This article is about the seemingly negligible distinctions between being empathic and being an empath. Seemingly negligible because the practical distinctions are huge!
As an HSP, you’ll likely identify with being empathic. For various reasons, it can even be a preferable word to Highly Sensitive. Being empathic means that you are able to relate to how other people are feeling. So how is this different from being an empath?
Empath is another term for clairsentient. With that, we’re moving from the world of psychology to the world of spiritual healing. An estimated 2-4% of the population is clairsentient (I suspect those numbers may be much lower, but that is a separate discussion) and about 15-20% of the population is HSP.
Many (not all! *) empaths identify with the HSP label, and those are the empaths I’ll be addressing here. To that purpose, the empaths I’m addressing here can be seen as a very specific “subset” within the HSP category.
* many thanks to Peter Messerschmidt for fleshing out this issue with me !
So what is the difference?
First off, the distinction is not that black and white. There are people who are clearly an empath and an HSP (empathic), others who are clearly HSP (empathic) but not an empath, and there are people who are somewhere in the middle. Lines can get blurry. So the bigger question is, why does the difference matter?
Why Does the Difference Between “Empathic” and “Empath” Matter?
The difference matters because empaths generally need specific training to learn how to work with their clairsentient ability without getting overwhelmed.
Labels matter because they make it easier to know where to get the support and understanding you need and also know who you are in relation to others. We’re all a mix of various labels and categories, yet precisely because of that it’s important to keep them separate when discussing them.
For someone who is HSP and also an empath, the two labels will of course blend together in practice, but discussing them in this way is not helpful because not all HSPs are empaths (in fact, most are not).
Hence, it’s likely that you’ll find some empaths in a group of HSPs, but the general consensus will tend to not be in alignment with specific empath issues. Or, alternatively, the HSPs who are not empaths themselves may assume that you’re using different words to describe what they already know. It’s a little like talking about the ocean with someone who’s only familiar with lakes and who believes lakes are all there is. You’ll achieve a seeming consensus but, on deeper prodding, it won’t really hold up.
The difference also matters because it can be uncomfortable to address the empath ability and, hence, tempting to gloss over the crucial distinctions between being an empath versus being HSP ‘only’. In other words, it’s tempting to “tuck away” the empath ability into the increasingly accepted and discussed HSP label. Here’s why: many empaths, due to their upbringing, find it easier to accept that they are HSP than consider that they might be an empath too. It’s easier to accept that you’re exceptionally good at reading faces, noticing body language, and imaginatively putting yourself into others’ shoes, than it is to accept that you have an actual and badly understood intuitive ability that functions in a way that goes way beyond any of the commonly accepted ways of relating to others.
As mentioned earlier, with being HSP, you are still navigating the psychological world model. You need to accept that you have a more sensitive nervous system, and that this has implications for how you lead your life, but you don’t need to accept a radically different worldview. Once you move onto empath territory however, all that changes.
Some empaths are perfectly OK with that. Things finally click into place (yay!). Others struggle to fit what they are learning about being an empath into their religious, academic or other worldviews. Often times, it takes time to integrate these different worldviews into a new and personal all-encompassing model.
Empaths and Worldview
So how does your worldview need to radically change to accomodate being an empath?
There are a few things:
- Energy is real and perceivable with your physical senses
- Emotions and physical sensations are energy that can move from one person to another
- Energy can be thrown at people, stick at you, blend with that of other people, and be given away
In psychological terms, this would all be “symbolic” at best. If you’re an empath, however, you need to deal with the fact that this is real. With a capital R.
When you are obsessing about someone as an empath, it’s not just “in your head”, you likely have all kinds of subconscious energy exchanges going on with the person in question. When you feel deeply affected by someone as an empath, you’re not just “empathizing” and “imagining what it’s like to be that other person” you are probably actually literally picking up this other person’s energy.
How is this different from mentally obsessing over someone? Here are some pointers:
For someone who is HSP ‘only’, a shift in attention, or talking through a situation can be enough to get “unstuck” from obsessing over someone. Sure, letting go can be tough, but psychological approaches tend to work quite well.
As an empath, however, no matter how hard you try to let go and talk it through and shift your perspective, something keeps nagging. Even when you know you’ve taken all the psychologically required steps to move on, you’re still stuck. It’s because you’re not just thinking about someone, you’ve actually taken on the other person’s energy somehow, and hence need to address this at the energetic level, not merely the psychological one. This is why empath training is important. It’s specific, and goes way beyond psychological models for letting go.
Empaths and Energy
Just as HSPs are wired to respond to stimuli more intensely, more sensitively, empaths are wired to process other people’s energy more intensely. HSP wiring is arguably biological and psychological. Empath wiring is energetic and psychological, affecting the body in numerous ways. Hence, when we’re addressing the empath ability, we need to bring the “energy body” into the conversation.
I’ve compiled a list below of situations that you might recognize as an untrained or, as of yet, unidentified empath. Please note that trained and experienced empaths won’t necessarily relate to this list, but then they don’t need this list in the first place! (If you’re an experienced empath, please think back to your early indicators: how did you find out that you are an empath? Feel free to share in the comments).
Please also note that, if you do think you are an empath, chances are slim that the other HSPs that you know are empaths too. Statistically, empaths are simply more rare. (It can be tempting to “see empaths everywhere” when you’re just realising you are one yourself).
Signs (not proof!) of being an empath
- People tell you that they feel better after talking to you about their physical and/or emotional pains, but you tend to feel worse after such conversations.
- You’ve experienced having aches and pains, or intense emotions out of nowhere, only to find out later that someone you love is going through exactly that.
- When you’re in a room with many people, your emotions and/or the physical sensations in your body often change extremely from one moment to the next. You’re worried that you may be crazy somehow. Yet, when you’re by yourself, things tend to calm down.
- You have trouble concentrating when other people are around, but you’re able to concentrate just fine when you’re by yourself.
- Some people get extremely uncomfortable around you, because they feel that you see right through them. You might have noticed that people avoid you when they want to hide what they are going through somehow.
- You know a lot about other people, without knowing how. You used to think that everyone knew this much about everyone, but are coming to the realization that this is -strangely- not the case.
- You feel extremely responsible for the well-being of the people around you. People have told you to let go, or not take things so seriously, but you just can’t.
- When you’re around certain people, you suddenly find yourself feeling, thinking and/or acting out of character. Without those people there, you revert back to your usual self. Depending on how you feel influenced, this can either be interesting and liberating, or a little scary and worrisome.
- You have trouble knowing what you want and need. To figure that out, you usually need to be by yourself for a stretch of time, and even then it may be much easier to voice what others want from you than to say what you want for yourself.
- You struggle with setting boundaries because the disappointment, anger and grief (and other emotions) of other people impacts you deeply. It seems that, no matter what you do, it’s always lose-lose for you. Either you stand up for yourself and get overwhelmed by the negative reactions of others, or you do what they want and don’t feel good about yourself.
- Your body often feels icky, murky, dark and unpleasant, even if you have no medical condition to attribute those feelings to. For that reason, you like to do things which take your attention away from being physically aware of how your body feels.
- You can feel and act drunk, simply by being around other drunk people, without having had a drop of alcohol yourself.
- You notice that you’re more directly impacted by other people’s energy when looking someone directly in the eye, being in close proximity to someone or having a strong personal bond with someone (that can influence you over long distances).
- People tend to tell you things that “they’ve never told anyone before” even if they hardly know you.
- Crowds tend to be overwhelming and draining for you, unless they’re an exceptionally feel-good bunch.
Please note that the indicators above are meant to be points of recognition for untrained empaths, but by no means do you need to nod your head at all of them if you actually are an empath. Nor is this a self-test. If you recognize a lot of the points above, be open to the possibility that you might be an empath, and look into that further before drawing any definite conclusions.
Also please note that these indicators do not necessarily define the empath trait. Hence, if you meet people who tell you that being an empath is awful, crazy-making, painful etc etc, chances are that they are simply untrained empaths who lack the awareness to effectively work with this ability. You don’t need to suffer as an empath but you do need to learn how to work with your empath ability. This takes work and time, but is very worth it. When you commit to the training necessary to become a proficient empath, you’ll be able to handle crowds and other previously overwhelming situations, simply because the way in which you internally respond to all that energy has been rewired.
Does Elaine Aron’s HSP-test test for being an empath? No, the HSP test measures general HSP attributes, which are often shared by empaths but are not enough to figure out if you are an empath or not.
Does becoming a trained empath make me an HSP? No. Empath abilities are distinct clairsentient abilities. They don’t go away. What you can do is learn how to work with them, instead of fighting them (and yourself). You’re probably on this page (and site) because you know you are HSP. You may be an empath too. Either way, being highly sensitive is not “a different form” of being an empath. They are quite distinct things, yet may overlap in the sense that many empaths are both HSP and empath.
Why it’s Confusing to Be an Empath
Because dealing with empath abilities requires a radical world-view turn-around, and because there is little general understanding of how this ability works, many empaths struggle without any tools, the wrong tools, or insufficient tools to make sense of and handle their abilities.
In addition, many empaths who consider themselves to be experienced and trained, are not aware of how much of what they are feeling is in fact other people’s stuff. Empath “sponging” (absorbing other people’s energies) happens primarily because there is a lack of awareness around what is what. This is not surprising. We all get taught that whatever we feel is necessarily our own stuff. If you feel sadness, then you’re sad, right? Yet, as an empath, feeling sadness does not necessarily mean being sad. Rather, you could be feeling the sadness of someone else.
Even if you do have the awareness that certain things you are feeling are not your own, the empath awareness runs deep, and chances are that you are still confused about what is and isn’t yours on deeper levels of your being. Our energy body consists of many layers, and sorting out what is what is an ever deepening process.
It’s not just what you’re picking up from others right now that plays a role, it’s also other people’s feelings and opinions that you adopted in the past that are still impacting you now. So much so that you may be utterly convinced that YOU want something when, in fact, this was a desire passed onto you by someone else, potentially many years ago.
What is confusing about the empath ability is that other people’s energies -mostly- feel exactly like your own emotions and physical sensations. There is no dramatic violin music to indicate that someone else’s energy is approaching. Hence, as empaths we can easily “embed” other people’s energy into our own energy body through taking ownership of it:
empath: “I feel sadness. Wow, it’s a lot. I didn’t realize I was that sad! Hmm, perhaps it’s because of what happened to me last week. Ah, that must be it! Wow, I’m so sad right now!”
And voilà, you’ve now securely embedded the sadness into your own energy field, without actually knowing whether it was yours in the first place.
(Please note that sufficient training is needed to avoid using this principle as a cop-out for dealing with your own emotions. To go around saying “oh, this is all not my stuff anyway” puts you into the narcissist camp of “blaming everyone else” for everything. So there’s no clear rules about when something is or isn’t your energy, it’s all about practicing techniques that will allow you to figure this out in the moment each and every time. This is not something I can teach in a blog post but, for more info, see the bottom of this article)
The Impact of Beliefs on Empath Sponging
There are a few different belief factors that impact empath sponging.
- First off, in the western world there is an assumption (not shared by all societies on earth b.t.w.) that “everything you feel is about you”. Our world-view is about seeing people as individual “containers” that don’t really exchange energy with each other, except perhaps through body heat. Hence the “logical” thing to do is to assume that you are responsible for everything you’re feeling.
- Empaths (like all HSPs) have a strong tendency towards self-reflection. Hence, once those “it’s mine” assumptions are in place, things can go from bad to worse once you start to come up with reasons why you are feeling a certain way. Before you know it, you’ve constructed a whole action plan based on an emotion that perhaps wasn’t yours to deal with in the first place.
- If you’re a woman, then you’re probably used to taking responsibility for “negative things”. If you’re successful, you’ll likely say something like: “well, it wasn’t that hard and I got help” and if you’re unsuccessful, you’ll blame it all on your own insufficiencies. (of course, this could apply to men reading this too, it’s just that, gender-wise, women are more prone to thinking this way). This way of thinking can be a great stimulus to growth and learning (it’s not all bad!) Yet, what this also means is that, as a woman and empath, when you feel something difficult or heavy (emotional or physical) your tendency is likely to first assume that it must be your problem to fix somehow.
- On top of everything else, empaths tend to have a belief system that is heavily focused upon helping others at their own expense. Please note that this is not a fixed empath trait (it can be changed little by little through healing work) yet it does largely contribute to the sense of burden many empaths experience: whatever you believe, directs the subconscious energy exchanges with the people around you. Deeply convinced it’s your job to make everyone feel better? Voilà, your wish is granted. Just don’t ask how it will make you feel!
Hence, there are various factors that cause empaths to simply assume that what they are feeling is directly about them somehow. Then, through self-reflection, it’s always possible to find a reason for those feelings. Hence, while any particular emotion or sensation may be your own energy, it also may not. Yet, simply by assuming that it must be your stuff somehow, you are actually helping other people’s energy to ‘stick’ to you, and in this way burden you.
Trained versus Untrained Empaths
To recap, being an untrained empath means having the gift of clairsentience + a whole bunch of inner beliefs and self-care habits that mistakenly stimulate you to take on the energy of others (and give away your own energy too) in an attempt to “help” people.
A trained empath on the other hand has the skills and awareness to take an ever increasing neutral stance with regards to other people’s energy. This means that a trained empath can still feel everything, but there is a choice as to how much is let in and for how long.
For example, a trained empath may be well aware that they are experiencing someone else’s sadness, yet decide to feel the energy for a while in order to help the other person figure out what the sadness is about. This can be helpful in (consensual!) healing work. However, it should not be an everyday stance to take with just anyone. Hence, a trained empath is also able to quickly identify when they are picking up on other people’s energy and let it go without giving in to any need to explore that energy or do anything to help. Obviously, it takes time and practice to get to this way of interacting. Yet, it’s very possible.
It’s a little like playing soccer and keeping balls out of your team’s goal. You still perceive those balls, but you kick them away before they enter the goal. Obviously, if you’ve never played soccer, that task alone can seem daunting. But, as with anything, energy awareness is a practice that can slowly become second nature. In addition, when you start to reprogramme your own beliefs around what you are and aren’t responsible for, then you’ll find that less and less balls come near that goal in the first place.
(Oh, and you don’t necessarily need to “kick” them away, so to speak. Stopping them and rolling them away is fine too – there’s a lot of customization possible in how you prefer to work with energy “balls” :) )
Empaths and Self-Esteem
For all the reasons mentioned above: taking too much responsibility, embedding other people’s energy into your own energy field, and not quite knowing how all this works, empaths often struggle with low self-esteem. Put simply, self-esteem requires feeling good about yourself, meaning: feeling good in your own skin.Yet, untrained empaths will have accumulated piles and piles of others people’s energy and embedded it in their own energy field. This causes a lot of discomfort and can even cause physical pain.
It’s hard to feel good about yourself when your body doesn’t feel great, “your” (or so you think!) emotions are all over the place and you don’t have a clue what is going on or what to do about it. Hence, at a certain point, it’s easy for empaths to spiral into increasing self-deprecation. Helping other people, then becomes the only way (or so it seems) to feel worthy at all, even though, ultimately, all this focusing on others only makes the underlying problems bigger.
So let’s move on to the topic of getting help.
Clairsentience and the other clairs
Clairsentience is only one of the clairs out there, yet it’s a very specific one. While any one empath may or may not have other clair abilities too (e.g. telepathy, clairvoyance, clairaudience, clair-knowing) it’s important to realize that ways of dealing with those other clairs don’t necessarily do much to help deal with empath abilties.
Hence, for those empaths interested in attending spiritual workshops, it’s important to get a sense of the specific “clairs” that the teacher will be working with. As an empath, you need tools that help you with “feeling”. This is very different from the seeing ability that clairvoyance is all about. Yet, for whatever reason, clairvoyance is a lot more “popular” and common. Thus, empaths seeking spiritual training might easily find themselves in a workshop or course with someone who teaches from the perspective of clairvoyance.
To give you an idea, the difference between clairvoyance and clairsentience is like the difference between seeing other people’s emotional and physical rollercoasters (clairsentience) versus actually being on those rollercoasters with people (clairsentience/empath). Hence, people with the gift of clairvoyance will not be able to really understand your struggle around being so immersed and enmeshed with other people’s stuff. In addition, any energy tools taught will be taught from the “visual” perspective, when what you need as an empath are tools that appeal to your sense of feeling.
Empaths and Fear
Sadly, the topic of being an empath is often clouded in fear. When you start googling, you’ll find oodles of pages dedicated to “shielding” yourself from the negativity of others. I have more to say on the problems with that here. Yet, perhaps most importantly, I don’t think shielding has much of an impact in the bigger scheme of things.
The thing is, as empaths we attract other people’s painful energy because we feel on some deep subconscious level that we “should”. We are a lot more powerful than we think.
Over time, we developed numerous strategies by which to use our sensing ability to keep us safe or do what we thought was right. Unfortunately, nobody told us how to “uninstall” those inner programmes once they lost their functionality. As a result, a lot of very old and outdated emotional and mental inner programmes, that we have completely forgotten about over time, are still running the show (a.k.a. our life).
Hence, when we focus exclusively on techniques like shielding, we are in effect fighting ourself. That is (belief- and goal-wise) one part of us is trying to fight another part of us: one part of us is actively attracting and taking responsibility for other people’s energy, while another part of us is trying to get rid of all that.
As a result, the shielding route increases inner conflict. It may be effective as a temporary band-aid, but it’s definitely not a “cure” for energy overwhelm and energy drain.
It’s much more effective to observe what dominating beliefs and emotions inside of us surface and play a role in the empath dynamics we experience. When you’re willing to do the inner healing work, you will gain control over both your inner programming and what you allow to happen to your own energy. By slowly making inner changes, you can stop battling with the outside world. Instead, that outside world will function as a reflection, mirroring back to you something important that you believe about yourself/the world and/or a significant past experience that hasn’t been emotionally processed yet. It’s not an easy path, but it’s a fruitful one.
To begin with, start noticing ways in which you feel you “should” be around people who have a negative impact on you. That’s the first level of inner reprogramming: if you uncover resistance to setting strong boundaries with negative people in your life, then you can try to “shield” all you want, but the real issue is why do you believe that you need to let them into your space in the first place?
Often, these kind of beliefs have deep roots in childhood and beyond. They can usually be linked to being raised by a narcissistic parent, or by having a chronically ill parent or some other situation that put you into the care-taker role. Perhaps there is no clear situational link, and you have simply always felt responsible for the well-being of others somehow.
Either way, to stop empathic sponging and suffering requires a role re-evaluation. Who are you and what do you think your purpose is? And how is that working out for you?
Any dismantling of old patterns and roles will bring up inner resistance. Yet, the slow dismantling of old patterns is what needs to happen in order to change from a suffering empath to a happy one.
If you’re fed up with taking on the suffering of the world and you want to learn how to stop sponging (without shielding), BE you and feel like you then take a look at the empath course.