People often lump introverts, empaths, and highly sensitive people together. Although they share some similar traits, they’re each quite different. So what is the difference — and do you see yourself fitting into one or more of these categories? Let’s take a look.
There’s been a lot of awareness-raising about introverts lately, and most people now understand that being an introvert doesn’t necessarily make you shy or unsociable. In fact, many introverts are social people who love spending time with a few close friends. But introverts get drained quickly in those social situations, and need plenty of time alone in order to recharge their energy. That’s why introverts often prefer to stay in, or spend time with just one or two people rather than a big group.
Being an introvert is genetic, and it involves differences in how the brain processes dopamine, the “reward” chemical. People who are born as introverts simply don’t feel as rewarded by external stimuli such as parties or chitchat, and as a result, they get worn out in those situations relatively quickly. On the other hand, many introverts draw deep satisfaction from meaningful activities like reading, creative hobbies, and quiet contemplation.
If you’re a highly sensitive person (HSP), you’re much more likely to be an introvert than an extrovert. Dr. Elaine Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person, estimates that about 70 percent of HSPs are also introverts — so it makes sense why they’re often confused for one another. A highly sensitive introvert may come across as very observant, caring, emotional, and able to read others well — even though people exhaust them!
Nevertheless, you can be an introvert and not be highly sensitive. This would look like being less “in tune” with people, because for HSPs, the brightest thing on their radar is other people! It may also mean being less stressed by certain types of stimulation, such as time pressure, violent movie scenes, repetitive noises, etc. — even though you still need plenty of alone time.
- About 30 to 50 percent of the population are introverts
- Some introverts are neither empaths nor highly sensitive people
- Introversion is a well-studied personality trait that’s separate from the other two.
The word “empath” has been taking on a new meaning lately. At one point, it was used mostly in science fiction to describe a person with paranormal abilities to understand the mental and emotional states of others. Although many people still associate empaths with a spiritual component, today the word has become more mainstream. Now it’s commonly used to mean someone who is extremely aware of the emotions of those around them.
Here’s what that looks like. Empaths would say they’re not just “noticing” others’ feelings; the experience is often one of absorbing their emotions. It’s as if empaths feel others’ emotions right alongside them. And, according to Dr. Judith Orloff, author of The Empath’s Survival Guide, this may even include physical symptoms. When overwhelmed with stressful emotions, empaths may experience panic attacks, depression, chronic fatigue, and physical symptoms that defy traditional medical diagnosis, she writes.
For empaths, this ability is both a gift and a curse. It can be hard because many empaths feel they cannot “turn it off,” or it takes them years to develop ways to turn it down when needed. As a result, empaths can find themselves going from perfectly happy to overwhelmed with stress, anxiety, or other feelings simply because someone else walked into the room.
At the same time, an empath’s ability to absorb feelings is their greatest strength. It allows them to understand others and connect deeply with them. It’s also what makes them extraordinary caretakers, friends, and partners — especially when others understand and appreciate their gift.
Similar to HSPs, empaths also have highly tuned senses, strong intuitive abilities, and can need time alone to decompress, according to Orloff.
- Empaths can be introverts or extroverts
- “Absorbing” emotions most likely happens by picking up on subtle social/emotional cues and then internalizing them — an unconscious process that empaths often can’t control
- Many empaths are likely highly sensitive people
Highly Sensitive People
Like introverts and empaths, highly sensitive people are often misunderstood. It’s common to use the word “sensitive” as if it’s a bad thing, which means HSPs sometimes get a bad rap. But the truth is, being highly sensitive simply means you process more information about the world around you than others do. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re “easily offended” or you cry at the drop of a hat.
For HSPs, that means:
- Processing things very deeply and noticing connections that others don’t notice
- Sometimes becoming overwhelmed or overstimulated because your brain is processing so much input (especially in highly stimulating environments like a party or busy classroom)
- Picking up on emotional cues, like empaths, and feeling a deep degree of empathy for others
- Noticing small and subtle things that others often overlook (like textures and faint noises)
In other words, being highly sensitive has an emotional dimension to it, and many HSPs would qualify as empaths — they tend to feel the emotions of others just like empaths do. At the same time, being an HSP also involves being more sensitive to all sensory input, not just emotions. HSPs can become overwhelmed in situations that are simply too noisy, crowded, or fast-paced, whether there are specific emotions to deal with or not.
Like introversion, high sensitivity has been well studied. It’s largely genetic and involves several unique differences in the brain. It’s also a healthy, normal trait shared by up to 20 percent of the population.
- HSPs can be introverts or extroverts
- It’s likely that most (if not all) HSPs are also empaths
- Empaths and HSPs may turn out to be two sides of a single trait as empaths are studied more
Are you an HSP? Check out these 21 signs of a highly sensitive person.
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The Overlap Between Introverts, Empaths, and HSPs
There can be overlaps between these traits, but there doesn’t have to be. A person can be all three — an introverted, highly sensitive empath — or they can be any one or two of them. These are, after all, personality traits, and everyone’s personality is unique.
As a rule, however, it is likely that most empaths are highly sensitive people. Many of the traits we ascribe to empaths are just the traits of HSPs by a different name. Not every HSP that they “absorb” the emotions of others; but those who do are probably empaths.
The Opposite of an Introvert, Empath, or HSP
The opposite of an introvert is an extrovert. Extroverts are sometimes said to get their energy from social situations. They have a much longer “social battery” than introverts, and their brains are wired to get a great deal of satisfaction from these situations.
The opposite of empathy or high sensitivity is sometimes said to be narcissism, but that’s simply not true. Just as being highly sensitive (or empathic) is healthy, being less so can be a healthy trait as well. Less sensitive people simply aren’t as impacted by the stimuli around them. Just as high sensitivity can be extremely valuable in certain situations, being less sensitive can also be valuable — particularly in loud, demanding environments like industrial work sites, the military, and others. These individuals are not necessarily narcissistic or selfish.
All personality traits exist for a reason. Introversion, empathy, and high sensitivity are all valuable, advantageous traits. And the human species does best when we have a diverse population with many different perspectives. It all depends on the situations you find yourself in and how well you learn to use your personality’s natural strengths.
Are you an introvert, empath, or a highly sensitive person — or several of those? Please leave me a comment below and share your thoughts.
You might like:
- The Highly Sensitive Person’s Road Map to Mindfully Controlling Stress and Anxiety
- Why Is Losing a Pet Especially Hard for HSPs?
- How I Learned to Stop Absorbing Other People’s Emotions
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