have on the immune system.
-As an empath, you tend to have a naturally soothing, calming and comforting energy and nature to you that helps to quickly put people at ease (this is part of the reason why strangers may open up to you right off the bat).
This sometimes means that, in group settings or even in one-on-one relationships, empaths naturally emerge as a strong, caring leader or someone that many others turn to for advice, leadership, help, and guidance.
-You have amassed, often without seeking them out in the first place, a large inventory, so to speak, of other peoples’ deepest secrets, darkest and rawest emotions, and other private experiences that have been shared with you throughout your lifetime.
The weight and responsibility of carrying all of these intense, highly emotionally charged stories can be, understandably, difficult and draining on empaths at times. Yet most of us compassionately and stoically shoulder this responsibility and will take these private conversations to the grave with us.
–You are highly spiritually attuned and feel a deep, incredible connection to the universe, earth and the ecosystem of life on this planet.
Again, while this list of empath traits is somewhat extensive, it does not cover all the possible characteristics, aspects and realities of what being an empath means for all empaths the world over.
Many HSPs are empaths, though not every highly sensitive person is also an empath, and likewise, not every introvert is an empath.
There are ambivert empaths and extrovert empaths as well, and those that I’ve had the pleasure of knowing have often been extremely creative, sensitive, caring souls who all but radiated a loving light straight from their hearts (as most empaths do, I should add).
Some sources estimate that about 5% of the population are empaths. And, interestingly, a person can be one or more different type(s) of empath (i.g., an animal empath or claircognizant empath).
What is the opposite of an empath?
If we look at the spectrum of human empathy as a straight line, being an empath is on one extreme end, and on the other we would encounter those who are lacking either entirely or largely in empathy.
This would generally mean that they had what is sometimes called an empath-deficient disorder, a broad category that encompasses such people as narcissists, sociopaths, and psychopaths.
In between the two ends of this line, we find those with average/slightly lower and higher than average levels of normal human empathy, then comes HSPs, and finally Empaths (though one could argue that HSP empaths would be even further down the line).
Not everyone is an HSP or empath, of course, though most people have varying degrees of empathy, compassion, understanding, and the capacity to feel and care deeply.
Thankfully those who are empath-deficient do not comprise an overly large percentage of the population. Though the impacts, and sometimes damage, that they can have on both individuals, and in some instances, large populations (for example, think of a narcissistic or sociopathic dictator or warlord), can be profound and far-reaching.
While it might seem like those on each end of the empathic spectrum would be akin to water and oil, fascinatingly, at times they may in fact be drawn to one another.
The innately caring, compassionate and nurturing nature of HSPs and empaths can lead them to want to try and help narcissists (and some may even be attracted to the sense of boldness, bravado or confidence that some narcissists, and sociopaths, for that matter, can exude at times; traits that may be all the more alluring to those for whom such ways of acting do not come easily or naturally).
Unfortunately, narcissists and sociopaths are often master manipulators and may try to take advantage of the kindness of HSPs and empaths (and introverts, too, for that matter – though it is technically possible to be an introvert narcissist, introvert sociopath or even an introvert psychopath), use them as individuals that they control and dominate, and sometimes as marks, if they are also criminals/con artists.
These kinds of situations and relationships are complex and can be difficult to avoid. They are something that HSPs, empaths and kind, sensitive and caring people in general need to mindfully keep their wits about them and their guard up – especially if one is currently in the dating pool.
Beware of fake empaths
Strange as this may sound, some people claim to be empaths when they or not. This may be an innocent mistake. Someone might be an HSP and/or introvert and inadvertently think that being one or both of those things makes them an empath automatically (this is not the case).
For others, especially in certain spiritual circles, the word “empath” may be seen as holding a level of cachet, sense of entitlement, or that it makes them more spiritual/witchy/attuned with the universe than others who are not empaths.
At present, there is no hard and fast universal test or way to know for sure if someone is an empath. This is generally a self-determined trait that is present from birth (or very early on in life) and which it is up to each individual to determine if they possess or not, based on how many widely established empathic criteria apply to them personally.
Occasionally, people who proport to be empaths, but who are not actually real empaths, may do so for monetary, powerplay or manipulative reasons. Thankfully this is not overly common and isn’t something most of us have to worry about as a general rule.
All this said, it merits remembering that empaths – much like HSPs and introverts – do not need to prove that they possess these kinds of traits to anyone. And that questioning someone on such a personal aspect of who they are can be insulting, painful and disrespectful.
It is usually best to take someone at face value when they describe themselves as anything, use common sense and good judgement, and don’t let anyone lord traits such as being (or claiming to be) an HSP or empath over you.
Introverts, HSPs and empaths: similar, but not always identical
As we’ve seen in this post, the three different character traits of being an introvert, highly sensitive person or empath share various points in common.
For example, all three tend to need downtime to decompress, recharge, and (especially with empaths) ground and center themselves.
All three are generally highly intuitive, enjoy deep thought, feel their feelings intensely, and have a natural compassion towards others.
However, as we’ve also discussed in this post, there are some subtle and not so subtle differences between the three groups, and it is entirely possible for a person to be one, but not the other two.
Two, but not the third, or all three.
Just as you can be any combination of the trio and also by shy and/or experience social anxiety disorder or a wide range of other mental health challenges, such as generalized anxiety, depression or PTSD.
If you identify as an introvert, a highly sensitive person, and/or am empath, it is beneficial to research these traits, understand and be open with yourself about how they come into play in your daily life and spiritual journey, as well as how they may impact your relationships with other people.
It is important to remember that being any or all of these three things does not give you cause to brag or flex. Though each is special, wonderful and highly meaningful, you are not automatically better or more evolved as a person because you’re an introvert, empath or HSP.
That said, these are pretty wonderful things to be – just as being an ambivert or extrovert is great as well (let’s face it, who amongst us introverts hasn’t wondered what it would be like to walk a mile in an outcoming, party-loving extrovert’s shoes at least once?).
These ingrained aspects of our mental, genetic, and emotional makeup are with us throughout our whole lives and deserve to be honoured and celebrated.
We will be doing more of that here in various future posts, which at will continue to explore the areas of being an empath, being an HSP, and the introversion – extroversion spectrum (including the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, often colloquially called the Myers-Briggs Personality Test or simply the Myers-Briggs Test).
I sincerely hope that this detailed overview was beneficial to you, and welcome your suggestions for additional posts on subjects pertaining to being an empath, HSP, or introvert.