The psychological defense mechanism known as projective identification has wide explanatory power – as I hope to show you here. Like many concepts that originated in psychodynamic theory, its practical relevance in explaining human behaviors continues even while the original theoretical construct may have been superseded. Consider how this concept’s developer, Dr. Melanie Klein, described it in 1946, “Much of the hatred against parts of the self is now directed toward the mother. This leads to a particular form of identification which establishes the prototype of an aggressive object-relation. I suggest for these processes the term ‘projective identification’.” Most psychiatrists, and even psychodynamic ones, would not find this explanation satisfactory or even understandable. Let’s delve into an example to help us analyze what factors are in play and what benefits may be achieved.

Let’s say that I am a middle aged man with a good job, but anxious I’ll lose it once the sale of the company I work for goes through and the new owners restructure the company. I find myself increasingly tense and preoccupied. I imagine scenarios in which my family and I lose our home and we become destitute. I then beat myself up over “indulging” in such thoughts and feelings because it demonstrates I’m being weak and ineffectual. My sallow complexion, short-temperedness, and overall demeanor become noticeable to my wife who asks me what ails me. I casually respond, “You know, with the new boss coming, you never know what can happen.” This response triggers my wife to become anxious and she peppers me with questions about what really going on at work. I say, “Dear, you shouldn’t worry so much. I’m sure everything will be alright.” My wife protests that I’m the one who sounded anxious and that she’s trying to get to the bottom of all of this. I respond testily with, “What do you mean I made you anxious? You’re the one who asked me about how things were at work! I gave you an accurate level-headed analysis. I’m not the one panicking and making a big deal out of this!”

So, what can we learn from an exchange such as this? These are the things that strike me.

First, this type of communication seems common and does not seem to be restricted to persons with severe character pathology. Many individuals without any psychiatric disorder engage in this type of interpersonal behavior. People are triggering each other all the time, and then responding back to their partner’s triggers. And on the cycle goes round and round. For couples, whether friends or lovers, who’ve been together a long time, the same cycle occurs like a drama that gets replayed ad infinitum with variations, but essentially remaining the same.

Second, the interaction between the sender of the projection and the receiver who identifies with it does not occur through telepathy or other secret brain waves. It occurs through sometimes subtle but observable every day behaviors. The projector acts in certain ways, verbally and non-verbally, that induces a certain complex response in the identifier. The identifier’s response encompasses cognitive, emotional, and behavioral aspects and acts as an integrated complex whole. (In schema therapy this is called a schema mode.)  The particular response the identifier responds with is likely one he or she habitually responds with because it reflects their particular susceptibilities, ones based on biological predispositions and lived experiences. In my example, my wife responds with anxiety and activation to do something about it.

Third, both the projector and the identifier are often reacting without much insight into the causes, meanings, and consequences of their respective behaviors. This accounts for the often mindlessly repetitive interactions that continue over years or decades. But – and here’s the good news – the involved persons can attain insight into these cycles and eventually change them. It may be most accurate to describe these actions and reactions as neither conscious nor unconscious, but rather preconscious, that is, open to study, analysis, and understanding once they are made a focus of attention. Psychotherapies such as transference-focused, mindfulness, and schema therapies (among others) bring attention to these interactions, their triggers and responses with the intent to change them.

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And fourth, it is clear that the projector achieves some kinds of benefits from engaging in such projecting behaviors. It does not necessarily follow that the identifier does, but I won’t discuss these possibilities here today. I’ll focus on the potential gains the projector receives. Here are four potential functions (benefits) of projective identification:

  1. The projection allows the projecting person to disavow unwanted aspects of themselves. For this disavowal to be effective and convincing to the projector, however, the person who is the object of the projection needs to identify with it. Consider the following possibility from my example: If I’m stewing in my anxiety about losing my job and I want to disavow both my anxiety and the weakness in myself my anxiety suggests to me, my efforts would not work if my wife responds to me with, “Jack, you’re a real worry-wort. Don’t worry, whatever happens, we’ll be able to handle it.” Then I haven’t been able to “tar” her with my anxiety and weakness. Thus, if I have a certain aspect of myself that I particularly fear or despise, like my anxious nature and perceived weakness, I will want to choose a life partner who will respond to my projections by identifying with them. From this perspective, I want a wife who will feel more anxious than I in such situations and not a wife who tells me to stop being such a wimp! (And, of course, I need to find a person who, for whatever reasons, takes on playing this preferred role with me.)
  2. Another benefit of projection is that it can form the basis of a relationship with another person. My internal conflict is being acted out, influencing the behavior of the other person. This can lead to a feeling of being in sync with this other person. Now I need not feel alone with my anxiety.  And, in addition, I may be a person who carries a sense of being misunderstood, unsupported, and underappreciated. If I can get someone to feel anxious along with me, I can feel less inferior, more supported, and more appreciated as a valued member of this new team. I have achieved a sense of shared concerns and solutions, of belonging, and of improved self-esteem.
  3. So still another benefit of projective identification is emotion management. My anxiety will likely go down as my wife’s anxiety goes up, like a noxious liquid split among more than one vessel.
  4. And, last, projective identification can be a method of change. When I project an unwanted aspect of myself and the other person identifies with it, this interpersonal enactment can help me work out my issues as if I and the other person were playing in a sandbox. Working with another person, such as my wife, I am likely to better manage my anxiety and take the requisite steps, such as looking for a new job, to address the its sources. However, on another level, my problem is likely to continue. Because projective identification allows me to disavow problematic aspects of myself, I am unlikely to make needed changes in myself to grow in strength and flexibility. And this is where therapy can come in. When a patient trusts that the clinician accepts them just as they are, that patient may be willing to focus attention on and eventually accept these unwanted disavowed aspects of themselves. This acceptance can lead to learning new self-management and interpersonal management strategies. To solve a problem, you must first accept that you have a problem.

I’ll follow up next time with more on projective identification, and provide clinical examples of how we as psychiatrists are on the receiving end of projections that we can identify with to our and our patient’s detriment.


Until next time,

Dr. Jack


Today’s Quotes

Apropos of nothing: “The feelings that hurt most, the emotions that sting most, are those that are absurd – The longing for impossible things, precisely because they are impossible; nostalgia for what never was; the desire for what could have been; regret over not being someone else; dissatisfaction with the world’s existence. All these half-tones of the soul’s consciousness create in us a painful landscape, an eternal sunset of what we are.
– Fernando Pessoa