Empaths and highly sensitive people (HSPs) have always been part of the human experience. However, the terms we are familiar with came into existence in the 20th century to describe individuals with heightened sensitivity and empathic abilities.
Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)
The term "highly sensitive person" was coined by Dr. Elaine Aron, a clinical psychologist, and researcher, in the 1990s. Dr. Aron discovered that a significant portion of the population possessed a unique trait called sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), which makes them more aware and reactive to external stimuli. In her groundbreaking book, "The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You," Dr. Aron described HSPs as having a sensitive nervous system, a rich inner life, and a heightened ability to empathize with others.
While the term "empath" has been in use for much longer, it gained popularity in the 1970s with the rise of the New Age movement. The word "empath" is derived from "empathy," which is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. The term describes individuals with heightened empathic abilities, which allow them to feel and absorb the emotions and energies of others. Empaths were often associated with psychic skills; their experiences were mystical and otherworldly.
However, it was not until the 1990s that the term "empath" was reintroduced into mainstream psychology by Dr. Judith Orloff, a psychiatrist and intuitive healer. Dr. Orloff defined empaths as individuals with a highly sensitive nervous system, a capacity for emotional contagion, and an ability to feel the emotions and physical sensations of others. In her book, "The Empath's Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People," Dr. Orloff provides practical guidance for empaths to protect their energy, set boundaries, and navigate their unique experiences.
Today, "empath" and "HSP" are often used interchangeably, describing individuals with heightened sensitivity and empathic abilities. While the scientific community has yet to understand the mechanisms behind these traits fully, there is growing evidence to suggest that it is linked to neurological and physiological factors, such as differences in brain structure and function, hormone levels, and genetic variations.
Cultural and Historical References
Before the terms "empath" and "highly sensitive person" came into use, the phenomenon of heightened sensitivity and empathic abilities was often explained and understood through various cultural and psychological frameworks.
Throughout history, different cultures and belief systems recognized individuals with heightened sensitivity or intuitive abilities. In many indigenous cultures, these individuals were "healers," "seers," or "wise ones." They were seen as having a special connection with the spiritual realm and the ability to tap into unseen energies or dimensions.
Psychologically, some concepts and theories touch on the experiences of highly sensitive individuals. For instance, Carl Jung, the renowned Swiss psychiatrist and founder of analytical psychology, introduced the concept of the "sensitive soul." He described individuals with a greater susceptibility to external stimuli, a heightened emotional sensitivity, and a deeper connection to the unconscious.
Additionally, "empathy" and "intuition" have long been recognized in psychology and philosophy. Philosophers, including Aristotle and David Hume, explored the idea of empathy as a way of understanding others' experiences and emotions. The field of psychology later expanded on these concepts, studying empathy as an essential aspect of human social interaction and emotional understanding.
However, it wasn't until more recently that specific terms such as "empath" and "highly sensitive person" emerged to describe these experiences in more precise and focused ways. These terms have provided a framework for individuals to identify and understand their unique sensitivities, allowing for greater self-awareness, support, and validation within a broader community.
The development and popularization of these terms have contributed to a deeper exploration and acceptance of heightened sensitivity and empathic abilities as valid and significant aspect of human experience. This recognition has allowed individuals to embrace and navigate their unique qualities more effectively while fostering a greater understanding and appreciation of diversity in human psychology.
Arielle is a best-selling author, holistic life coach and intuitive energy healer.