But what is wrong with over-empathizing with patients, what is wrong with thinking "wow, that could have been me?"
Well over-empathizing with patients can be quite harmful because they are NOT you and HAVE different expectations, wants, and needs. You didn't make the same decisions and you have a different body with a slightly different anatomical and genetic basis that wouldn't necessarily react the same way to trauma. Over-identification means that you may not be able to keep perspective to accurately identify the extent of their injuries. It may also mean that you will treat them by the golden rule "treat others the way YOU want to be treated" instead of the platinum rule "treat others the way THEY want to be treated".
But what about the other side of this philosophical argument?
John Donne famously states
No man is an island,
Entire of himself...
Each man's death diminishes me
For I am involved in mankind
Therfore, send not to know
Forwhom the bell tolls.
It tolls for thee.
Similarly, in multiple religions, nirvana is reached when one transcends the body and therefore is not separated from others i.e. it is not my body and your body but we are both part of something greater. Or in Led Zepplin's song stairway to heaven the lyrics include "if you listen very hard the tune will come to you at last when all are one and one is all"
Understanding that we are all similar is important for our development. For example watching someone run with the correct form or win a race by showing multiple positive personality traits is something we identify with and witnessing that makes us stronger, better runners. We AUTOMATICALLY imitate that person.
But how do subconsciously know we are different? One way is through the green monster of jealousy. For example when I wake up, have be at rounds at 7, work till 6p or 7, eating cake the whole time (or something equivalently sugary to keep my mind bright) then go home, collapse on the floor, and look at facebook. Oh wow, really, YOU went for a 10 mile run and lifted weights and went swimming along with working a full day. And YOU feel wonderful. I am just SO happy for you!
Now did YOU do anything wrong? NO, of course not, and on another day I would BE you, but today I'm crabby and frustrated and didn't do anything but eat unhealthily and work in a white walled hospital. Towards the end of the book Quiet: the power of introverts by Susan Cain, she mentions that we should pay the most attention to what makes us jealous. This is because jealousy lets us identify our unmet desires.
I think that jealousy lets me know how I should be structuring my life. On some level I am acknowledging that I have potential. You have done something that I can do and have not; you have made different choices and structured your life in a way that allows you to do the things that I cannot/have not.
Further, jealousy shows us the basic difference between self and not self. We are both part of mankind, but you get to live my dream. Therefore I am jealous. As I continue in the medical profession, it will be difficult to arrange my life to run as much as I like, but when I get too jealous of others, I will know that I've gone down the wrong path and need to change my lifestyle/job.
On the other hand, the first time I realized I could run a lot better was the Marine Corps Marathon in October, 2010, the day before we removed my mother's breathing tube. As I ran past all those skinny girls who spent their time running while I had spent my time eating cake and pie while sitting in the hospital with my mom. I thought "hey there skinny bitch, you may be sexier than me, you may have run more miles than me, but you don't have the heart that I have or the strength that I have. you haven't done what i have done by not running. that's right skinny bitch, you're going down." Sorry for the crass language, but that's what went through my head as I ran by those little girls. I wasn't jealous. I was proud.