The Differences Between Being Empathetic, Highly Sensitive or Empathic

You may have seen or heard recently about people who are being categorized as highly sensitive or empathic. I’ve received some questions asking to clarify exactly what this means and how it differs from being empathetic.


According to Psychology Today, empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. It is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s or life form’s frame of reference. (Wikipedia)


Hypothetically every person has the capability to cultivate and enhance their ability to feel empathy for all life forms. For most people, being empathetic is a choice.


Being empathic or a highly sensitive person is quite a bit different. It has to do with how your nervous system is put together, rather than how you choose to use your cognitive faculties to perceive the world. You see … each person’s nervous system is as unique as his or her fingerprints.


Though there is a basic overriding blueprint for the form of the body and the structures within it, each body is completely and utterly distinctive from all others, even in identical twins.


Take for instance the nervous system or the cardiovascular system. There are main branches of nerves or cardiovascular vessels that are basically the same root form in most individuals, but each little branching dendrite or capillary follows its own pattern and path. No two people are the same. Each person’s cardiovascular system or nervous system is as individualized as their fingerprints.


To me this is an undeniable testament to how special and unique each and every person is. No one is more special than anyone else. No one is having any more valid or important an experience of Life than any one else. All Life is special, unique and inestimably valuable. All the varied experiences of Life, all the varied ways to experience Life, are important and of immense value to expanding and balancing our shared self-conscious awareness.

Remember the Golden Rules:

Love God


With that being said, there is a small percentage of the population that has a nervous system wired to be highly sensitive and there is an even smaller percentage of the population that is wired to be empathic. Just like there is a small percentage of the population that has red hair and brown eyes and an even smaller percentage of the population that has red hair and blue eyes. Even though red hair and blue eyes is the least common hair-eye combination there are millions of blue-eyed ginger haired people in the world. And they are having no more effective a human experience than any one with black hair and brown eyes or blonde hair and green eyes. It is all good! There is no need to aggrandize people who have highly sensitive or empathic nervous systems anymore than those who have a rare combination of hair and eye color.


Now that I have driven that point into the ground, it is estimated that about 15-20% of the human population has a nervous system that is highly sensitive to bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, loud noises, and violence or exuberance in others. Biologists have also identified this trait in over 100 species from fruit flies to dogs and cats, so it is not exclusive to primates like human beings. {See the work of Dr. Elaine Aron}.


Highly Sensitive People are often described as being overly fussy, shy, inhibited or neurotic. They tend to notice more about what is going on around them and can be easily over stimulated when things are too intense, complex, chaotic or novel for a long time. Well-adjusted highly sensitive people learn to cope with their bodies and their mind’s responses to their finely tuned nervous systems by avoiding over stimulus, withdrawing from crowds, and diligently guarding their private time.


An empath, on the other hand, has an entirely different experience. Like highly sensitive people, an empath’s nervous system is very good at receiving data. The empathic nervous system easily perceives data from animate as well as inanimate objects on a subtle as well as gross level in an internalized fashion (from the inside out) and this internalization is what makes the experience distinctive. The highly sensitive person perceives data in an externalized fashion (from the outside in) only at a much more intense volume than a typically wired nervous system.


For an empath it is not about having finely tuned super senses, it is about experiencing within their own body what another living being is experiencing. This manifests in many ways: like literally experiencing an emotion when another person is experiencing the emotion – even if the other person is not outwardly expressing the emotion; being able to experience emotions or trauma that have been stored inside another person’s body tissues; sensing a physical pain in the body that mirrors another person’s physical pain; or even being able to perceive the work being done by atoms of physical matter as they hold themselves together in physical form.


It is very easy for an empath to become overloaded in social situations, or even out taking a hike in nature.

I have been asked to describe what an empathic overload is like, and I can only speak from my own experience.


For me, an empathic overload involves my normal physical senses shutting down, just as in yogic pratyahara {aka the in-turning of senses}. There is a very distinct sensation of the current of energy being diverted away from the gross nervous system and redirected into the subtle nervous system of the subtle body. I begin to hear not with my physical ears, but with my astral ears. When pratyahara occurs I hear, see or feel the subtle energetic forces that are holding everything together in this plane of existence. It is so loud and overpowering I cannot perceive what is going on in the denser plane, and I have not mastered the ability to keep my physical senses online when the astral ones have usurped power. I imagine there are many adept yogis out and about who can do this. I am not one of them.


There is no way to really describe the sensations, but as I work to bring my focus back to the physical plane and use my physical senses to communicate with those around me I feel something that is a little bit like static electricity INSIDE my nervous system. This is not like getting shocked by static electricity from something outside of the body that you touch. It is not like static building up along the clothing or skin when you rub your feet across the carpet. It is completely internal, it is a concentration of energy that builds up from the friction between the subtle nervous system rubbing against and switching over to the dense/gross/physical nervous system.


This is just a brief description of what I experience and I imagine that due to the uniqueness of each and every one of us, there are as many ways to have empathic experiences as there are nervous systems.


Additionally, any person that wants to experience yogic pratyahara can achieve this by following and practicing Kriya Yoga instruction. {I recommend Kriology: The Mystical Tradition of Kriya Yoga.}  You do not need to have an empathically wired nervous system or even a highly sensitive one to achieve pratyahara. In fact, it is probably much easier to achieve pratyahara with a typically wired nervous system than a highly sensitive one, because there will be less distractions. 

Daily contemplative prayer, inviting Holy Spirit to saturate the atmosphere and dwell within you will yield the same results. Working with Holy Spirit will magnify and accelerate your efforts.



At this time, there is no scientific understanding of why some people are empathic or highly sensitive. And, there seems to be some potential in the new discovery and study of mirror neurons.


mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. It is proposed that mirror neurons originated from a genetic predisposition to facilitate action understanding. (Wikipedia)


One current theory is that empaths have nervous systems with more mirror neurons or more active mirror neurons. Having an empathically wired nervous system or a highly sensitive nervous system seems to be a genetic trait, passed down for generations; just like Rh-negative blood or the color of your hair.


Highly Sensitive People and Empaths do not necessarily have ESP {Extra Sensory Perception} or, as my yoga teacher liked to term it Extraordinary Spiritual Potential. Communion with God results in a sound mind, accurate intuition and truly Extraordinary Spiritual Potential.

Keep in mind that in 2016 scientists discovered a new organ in the human intestinal tract called the mesentery. For as long as we have been dissecting and studying our bodies (hundreds of years), medical scientists only just recently realized that the mesentery was an individualized organ. My point is that there is quite a lot we still do not understand or even know about the body in general and the nervous system in particular. And hopefully, we will continue to expand our understanding and knowledge as the years progress.


For the meantime, there is absolutely no conclusive scientific explanation as to why some people are highly sensitive or why they are empathic. And indeed there is still quite a bit of speculation in cognitive neuroscience and cognitive psychology regarding high sensitivity or empathic abilities. It may take quite some time before these nuances are medically accepted. There are plenty of resources and forums online for both highly sensitive people and empaths. I invite you to try finding one that speaks to your vision of life and enjoy the fellowship provided there.


I hope this quick blog answers the questions to satisfaction and perhaps even raises some new ones.


Many Blessings to You Dear Friends, 

I am happy and honored to be here with you bringing Heave to Earth. Cheers! Vanes

© RemPhys 2022