In Psychology, “Highly Sensitive People” Refers to Empaths. Here’s Why a Euphemism Was Needed.

By Rachel Puryear

If you are an empath, you may have read Dr. Elaine Aron’s seminal book “The Highly Sensitive Person“. If you did read it, you probably related strongly to it. (If you have not read this work, I highly recommend doing so.) This book describes people considered “highly sensitive” (HSP), and assures us that we are normal, making up about 20% of the population. Note: “Highly sensitive” does not refer to emotional sensitivity – rather, sensitivity to sensory stimulation. HSP’s tend to also be creative, highly attuned to others’ needs, introverted, they tend to like quiet and moving at a relaxed pace, and…they tend to be highly spiritual.

In reading anything about HSP’s, you likely noticed the strong similarities between HSP’s and empaths. The traits of each seem to match up pretty closely. You might wonder, what is the difference between the two? How much do they overlap?

Open hands with sparks of light coming out against the night sky.

Here’s my take:

I believe that HSP’s are empaths, and empaths are HSP’s. Each of these two terms refers to the same people. I believe that Dr. Aron knows this, too, but had good reasons to use a different term in her book.

In the book, Dr. Aron dedicates a chapter to HSP’s and spirituality. Of course, spiritual practice is important to most HSP’s, and they tend to be very interested in spiritual matters generally. So, Dr. Aron rightfully gives a nod to the spiritual inclinations of HSP’s.

However, the book overall downplays the more controversial spiritual aspects experienced by many of us. These include experiences like feeling the energy of others, absorbing others’ emotions, the need for energy healing; and some HSP’s/empaths report things like communications with spirits, premonitions, and so forth.

Does this mean that Dr. Aron is part of a conspiracy to misrepresent us? No, absolutely not – relax. 🙂 Dr. Aron is one of us, and has done excellent work in helping us realize that we are not alone, and in increasing general awareness about the fact that we do exist.

She also understands the importance of balancing multiple considerations: On the one hand, giving as much information as she can about us helps tell more of our story. On the other hand; getting the scientific community, as well as more of the public at large, to recognize that we exist; and to believe us; also benefits us in a great many ways.

Improving awareness of our existence and acceptance of us is not an easy task; as people tend to be resistant to new understandings of the world, and sensitivity is looked down upon (wrongfully so) in our culture.

Furthermore, the spiritual experiences of HSP’s/empaths tend to directly contradict deeply entrenched beliefs on multiple ends. The public at large in our culture tends to be predominantly Christian. The spiritual experiences of HSP’s/empaths are at odds with the teachings of most Christian sects (except the most progressive ones, which are awesome but are also in the minority). At the same time, the majority of the scientific community tends to be decidedly atheistic, and deeply skeptical of any claimed experiences which tend to contradict a material reductionist worldview.

Getting those in the fields of psychology and medicine in general to understand more about HSP’s/empaths and to be more aware of our needs, was a major accomplishment of that book. (Of course, it’s not over, but it’s opened lots of possibilities.) Progress in that regard would have most likely stalled or even stopped had Dr. Aron referred to us as “empaths”, as the term is associated with our more controversial spiritual experiences. Nonetheless, most of us probably do prefer the term “empath” over “highly sensitive”. Dr. Aron described as much as she could about our spirituality and its importance to us, without making the entire book needlessly controversial and undermining its ability to increase understanding and awareness of us in medical fields.

Thank you, dear readers, for reading, following, and sharing. Much love * and healing* to all of you. xoxo

4 responses to “In Psychology, “Highly Sensitive People” Refers to Empaths. Here’s Why a Euphemism Was Needed.”

  1. […] people who are highly empathic, introverted, or highly neurosensitive; life can be full of things we find more tiring and draining than most other people do. That […]


  2. […] and compassionately tends to yield better results than more toxic criticism. If you’re an empathic person (likely you are, if you follow this blog), you likely make great efforts to limit your criticism of […]


  3. […] I believe that Dr. Aron had good reason to go with that term, although many HSP people don’t care for the term “highly sensitive”. Many of us prefer colloquial terms including “empathic,” “empaths,” or “highly empathic people”. (These terms are used interchangeably on this blog.) […]


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