The Powers and The Limitations of Empathy: Stage Lights and Drunken Nights

In my final year at UCSB, I committed 11 weeks to the intensive B.F.A theater acting program. For my final, I was to play Kent, a jealous, abusive ex-husband confronting his former wife.

During class, the biggest lesson of acting imparted upon me by our instructor, Anne Torsiglieri, was to NEVER judge your character.

“Judge your character and your act will fail.” Your performance would come off too strong and the audience would sense your disingenuous attempt. In the beginning, I really judged Kent; I saw myself above him. My first attempts were shallow and ineffective.

I brought in two outside skills: my screenwriting training and my knowledge of psychology. Playing his therapist, I constructed a psychological profile of Kent’s youth that led him to become the man he was. Everything Kent saw and felt, I saw and felt. And everything Kent became, as did I.

This experience was the first that led me to have a profound understanding of what true empathy is and the power it holds. As I transformed into Kent, my self-righteous judgment of him subsided. My final performance was a success.

Actual Broadway play of Reasons to Be Happy. Frederick Weller (right) plays my assignment, Kent.
Actual Broadway play of Reasons to Be Happy by Neil Labute. Frederick Weller (right) plays my assignment, Kent.

Did the experience change my opinion of jealous spouses? Did it soften my stance against abusive relationships? No. Rather, the experience gave me clear, unbiased insight to the minds of such aggressors.

Empathy’s meaning is simple, even when defined by psychology jargon: the ability to fully understand what another is feeling; putting yourself in another’s shoes.

To feel empathy is the alpha particle of human morality. Its basic application drives us to establish laws and to care about strangers being victim to crimes. Major religions and self-help gurus around the world teach their followers to forgive and to not judge others.


We crave empathy from others. Socialites and social outcasts, alike, desire to be understood by at least one person close to them. Human beings seek vengeance because we want our offenders to feel the suffering and humiliation we have felt.


And, as a result, like all things good for us, we neglect it as we would our diet.

To be fair, the consistent application of empathy is far easier said than done. The task requires knowledge, self-control, and sacrifice. Consider the following example.

Back during my student-journalist days, I covered a story about Reid Mihalko, a Dating and Sex Coach whom threw a seminar for UCSB on the topics of gender relationships and sexual health.

Speaker Reid Mihalko
Speaker Reid Mihalko

During Q&A, a male audience member expressed his frustrations with approaching women at parties. His issue: girls demanded confidence in potential partners but indiscriminately treats all men whom approach as potential rapists. How is that fair? Half the room clamored with agreement.

Milhako responded by asking one question: “When you are done partying at night and you are walking home drunk, what are you thinking about?”

The men, whom were asked to respond first, replied with: “food”, “bringing a girl home with me”, and “not getting arrested”.

When it was the women’s turn, they answered in unison: getting home safely. That was factor one: knowledge. Every man in the room was silent.

Drunk woman with wine

Factor two, self control. Knowledge would be pretty pointless if one lacks the will to apply it. The male audience members of that day must overcome future challenges of ego and the social pressure to appear “alpha”.

This brings up factor three: sacrifice, which in my definition is the loss of something you perceive desirable OR the intentional self-creation of an obstacle towards that which you perceive desirable.

Many masculine subcultures believe that displaying such empathy gets in the way of hookup success. The consensus is that a male should shut himself out from such concerns and focus entirely on sealing the deal. The reality is that the fewer of these barriers a male has, the more notches he is likely to carve above his bed.

That is what makes this sacrifice noble; you give up self-gratification for humanity’s bigger picture: our species’ ability to do the right thing when the act is invisible. That being said, you won’t walk away with nothing either: check this video, about the transformative nature of empathy, out!

(Note: Dr. Paul Parkin uses a more advanced model to define empathy than I did in my article. In the world of academia psychology, different scholars can use models to analyze the same concept.)

HOWEVER…For sake of balance, the self-control argument can also be used on the side of men.

Imagine some naïve kid whom is new to the social scene. Lacking experience and a thick skin, the rejections and the games hit him harder than most. He feels beaten down over and over again until, one day, he meets a group of misogynist jerks that happen to do well with hookups. They show him sympathy, invite him to be their ‘bro’, and offer to teach him how things work. However, this kid had a moral upbringing and with great difficulty, possibly facing ridicule, he turns them down.

Thus I ask: how do you think this kid will respond when he is presented with a radicalized worldview that all men should feel responsible for the unjust actions of other men? How kindly, will the kid react when that same presenter treats the plethora of problems he faces as unworthy of concern?


Yes, I realize it is not ‘progressively’ sexy defending men. However, proper self-control entails that we look beyond our political agendas and our culturally acceptable parameters on which groups we may (or must) provide empathy for.

Too often, we push others to have empathy for one particular group, only to completely cut off those we push from our own empathy.

If one is to demand empathy from others, then one should be ready to offer it ubiquitously. If you do not care about another’s interests why should they, absent fear, care for yours?



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