Does an HSP’s Empathy Really Change Lives?

A highly sensitive person with her hands crossed over her chest in an expression of empathy

Highly sensitive people are big on empathy. But does it actually do any good?

As a highly sensitive person (HSP), you know how easily you’re affected by everything and everyone around you. You might wince when witnessing someone else’s pain, cry along with those who are in tears, or feel deep smoldering anger at the injustice in the world. You have these reactions because as an HSP, you don’t just notice what others don’t — you empathize. You try to see the world from other people’s points of view. To understand them. 

But if you’re like me, you might have also wondered if being this way is good and if your empathy helps anyone. Does it actually make a difference?

As it turns out, the impact may surprise you — both among professionals and in everyday life.

The Surprising Power of Empathy 

In his book On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy, psychologist Carl Rogers writes as follows. “I have found it of enormous value when I can permit myself to understand another person… my understanding of these individuals permits them to change. It permits them to accept their own fears and bizarre thoughts and tragic feelings and discouragements, as well as their moments of courage and kindness and love and sensitivity. And it is their experience as well as mine that when someone fully understands those feelings, this enables them to accept those feelings in themselves.” Rogers’ work has had a profound influence on the fields of therapy, coaching and education. According to him, empathy is not only helpful, but also transformational. In other words: empathy changes lives. 

You might have experienced empathy’s transformational power yourself. Have you ever told someone about a struggle you’re facing and come away from the conversation feeling a whole lot better? (And, did you notice that your listener actually said very little?) Chances are you were in conversation with an empathetic or sensitive listener.

I’ve had a few such life-altering chats. Each was unique — different struggles, different people. Some were even by email. Yet they all had one thing in common: They made me feel heard.

That sense of being “heard” is indescribably comforting. It makes you feel accepted, understood and, often, full of new perspectives. It’s as if the mere affirmation and presence of someone caring can allow you to get over fears, restore your self-esteem, and push forward to your goals. 

It wasn’t the advice these individuals gave that created this feeling. It was their empathy. My listeners helped me feel comfortable enough to be vulnerable. That made me feel like my experiences were valid and important. As I spoke about what I was going through, they gave me their full attention. I didn’t feel judged. Instead, they responded with words and actions that made me feel understood. They asked questions to help me think and offered encouragement. That helped me rebuild my confidence and trust my intuition. That is what empathy does — it heals people. And, increasingly, scientists are seeing this, too. 

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The Science Behind Empathy’s Transformative Power

A new wave of research into empathy has had significant results. Empathy isn’t just powerful emotionally, researchers have found; it can actually build relationships, make work more enjoyable and productive, support recovery from loss, and help in dealing with physical illnesses. Social scientist Mary T. Shannon goes so far as to say that, “The simple yet complex art of listening is, in and of itself, a clinical intervention, for the healing that comes from being listened to is often greater than any cure.” Empathy, she writes, is therapeutic.

Empathy is one of the strengths of the highly sensitive person. Brain scan studies show that when HSPs notice people, parts of the brain involved in processing information, empathizing, and preparing to respond are activated — far more so than the same brain areas in non-HSPs.

In fact, sensitive people don’t just listen to what a person is saying through their words. We also notice body language and pick up on unspoken emotions. Then, we actively do things that help people feel heard. We intuitively alter our tone of voice and body posture to match the person we are listening to. We respond with behavior like crying, hugging, and offering encouragement and support, which contribute to helping people feel heard and understood. At our best, we practice emotional intelligence and compassion.  

In other words: yes, HSPs, your empathy really does matter. It really does change people’s lives. And, even if it is painful sometimes, it can even change the world. It is not just in your head. 

Yet being empathic does have risks. Even for HSPs, empathy takes energy and effort. As a result, if we’re not careful with it, we may experience burnout, fatigue, and illness. As HSPs, we need to be mindful of our own wellbeing as we empathize so that we stay healthy while helping others heal.

There is no fixed recipe for how to do that, but here are the things that researchers — and my own experience — suggest help the most.

6 Ways to Practice Empathy Without Burnout

1. Pay attention to how you’re feeling before you offer to listen.

On realizing that you are an empathic listener, people may reach out to you to help them process their thoughts. It’s wonderful news because it means they know the value of your sensitivity.

However, you might not always be in the right space to handle their burdens. You could be dealing with your own struggles. You might be overwhelmed or burned out. Maybe you’re recovering physically and psychologically from some kind of hurt. Listening to another person in this state might worsen your health. You might also find yourself being snappier and more judgmental than usual, and that could hurt rather than help the person you are listening to. So, it’s important for both your wellbeing and the other person’s that you feel better first.

It is completely okay — and compassionate — to tell someone, “I’m pretty emotionally exhausted right now, and I know I won’t be the best person to listen or help. But I want to make sure you get support. Do you have someone else you can talk to?” 

Alternatively, offer to talk with them at another set day or time — but only if you’re sure you will have the energy by then. 

2. Be aware of your own biases — and how they’ll affect the conversation.

Our empathy can be colored by our biases. Our relationships with the person we are listening to and the issues that they want to discuss can affect the tone of the conversation. For example, if the person who wants to speak to you has hurt you before, you may find it challenging to listen to them without recalling the hurt. Or if you’ve idolized them, you might find it difficult to accept the reality of their struggles and shortcomings. 

You might even have strong feelings about the issue itself. For example, imagine a female friend who needs to vent about how she was criticized for giving her baby formula rather than breast milk (or vice versa). If you have the opposite preference to your friend, it can end up skewing your advice or your ability to listen. The same is true for issues you are grappling with yourself, or that trigger trauma from your past. It’s difficult in these situations to empathize without judgment. 

If you know you have strong feelings about a person or issue, then, it’s a good idea to help them find someone else to talk to and focus on healing yourself before you give them a listening ear. 

3. Be present as your sensitive self (even if that means being silent).

People whose work requires a lot of interaction with suffering — such as doctors, nurses and therapists — are often taught to set aside their sensitivity and distance themselves emotionally from their patients. They are even taught the “right” things to say, rather than allowing their feelings to guide their words. This training was not meant to be heartless — it was once believed to reduce the risk of burnout and “compassion fatigue.” In reality, it makes them less present, less connected to their patients. Research now shows that this sense of distance can feel uncomfortable and disingenuous. 

(Patients themselves are well aware of this. A study of people with cancer showed that patients did not want carers to pity them or mechanically say the right words. Instead, they wanted their healthcare providers to be sensitive and feel their sorrows with them.)

It’s not just in hospitals where this matters. Even for HSPs, it can be all too easy to fall into saying the “right” things, the stock phrases that distance us from people’s pain: “I’m sure it will all work out for the best.” “Things always happen for a reason.” “He’ll get his in the end.” 

We say these things because we often don’t know what to say. How do you respond to someone’s loss, when there is no way to undo it? How do you help them during injustice, when you have no way to right it? 

But there is something you can say: you can say nothing. You can just listen, truly present, and let the person talk. You can put your arm around them or hold their hand. You can sit through the awkward silences while they find their words. 

Or, if you need to say anything at all, you can ask questions. 

People crave this kind of true empathy, and — if you can silence the words we’re “trained” to say — such empathy will come naturally to you as an HSP. 

So, forget about what you “should” do (or say) and be present for your patient, student, client, employee, family member or friend as your sensitive self.

Want to reduce stress and thrive as an empath? We recommend these online courses from psychotherapist and sensitivity expert Julie Bjelland. Click here to learn more.

4. Ask the person confiding in you what they need.

In a 2021 study, researchers asked bank employees what made them feel heard by their supervisors. Some of them said that they felt listened to if their supervisors made time and space for them to speak. Others, however, were not satisfied with just having the opportunity to transfer information. They felt heard only if the conversation was followed by some kind of action on the part of their supervisor, be it mentoring and brainstorming, making changes in the workplace or getting new resources. For the second group of people, listening included responding. It’s only when the speaker’s specific requirement is met that they would truly feel heard.

So, how do we figure out what the person we’re listening to needs or expects? The simplest way would be to ask. A friend often asks me, “Do you need a listening ear today or would you also like my suggestions?” Other questions you could ask include “How would you like me to help?” or “What might make you feel better?” Once you know, you would be in a better position to give them what they need.

Even so, the person you are speaking with may not always know for sure. They might initially say that they only want to vent and later ask for your opinion. Contrarily, they might say they want your advice only to answer their own questions during the conversation. If they aren’t sure what they need, start by listening and ask them what they’d like you to do for them later.

5. Be mindful of your own wellbeing during the conversation.

The first time that I listened to a person who was dealing with a lot of difficulties, I ended up feeling physically unwell. I got so invested in their wellbeing that I completely forgot about my own. We spoke for hours, during which I barely hydrated. I skipped lunch and avoided moving from my seat. By the end of the day, I was so exhausted I developed a horrible migraine.

I’m not the only one. As an HSP, you can easily get engrossed in the lives of the people you empathize with — and yet HSPs tend to feel tired quicker when listening than other people do. To avoid burnout and illness, it’s important that we learn to care for ourselves while “doing” empathy. 

One of the best ways to do that is to let the person know up front how much time you have: “I can talk for about an hour. What’s on your mind?” 

Another way is to remember that interrupting for your own needs isn’t rude, it’s a kindness to both of you. For example, you can say, “Hold on. I want to hear the rest of this, too. Let me refill my water bottle/make us a snack/turn down this bright lighting first.” 

6. Figure out what to do with the emotions and information you have taken in.

HSPs tend to feel other people’s pain as if it were our own. We also absorb and internalize a lot of what other people are saying and feeling. So, after speaking with a person who’s struggling, you might feel on edge (from their stress), gutted (from their grief), or even violated and helpless (from their trauma). You need to know how to notice these internalizations and deal with them appropriately. Here are two ways to do that. 

First, after a heavy conversation, I take a few minutes to whisper to myself that the feelings I’m experiencing may not be mine. “I’m not stressed out, Smita was.” Or, “The sadness I’m feeling right now is James’s. I’m actually celebrating a huge milestone at work.” Labeling which emotions are mine and which ones aren’t often helps me let go of the feelings that I’ve absorbed from others. 

However, some feelings and thoughts might have gotten in deep. They might have triggered a memory that I haven’t healed from or brought up an unresolved fear. That’s when the second method comes in: make space to process what’s coming up for you. You might even ask another sensitive listener to hear you out. Or, take time to yourself (in your HSP sanctuary space, in nature, or just anywhere on your own) to let yourself feel what you need to feel. 

You too might find it beneficial to ask yourself whose emotions, beliefs and stories you are holding close to your heart. When you know, also ask yourself how you want to be present for and listen to yourself.

Your Empathy Really Does Transform Lives

As an HSP, there are many strengths that you bring to the world. Your empathy is one of them. And it’s a formidable gift to have because it can transform lives. Your family, friends, colleagues, clients, even strangers benefit from your empathy. As they speak to you, knowing that you hear and understand them, they begin to find clarity and confidence within themselves. Your empathy helps them grow. 

But something else happens too. 

Carl Rogers explained that when we set aside our biases and beliefs and really try to understand another person, our perceptions about them, the world and ourselves can shift. We may leave that dialogue just as changed. By empathizing with and listening to another individual, you might find that you have grown too. 

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