Who are highly sensitive people, empaths and intuitives?

While the term “highly sensitive person” has a foundation in psychology research (this researcher started the hype) and a fairly established definition, the latter few are terms that seem to be floating around the web in clouds of free association with comparably nebulous terms, like indigo child or (New-Age) shaman.

Depending on the website you land on or the book you open, empath can refer to anything from a very empathic person burnt out by their concern for others through an emotionally intense person overwhelmed by their feelings to a psychic clairsentient.

While I’m in no position to arbitrate on what’s correct, here’s the sense I make of it:

  • A sensitive is an HSP in Elaine Aron’s terms; that is a person who falls into the 15-20% of the population who react more intensely to sensory stimulation (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch) and/or to emotions and intellectual ideas. You take many things in more deeply than the majority of people; while your responses to the world are accordingly often more nuanced and thought-through, you are also more easily bothered by chaos and abrasiveness; the bad, the ugly, and the loud.
  • An emotionally intense person is someone who is not just sensitive to what is around them, but also passionate. About topics, about people, about getting to the bottom of things. In addition to feeling things deeply, your emotions have the fire in them. This fire is pure power and energy. However, this is also a trait that is often mistaken for pathology, or can lead to emotional problems when you don’t have the user’s manual – which you typically don’t get from the majority of people around you, who can do with strategies of managing emotions that won’t work for you.
  • An empath is not simply an empathic person. I’m discussing this difference here in more depth.
  • An empath is someone who feels other people’s moods, emotions, states of being (that can include their emotional, mental, bodily and/or spiritual state of being) in their own body; without making an effort to put themselves in their shoes and imagine what it’s like for the other, thus generating an approximation through active, deliberate acts of empathising. An empath may either just receive these states randomly into their body – without realising what’s going on and going half-crazy over trying to understand where they come from (as was the case for me); or they may receive these states when focusing on someone (either with their senses or mind).
  • A clairsentient, in the sense I use it here, is someone who receives information about things they can’t physically feel through their proprioceptive (bodily feeling) sense. Some people use this term to mean either an empath who has developed the ability to understand what they are sensing (an untrained empath may often just sense a “bam!! crazy gut feeling!” and not understand the source of the feeling, nor know how to name or interpret it). Others, to the contrary, use it to refer to someone who receives psi-like information about others or the world through their proprioception, but for whom it’s not as total and intense as for an empath. E.g. one form of clairsentience is an “energy sense” in which someone can “scan” a person with their hands without touching and receive tingling or warmth sensations that are relevant to the other’s health – here you receive psi-like information through your feeling sense, but it’s local (hand) and does not flood your whole being the way it often does for an empath.
  • I use intuitive as an umbrella term to refer to people who receive information, visions, sounds and other impressions, knowings and/or direction from an intuitive, internal source. Empaths often experience that, but you can experience it without being an empath. This ability can be very beautiful, but since intuition is not recognised as a credible source of knowledge in Western culture, it can also be very confusing and/or scary if you have no idea what is going on.
  • A psychic is an umbrella term for anyone experiencing extrasensory perception, i.e. knowing things about others and the world without having perceived them through their usual five senses, or affecting the world or others without using their physical body. This includes clairvoyance, clairsentience, empathy (in the sense of empaths), and more (see a sample of the zoo here). Although I have resisted that idea for a long time, on my definition, an empath is a type of psychic.

Empathy as a psychic skill can be harder to notice than the others, as suddenly seeing or smelling (that’s, crazy enough, a modality for me — clairolfactance) something that is not physically present is an experience that sets itself apart quite distinctly from the background of your day. However, when physically feeling something that is not your own emotion, the source may feel “internal” even when it’s not. If you suspect you are an empath, this article as well as this one may help you decide.


Elaine Aron, The Highly Sensitive Person

Imi Lo, Emotional Sensitivity and Intensity


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