Discovering Projective Identification

6 mins read
Projective Identification

Have you ever wondered why we sometimes see parts of ourselves in others or feel that someone’s emotions or thoughts belong tօ us? This fascinating psychological phenomenon is called projective identification and has been extensively examined by psychoanalysts and psychologists for the better of a century. Projective identification is a complex and subtle process that involves projecting one’s feelings, desires, or anxieties onto another person and then adopting them as if they were theIr own.

Understanding the concept of projective identification is vital for those who are interested in exploring the intricate workings of the human mind and relationships. In this article, we’ll delve deeper into projective identification, how it works, and why it’s an essential component of the psychoanalytic approach. Whether you’re interested in psychology or are just curious about how our minds function, this writing will lead you to an enthralling exploration of new ideas. So, let’s bսckle up and explore the intriguing world of projective identification!

Projective identification is a psychological concept that refers to the unconscious process of projecting unwanted aspects of oneself onto another persօn, such as emotions, thoughts, or traits, often in an attempt to rid oneself of them. The reciрIent of the projection may tаke on these qualities or characteristics, believing they are their own, while the person projecting remains սnaware of what they have done. This process can occur in personal relationships and larger social and cultural contexts and may lead to misunderstandings, conflict, and difficulty in communication. The concept was introduced by psychoanalyst Melanie Klein in her work “Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms” in 1946 and has since been further developed and studied by psychologists and other mental health professionals.

Melanie Klein
Melanie Klein (1882-1960), pioneering child psychoanalyst and influential theorist, known for her innovative work in object relations theory and play therapy. Her groundbreaking insights into the emotional worlds of children revolutionised psychoanalytic theory and practice.

According to Klein (1946), infants use a defensive mechanism called projective identification to manage their internal anxieties. This mechanism serves as a form of protection and helps shield the self from dangerous self- and object-representations by expelling the parts they hate. Instead of simply projecting these parts “onto the mother”, the infant is said to рroject them “into the mother”.

Understanding the Nuances: How Projection and Projective Identification Differ

To gain a deeper understanding of projective identification, it is first essential to consider the projection’s meaning. In everyday life, projection can refer to either predicting future outcomes based on current knowledge or displaying an image on a surface.

In psychology, projection involves attributing one’s thoughts, feelings, or characteristics to another person. This phenomenon is known as projection bias, when an individual assumes others have the same beliefs or traits as themselves.

For example, suppose Alice feels envious of her colleague’s promotion but cannot admit it to herself. She may project her insecurity onto her colleague Jane and convince herself that Jane is not competent for the job. This is an example of projection.

However, projective identification would come into play if Alice told Jane, “You’re not doing the job well enough.” Even if Jane performs well, she may doubt her abilities and feel inadequate, based on Alice’s projection. This is an example of identification as Jane begins to take on the characteristics projected onto her.

Thus, projective identification is often viewed as an unconscious effort by an individual to make another person represent their projections, despite the lack of conscious intention.

To understand this more clearly, let’s follow the projection example in the following clip from the movie Good Will Hunting.

In the film Good Will Hunting, a young man named Will is ordered to attend therapy after physically attacking someone. Will initially regards therapy as a joke, and his behaviour has caused his previous two therapists to refuse to work with him. He is now meeting with Dr Sean Maguire, a composed and rational professional who views Will as an emotional and aggressive patient. Unbeknownst to Dr Maguire, his repressed emotions and feelings of loss and lack of control influence his perceptions of Will.

To interpret this event, Will systematically and rationally disassociates himself from his emotional side and breaks down the defences of Dr Maguire. This evokes Dr Maguire’s previously split-off emotional and aggressive traits, essentially making him into the emotional and aggressive version of Will. In this way, Dr Maguire has now taken the place of Will. When Will concludes the session by saying, “time’s up,” he completes the reversal and becomes the controlled and rational therapist. At the same time, Dr. Maguire is left feeling the side of himself that was previously disassociated.
This understanding of projective identification involves two parties: one to project and the other to identify with that projection unconsciously.

Another compelling depiction of projective identification is presented in the movie “Enough Said” (2013), featuring James Gandolfini and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, which shows a persuasive definition of projective identification. The film offers an excellent example of how the phenomenon can occur, as it follows a projection from Marianne into Eva. In the movie we can trace Eva’s journey as she unwittingly accepts the projection, gradually becomes conscious of it, challenges it, and ultimately emerges with a renewed sense of self.

Everyday Examples of Projective Identification

Projective identification is a psychological mechanism commonly found in various relationships common to many people’s everyday life. Here, we outline the three most common typical scenarios where projective identification often manifests itself.

Parent-Child relationships

Projective identification is often observed in parent-child relationships, especially in the early years. As stated by Klein, in order for infant to survive their primary caregiver, usually the mother, must identifies with their projections. This identification is necessary for the mother to provide the infant with what they need to address their negative aspects, such as discomfort or deficiencies in feeding, and to support their mental states. The mother is recruited as a recipient to help the infant tolerate painful intrapsychic states of mind.

Projective identification in intimate and romantic relationships

In relationships, people often have conflicting thoughts and feelings about something. For example, someone may want to buy a new car but worry about the cost. As König (1995) suggests that people often experience an internal conflict over an issue, and they may not even realise that they have internalised this conflict as a debate with their partner. It might then sound like, “I want a new car, but my partner wants to save money.” They might decide not to buy the car without revealing that they made the decision themselves. Alternatively, they may store a fit of hidden anger that causes a new issue due to their judgment.

Client – Therapist relationships

Bion (1962) discovered that projective identification could be used as a tool in therapy. If the therapist can identify that the patient is projecting their negative aspects onto them, they can accept these projections without resisting. This enables the patient to release themselves from their perceived negative parts. By not projecting these negative aspects back onto the patient, the therapist can help the patient let go of them without them being internalised.

Understanding Projective Identification in Art: Artistic Expression as a Means of Coping and Discovery

The concept of projective identification can also be observed in artistic expression, including creating various art forms and writing, particularly in poetry. This mechanism functions by attributing negative aspects to others as a means of avoiding experiencing them oneself. In artistic creations, artists may project their deepest emotions, desires, or fears onto their work, thus distancing themselves from these emotions and making them easier to express. In poetry, projective identification is often utilized for self-discovery and healing. By projecting their own experiences onto the outside world, poets gain a greater understanding of their emotions and experiences. This process can also aid readers in connecting with the poet’s experiences and interpreting their work. In visual art, projective identification is often seen in artists who use their work to express their struggles or anxieties. Additionally, art can sometimes serve as a vehicle for projecting societal concerns, such as inequality or environmental issues, to a broader audience.

The Crux of the Matter: Insights Gained from Projective Identification

As we conclude our exploration of projective identification, we can reflect on the complexities and nuances of this psychological phenomenon: it is multifaceted and often enigmatic. It involves projecting one’s emotions, thoughts, or fears onto another person and then assuming them as if they were their own. This unconscious process can occur in personal relationships and larger social and cultural contexts and may lead to misunderstandings, conflict, and difficulty in communication. It can be challenging to distinguish the projector from the recipient, and the result can sometimes be a fusion of both.

Although harmful, it can also serve as a therapeutic and life-changing occurrence. According to experts such as Bion, Segal, and Waska, the emotional and relational conflicts that often arise from projection can be transformed into a more positive and constructive experience. This shift in thinking can result in an internal transformation and a newfound trust in oneself and others. On the other hand, if the projected psychic conflict is not addressed, it can lead to a perpetual, detrimental cycle that ultimately prevents the individual from developing new object-relational experiences.

Nonetheless, comprehending that the projections of others can influence our conduct can be advantageous in identifying those who seek to manipulate or dominate us. It also allows us to examine our feelings and the state of our relationships.

Max Karlin

Practising psychologist with a diverse professional background and a trainee therapist at the New School of Psychotherapy and Counselling (NSPC – Existential Academy) and Middlesex University, London. Max brings a rich tapestry of experience from his diverse professional journey, spanning over two decades in commerce and business. In addition to the private practice, he consults leaders and specialists across various industries and countries, ranging from small start-ups to large organisations. Max is passionate about researching how psychotherapy can contribute to social change and foster a better world. Founder and co-editor of the Journal of Integrative Psychotherapy and Systemic Analysis.

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