I used to scoff at those people who had panic attacks. “The cake is late! Oh no! I’m freaking out! I can’t breathe!” Ridiculous. Hysterical. Over-reacting.
I was learning scuba diving, and went on my first practice dive. While I was 15 meters underwater, I felt a sudden need to get out of there. My heart raced. Alarms in my brain. My body filled with terror. I raced up to the surface and pulled off my mask.
The instructor came up, so I told him, “I need to go. I hate this. I’ll just wait on the shore.” He calmly looked at me for a few seconds and said, “Here. Wait. Look around. See that mountain? What a nice day. Everything is OK. You’re safe. Let’s just relax here together.” It worked. After a while, I felt better, and finished our dive.
Later I realized I had a panic attack. This messed with my self-identity. I thought only weak, dramatic, hysterical people did that. But now I had, and it was involuntary. Hmm.
The next day, I went on my first real dive with a group of ten tourists, including a German couple that bragged about how many dives they had done. Underwater, I felt no fear — just joy.
Down deep at 20 meters, I saw the German girl, and gave her the hand signal for “OK?” — a common diver courtesy. She replied back with the hand signal for “NOT OK! SOMETHING WRONG!”, and gave me a panicked look. Her boyfriend was not around. I followed the training I had just learned, and brought her slowly to the surface.
She pulled off her mask and said, in a panic, “I hate this. Too cold. Too much. No no. I need to go now.” I recognized this! This was exactly how I had felt the day before. I remembered how my instructor had calmed me down, so I imitated my instructor exactly. I said, “Here. Wait. Look around. See that mountain? What a nice day. Everything is OK. You’re safe. Let’s just relax here together.” After a while, her boyfriend arrived, so I went back to my dive.
Those two days taught me two kinds of empathy.
You might categorize a type of person that’s so unlike you — a type of person that you will never ever be. Depressed. Disabled. Fat. Divorced. Bankrupt. Homeless. Addict. But these categories are usually involuntary. Don’t judge. Some day, they might be you.
You might also categorize another type of person that you think you will never be. Rescuer. Leader. Athlete. Boss. Millionaire. Even these categories can be involuntary — someone just responding to a situation. But you can deliberately step into a role through imitation.
We’re not so different.