From Kryptonite to Superpower: My Story of Being an Empath in Academia by Claudia Mirretta Barone

My name is Claudi. I am a scientist and I am “too sensitive”, “emotional”, and often “take things too personally”; at least, that’s what others have told me all my life. This made me believe that there was something wrong with me and that I didn’t have what it takes to be successful in academia, or life in general. Because of this, I have suffered from my supposed vulnerability and weakness and I have repeatedly tried to figure out what was wrong with me and how to fix it – fix ME – by numbing myself, because that was what I felt others expected me to do. 

Empathy – My kryptonite

Only about a year ago, in my mid-30s, I came to the realization that there was in fact nothing wrong with me and I learned that there even is a name for people like me: I learned that I am an empath; a highly sensitive person (HSP) who possesses heightened sensitivity to physical, emotional, and social stimuli, otherwise known as “sensory processing sensitivity”.

I am very sensitive to my environment and feel easily overwhelmed by external stimuli. I am always conscious of light, odors, noise, and large crowds of people. Often, my surroundings are too bright, too smelly, or too noisy, which becomes exhausting and energy-draining. However, despite these environmental factors, emotional stimuli are the ones I struggle with most. Empaths can not only sense, but also absorb other people’s emotions. The feelings, thoughts and actions of others affect me easily. I can deeply understand any person on a deep, emotional level, and absorb their feelings and emotions and soak in their energy, whether I want to or not. This basically means that I can not only imagine other people’s emotions, but actually feel what they feel (sometimes even their physical pain), and I easily reach the point where I cannot differentiate between my own feelings and those of others. 

When people around me are experiencing something bad, it feels as if it is happening to me and the accumulation of these negative emotions drags me down and wears me out. The insecurities, pain, grief, worries, and fears of others are my kryptonite; the longer I am exposed to these emotions the weaker I get, similar to the loss of power that Superman experiences when exposed to kryptonite. 

This blog post is the story of my personal experiences in academia as a highly sensitive person. While I cannot make others feel what I feel, I want to invite you – the reader – to see academia through the eyes of an empath. I hope to share my experiences to raise awareness about how toxic academia can be and that we all need to commit to change to help create a healthier environment for the good of us all.

What academia feels like for an empath

I would claim that most academics, like me, chose a career in academia because – at least to some extent – we had a dream to change the world for the better, by working on something that matters and enjoying the thrill of creating knowledge with intellectual freedom. Later on, however, we often find ourselves in a dysfunctional system in which only the fittest survive but we all must try to squeeze ourselves through this tiny eye of a needle to create a career in academia, fighting over very limited resources and positions. We have started out with the best of intentions but got stuck somewhere along the way. The dream has turned into a nightmare; a nightmare that has become reality. The system is broken and probably always has been. We are only one of many generations of academics who are experiencing the same shortcomings. As a result, over-competitiveness has created a toxic environment; an incredibly unhealthy culture that negatively affects us all.

Especially in this highly competitive, fast-paced academic environment, being an empath easily leads to sensory overload, exhaustion, and overwhelmingly negative feelings. In my experience, people often experience negative emotions in academic settings including fear, anger, frustration, desperation, pressure, disrespect, disregard, envy, and harassment, to name but a few. Can you imagine not only dealing with your own struggles but also experiencing everyone else’s? That is basically what I was going through throughout my entire academic career. I was not only worried for myself but for everyone around me. I was anxious and insecure about my own progress, but also nervous for my peer’s upcoming deadline, irritated by a colleague’s envy for someone else’s success, and sad and hurt for a dear friend who was just going through a phase of intense self-doubt after being heavily criticized by their supervisor. What I was experiencing went far beyond compassion; I was actually feeling everyone’s suffering as if it was my own misery – a burden I had to carry but did not ask for. For the longest time, being an empath in such an environment felt like a curse.

While empaths like me are particularly weighed down by the academic environment, it’s not only empaths that suffer. To some extent we are all sensitive to the negativity, toxicity, and all the insecurities we face. It is likely that most academics have experienced abuse, harassment, bullying, or overwork at some point in their career, yet very few are willing to openly talk about it, including my younger self. 

Conflict is also particularly challenging as a highly sensitive person. There have been situations where I was deeply hurt by accusations or insults while being weighed down by the pain, frustration, and anger that the other person was experiencing. While being deeply hurt myself, I could also feel their pain for what had been done to them and it felt like double the burden on my heart. I have continuously asked myself: Why would someone who clearly has been through something unpleasant put others through the same experience? I was torn between contempt and compassion. The emotional chaos I experienced in such situations brought me close to a mental breakdown when I felt that I couldn’t take it anymore and that I was actually “too sensitive” to handle all this. Often, I didn’t know how to cope with the discrepancy between the things I sensed and supposedly knew and what people were actually willing to share, which left me overly confused and full of self-doubts. How do you trust your own judgement and impulses when you don’t know what is actually true?

In my experience, academia is not an inclusive space for people that perceive and experience the world differently. We are all constantly reminded of how we should think, feel, act, perform, and be – a form of gaslighting that leads to self-sabotage that can make us question our reality and ultimately ourselves. 

Embracing empathy as a superpower

My life changed after reading Anita Moorjani’s “Sensitive is the New Strong”, a book explaining what empathy means and how highly sensitive individuals like myself can learn how to express a gift they didn’t realize they have. The moment when I understood that what I was experiencing was real, and that I always could have trusted my intuition, suddenly everything made sense. I finally felt truly seen and was able to accept myself for who I was and who I am. I no longer had to deny my reality but could finally trust my perceptions and myself. I realized that empathy was not a curse but can become a superpower once you embrace it, learn how to protect yourself, differentiate between your own feelings and those of others, and stay true to yourself. Empathy is a gift that everyone carries, one that can be cultivated and used for the good of us all as long as we are brave enough to feel in this increasingly ruthless world. 

Learnings from a highly sensitive person

Being able to sense people’s emotions made me truly understand what others cannot perceive: In academia, we are caught in a vicious cycle of “hurt people hurt people” where those who have been hurt repeat the offense by hurting others and we are all – consciously or unconsciously – playing our part in this.

I guess that we can all agree that we have been victims of people that hurt us, being the supervisor who was humiliating us, questioning our dedication, threatening our professional status or future career, or peers who made nasty comments about our working hours or vacation days. However, if we are completely honest with ourselves, we may come to the realization that we may have done very similar things ourselves. Have you ever been unnecessarily hard on one of your students? Did you ever catch yourself scoffing because a colleague left work early, left for a long vacation, or did not work over the weekend? Did you ever comment on a peer’s presentation just to show off? Did you ever have feelings of resentment or envy because of a colleague’s publication, award, or promotion? We all may inadvertently feed the culture if we don’t reflect on our own thoughts and actions, and stop.

The good news is that if we are all part of the problem, then we can do something about it. While we cannot force others to change, we can learn how to better protect ourselves to not redirect our pain towards others to break the vicious cycle of “hurt people hurt people” and start creating change. Only if we learn how to feel valued and safe, we are able to create a safe space for others. Therefore, it needs awareness of the problem (which I hopefully have convinced you of by now), taking responsibility for our thoughts, emotions, and actions, and making a commitment to change. It is in our hands. Ultimately, we can change the situation if we change our behaviours. We can create change if we change. This is how we establish a healthier academic work environment in which people can thrive, feel free and do great research. It ends and it starts with us.

Dr. Claudia Mirretta Barone is a project leader at the Max Planck Institute for Biology in Tuebingen (Germany) who has started advocating for academic mental health as “The Empathetic Scientist” in January 2022. She truly believes that in academia, where sensitivity, kindness, and compassion are fully undervalued or even vilified, empaths and those who learn to listen to their inner voice and practice self-care can be shining lights for their peers and students, break the vicious cycle of “hurt people hurt people”, and work towards creating a healthier work environment for us all. You can find her on Twitter @Empathetic_Sci and @CMirrettaBarone, and Instagram @the.empathetic.scientist.