Many people are confused about the difference between having compassion for someone and over-identifying with him or her. It’s a critical distinction, especially if you’re inclined to feel sorry for people and then end up losing yourself in the relationship and/or taking better care of them than of yourself.
According to self-compassion author Kristen Neff, compassion is meeting suffering with kindness—part empathy and part wishing to treat someone as kindly as you’d like to be treated. There’s nothing wrong with compassion, which I encourage you to feel toward others and yourself. But, there’s everything wrong with over-identification. The Oxford Living Dictionaries defines it as, “The action of identifying oneself to an excessive degree with someone or something else, especially to the detriment of one's individuality or objectivity.”
, accessed 9/16/17) When we have compassion, we feel for someone. When we over-identify, we feel someone’s emotions to the point of losing our own perspective, blurring boundaries and ensuring that we can’t separate who we are from who someone else is.
Here are some scenarios:
- Your friend, Myra, was just broken up with her girlfriend with whom she’d been living. You invite Myra to stay with you, remembering what it was like when your family home was foreclosed and you all had to move in with your grandparents during your high school years. Myra keeps extending her stay and moving more of her stuff into your already jam-packed tiny apartment. You stew and complain to your friends about the imposition, yet say nothing to Myra, imagining that she’d be as crushed as you’d be if you swapped roles. Friends suggest that you talk with Myra, but you refuse because you’re so invested in her feelings that you ignore your own.
- You’ve just found out that your neighbor, Dan, has throat cancer and don’t know how to help his wife, Sue, cope. Your mother had cancer and you were her only care-taker, as your sisters and brothers did little to help her. You start spending more time relieving Sue and taking care of Dan than you spend with your own family and your children are getting upset about you rarely being at home. You can’t seem to stop yourself from putting all your energy into helping Sue care for Dan, even though you feel badly about your kids getting the short end of the stick.
In the both situations, you’ve lost your sense of self and your own needs. In both cases, you don’t really know what the other person is feeling. Speaking with Myra, you might find her saying that she thought it was fine to stay because you never said anything to the contrary. Talking with Sue, you might find that she’s been feeling terribly guilty about letting you do so much, but she didn’t want to say anything because that would seem as if she didn’t appreciate your generosity. When we over-identify with people, we lose all sense of rationality, proportion and perspective. We put ourselves at risk because we have no distinct self voice to guide us.
If you’re inclined to over-identify and usually pay a price down the line with people hurting or taking advantage of you, pay close attention to how often and strongly you put yourself in someone’s shoes and lose yourself in the process. You can feel empathy, sympathy and deep compassion for others without allowing yourself to be mistreated and ceding your ability to set boundaries. I do it as a therapist all the time. When you have the urge to help people, take a moment to examine whether you’re feeling unhealthy over-identification or healthy compassion for them.