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How to Avoid the Trap of Overidentifying with Your Mental Health Condition

Let’s Talk About It

April 27, 2024

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Photography by JP Danko/Stocksy United

Photography by JP Danko/Stocksy United

by Hannah Shewan Stevens


Medically Reviewed by:

Tiffany Taft, PsyD


by Hannah Shewan Stevens


Medically Reviewed by:

Tiffany Taft, PsyD


Diagnoses can be transformative for managing mental health. But sometimes, they engulf us until we allow them to define us. Escaping from this trap requires a healthy serving of introspection.

What happens if depression or another mental health condition becomes the defining force behind your personality? Nothing good or healthy, I can promise you.

At age 25, a psychologist diagnosed me with complex PTSD and depression after more than a decade of unexplained symptoms. Convinced my mind and life were doomed to replay and repeat my childhood traumas forever, I embraced the diagnosis like a soothing weighted blanket.

Later, I discovered that this process has a name: overidentification or engulfment. This maladaptive coping mechanism interrupts our ability to heal and move on — keeping us trapped in a cycle of poor mental health that feels inevitable.

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What is overidentification or engulfment?

“Overidentification, also referred to as engulfment, is when individuals characterize themselves strongly with their diagnosis to the point that it often becomes detrimental to their recovery,” says licensed professional clinical counselor Natalie Grierson, LSW.

Having struggled with my mental health since childhood, when a diagnosis appeared, I clung to it with obsessive fervor. It felt like the solution to all of my problems and an easy answer to the question: What is my identity?

Total immersion into my diagnosis obliterated everything else in my life.

Family, friends, work, and hobbies all became secondary. I lost hope for a brighter future because life as a person with complex PTSD and depression became all-consuming. I couldn’t see a way out.

It can be tempting to explain everything with a definition … but a diagnosis can impede recovery if it becomes the explanation for everything.

Charlotte Fox Weber, psychotherapist

“Signs of overidentification can include how someone describes their mental health condition and their willingness to identify with other life roles,” explains Grierson.

“For example, someone diagnosed with major depressive disorder may begin to consider themselves a ‘depressed person,’ and their other life roles, such as vocational, social, and familial, fall second to their new identity,” she says.

“Further, the person’s self-concept is now dominated by being ‘mentally ill,’ which can decrease their sense of confidence and hope for the future,” she continues.

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Why does engulfment happen in people with mental health conditions?

The reasons for engulfment are many and largely rely on the individual. There’s no simple answer to why it happens.

For me, I was vulnerable to engulfment because the condition itself fractured my identity. Struggles with self-perception are common among survivors of complex trauma because identity development is interrupted.

As my trauma manifested as a young child, I didn’t develop an independent personality before abuse warped it.

So, when I dove headfirst into research post-diagnosis, I found traces of myself and my history in every article — and a new identity to embrace. Finding affinity in the diagnosis was incredibly powerful and validating, something I will never regret.

However, research spiraled into an obsession until the diagnosis dominated my self-perspective. Everything else that defined me dropped down in the priority order until “complex PTSD and depression” became the ultimate headliner.

When are people most vulnerable to overidentification?

“If you’re physically overrun and fatigued, you may be more vulnerable to enmeshment and overidentification,” says psychotherapist and author of “Tell Me What You Want,” Charlotte Fox Weber. “If you have a fragile sense of self, boundaries can be so porous emotionally that your identity can feel subsumed.”

As I was scrabbling for some sense of identity amid an array of chronic conditions (including fibromyalgia and endometriosis), overidentification easily slipped into my life.

It felt like a comforting arm around my shoulders, reminding me that I’m not alone.

This sensation increased tenfold when I found online communities that offered support. But they were laden with misinformation, with some claiming that neither condition is curable.

“In my opinion, the current trends on social media about mental health conditions are a double-edged sword,” Grierson says. “They help reduce negative stigma by promoting positive and accurate awareness about mental health. However, the other side of this debate is that social media can include inaccurate information from non-professionals that may worsen self-stigma and engulfment among those with mental health conditions.”

Although finding community is rewarding, there’s a fine line between relishing acceptance and relying on community to form our identity.

I slipped into the latter category, becoming enamored with belonging to a group. I surrendered to the misinformation and believed that no one else could understand my experiences.

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Is overidentification really a problem?

On the surface, overidentification may not seem like an issue. We develop knowledge of our condition, seek community support, and use the information to work on healing.

Although these are all positive things, engulfment becomes a barrier to healing when the condition monopolizes all of our attention. It certainly did for me when the diagnosis became the excuse for every issue that arose in my life.

“It can be tempting to explain everything with a definition, especially if you’ve been wronged and mistreated, and now you have fresh insight. But a diagnosis can impede recovery if it becomes the explanation for everything,” says Weber.

This isn’t the diagnosis’ fault, though. A diagnosis is a useful tool for healing that points people in a helpful direction, explaining symptoms and signposting possible solutions.

But allowing the condition to drown out everything else leads to a sense of helplessness and inevitability. For me, the condition felt predestined, so I stopped trying to heal, instead leaning into it as a crucial element of my personality and identity.

How can we prevent overidentification from engulfing us?

“To break the cycle of engulfment, people should reconsider the way they perceive their mental health diagnosis,” says Grierson. “I would encourage those experiencing engulfment to identify additional roles in life that may offer fulfillment.”

Consider other roles you could play in your life, such as:

  • increasing your involvement with social support, like finding a community support group
  • volunteering at local charities or finding ways to support the growth of your local community
  • meeting new friends and renewing old connections
  • trying new hobbies and developing new skills, such as a new sport or art therapy

I detached from overidentification by expanding my friendship circle so that I no longer exclusively rely on people with shared experiences. Their input continues to be an important element in my recovery, but I no longer rely on it in a vacuum — otherwise, it’s easy to slip into engulfment.

Developing other aspects of my personality, such as finding new hobbies and learning new skills, also helped shed the skin of overidentification.

The more I explored and added or rejected things that didn’t feel like me, the easier it became to find the new me — one defined by life as a whole, not one aspect in isolation.

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Take charge of yourself

“Don’t turn a trip into a fall,” says Weber. “If you’re struggling with the overwhelm of depression, self-compassion is important. Accepting an issue doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do to help yourself.”

I lost years of my 20s to engulfment before I was able to see a way out. At times, I stopped looking for an escape route altogether.

Engulfment became so overwhelming that the idea of getting better was scarier than living with complex PTSD and depression. Why? Because I didn’t know who I was without my diagnoses.

The takeaway

Shedding overidentification’s influence demanded some deep introspection and actively working toward healing. Now, I know I’m so much more than a few letters.

My condition explains why I have certain behaviors, but it does not, and cannot, ever define me as a person.

“We are always gathering and sifting through impressions of ourselves, and it’s a lifelong process of getting to know ourselves and growing,” Weber continues. “Your relationship with life isn’t complete, and it’s the most worthwhile challenge — the work in progress of self-understanding.”

Medically reviewed on April 27, 2024

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About the author

Hannah Shewan Stevens

Hannah Shewan Stevens is a freelance journalist, speaker, press officer, and newly qualified sex educator. She typically writes about health, disability, sex, and relationships. After working for press agencies and producing digital video content, she’s now focused on feature writing and on best practices for reporting on disability. Follow her on Twitter.

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