Projective identification is a complex psychological phenomenon that can be used as a defense mechanism and as a tool of interpersonal communication. In this post, we will explore how this theory is defined and consider some examples of how it works in everyday life.

What is projection?

To understand projective identification more deeply, we need to consider what the term projection itself encapsulates. Outside of the psychological realm, projection is defined in two ways. Either it is a forecast of the future built on an understanding of the present. Or, it is the presentation of an image on some form of surface.

When it comes to the human mind, projection refers to the identification of one’s own feelings, emotions, or traits in somebody else. When we believe others share these beliefs, it is known as a projection bias.

As an example, when a teenager gets a spot, they may be extremely conscious about this. When they meet someone, the first thing they might say is “Isn’t this spot disgusting!” However, the person may very well not have noticed the spot and not though it to be disgusting. The teenager’s insecurities have been projected onto somebody else to become their issues. A teenager might do this because it is hard for people to criticize themselves directly.

When we project feelings onto others, they tend to become easier to manage. As such, projection is often described as a defense mechanism. It is an unconscious act where we attribute something internal about ourselves on to somebody else. However, projective identification goes further than this.

What is the definition of projective identification?

The term was first coined by the Psychoanalyst Melanie Klein in 1946. It describes a process taking place in one person’s mind, which is being projected onto the mind of someone else. This other person has no idea this is happening. However, they may become affected by the projection so that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As such, projective identification is seen as an attempt by one person to make someone else the embodiment of their own projection, even if this is not consciously undertaken.

“In projective identification, parts of the self and internal objects are split off and projected into the external object, which then becomes possessed by, controlled and identified with the projected parts”Segal, 1974

To understand this more clearly, let’s follow on from the projection example of the spotty teenager feeling self-conscious about their spots. They might say to Sally: “Hmm, that spot on your face is a bit gross!”. Sally may or may not have spots but will likely wonder if she has and check. If Sally believes there are some spots appearing, then this would be an example of projection identification taking place.

The example of projection has turned into projective identification because it has become a two-way process that occurs outside of the projector’s mind and influences the recipient’s response. Klein’s theory also assumes that the projector asserts some form of control over the identifier. However, projections do not always have to be negative.

Examples of projective identification in everyday life

Projection identification is frequently observed in a range of relationships common to many people’s everyday life. Here, we outline the 3 most frequently observed everyday scenarios where projective identification often manifests itself:

  1. Parent-Child

Projection identification is often present in parent-child relationships. However, it is perhaps most apparent and illuminating as an example during the first years of life. Indeed, Klein argued that in order to survive as an infant, it is necessary for their mother or primary carer to identify with their projections.

For example, the infant’s negative aspects (discomfort) and deficiencies (inability to feed itself) must be attributed to the mother in order for her to be motivated to satisfy their needs. The infant has recruited the mother as a recipient “to help them tolerate painful intrapsychic states of mind”.

  1. Between Lovers

When it comes to relationships, the concept of identified projections is even clearer. For example, König argues that it is common for people to have an internal conflict over something. Perhaps they may want to buy a new car, but they are worried about the cost. They may, unbeknownst to them, internalize this conflict as a debate between them and their partner.

It would then become ‘I want to buy myself a new car, but my wife thinks we need to save the money’. They may subsequently take the action not to buy the car, having concealed the fact that they have made this conflict-easing decision on their own. Equally, they may store a latent resentment that sets off a new process as a result of their internal decision.

  1. Therapist-Client

Bion found that projective identification could be utilized as an instrument of therapy. The therapist can recognize that a patient may project his or her negative aspects onto them as the therapist. However, recognizing this, the therapist is able to accept the projections without offering any resistance.

This allows the patient to purify themselves, in a way, from their perceived bad parts. Because the therapist does not project these back to the patient, the patient can let them go without internalizing them.

Final Thoughts

As the above examples show, projective identification is complex. At times, it can be difficult to recognize who is the projector and who the receiver. Indeed, the final result can sometimes be a combination of the two.

However, understanding that the way we behave may be shaped by the projections of others is useful to help us recognize controlling people or how we relate to others. It also helps us to understand our own emotions and the healthiness of our relationships.

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