Our lives are not alone. Everything we do affects others, causing small changes in them. We often simplify science, breaking down behaviors to their simplest form to understand associated consequences. I have spent a lot of time researching defense mechanisms. One of the core topics of Psychology Fanatic. We define most defenses individually. However, projective identification is unique. It is a process involving two or more people—the one projecting and the one identifying.
Melanie Klein introduced projective identification in 1946. She defined it as “the projection of an unwanted part of the self onto an important other, together with identification of that part with the other” (2003). In the defense mechanism projection, a person relieves “uncomfortable emotions by projecting personal behaviors, thoughts, and character traits on a person or object outside of ourselves” (Murphy, 2022). However, in projective identification, there is another step in the process. The receiver of the projection absorbs the trait projected, identifying with it, and adopting the projected trait.
Projective Identification and Relationships
Projective identification is a complex process that integrates a basic defense mechanism (projection) with a interpersonal systemic process. Arthur C. Nielson explains that projective identification is “an interpersonal defense mechanism by which individuals (inducers) recruit others (recipients) to help them tolerate painful intrapsychic states of mind” (2019).
This defensive process is “a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby one individual relates to another in such a way that that other person alters his or her behavior to make the projector’s belief true” (2009). Basically, projective identification has the effect of making projections come true.
For example, a person adopts a victim mentality in their marriage, deductively they see their partner as an abuser. While the relationship might not be good, leaving one or both of the partners emotionally empty, one would not label the relationship at this point as abusive. The “victim” then pushes, picks, and annoys until the partner aggressively reacts. The projector then righteously claims victimhood, pointing to the behavior in the partner as proof. “See, look at what he did.” In psychotherapy, this process contains elements of transferences and counter transference.
Projection Identification Often is a Larger Pattern
We often explain and provide examples of singular instances of a defense mechanisms. However, these processes belong to much larger systems of behaviors, full of action, reactions, and feedback loops. A person doesn’t just use projective identification in relationships but they instinctively seek relationships where a partner will absorb the projections. Lawrence Heller describes a survival strategy where the person actively is “attracted to needy partners, whose dependency they encourage.” He continues they “use projective identification masterfully: they maintain their larger-than-life image by making others feel small, their need to be in control by making others feel out of control, their need to feel smart by making others feel dumb, and their need to feel powerful by making others feel powerless” (2012, Kindle location 1,103).
The Defensive Benefit of Projective Identification
Ayala Malach Pines wrote that once the projection of unwanted parts is made and the “the partner expresses, or is perceived as expressing, that repressed part in the self, there is no need to admit its existence in the self.” We free ourselves from dealing with aspects of ourselves we do not want to address. Pines continues, “a woman who feels unlovable, because she felt unlovable as a child, is likely to choose a man who does not show love. This way she can blame him for her bad feelings about herself” (2005). We externalize cause and the object of our externalization obliges by acting in ways to confirm our projection.
These relationships are amazingly resilient. Pines explains, “It is far easier to be with a partner who provides an external justification for your bad feelings about yourself than to confront those feelings directly in yourself” (2005). Perhaps, we unconsciously know that the relationship is providing a service, allowing for avoidance of addressing our own flaws. We project, our partner reacts, we complain, and we love it.
Three Phases of Projective Identification
An important part of defense mechanisms is that they work without us being aware of it. We don’t consciously decide to make someone behave in a certain way to meet our expectations. The intention to do so would counter the idea of getting rid of parts of ourselves that we don’t want. Some writers have divided projective identification into three stages:
- The phantasy of placing one’s mental contents into the mind of another
- Interpersonal pressure on the other to think, feel and behave in accordance with the projection
- And return of the mental contents in an altered form
A man I met at a service project was very condescending. His words and behaviors elicited feelings in me that pushed for an aggressive defensive response. Perhaps, he was projecting some unwanted internal feelings of his own. Fortunately, I was in the midst of researching this article and was able to sense the transference, and refrained from my impulse to return his mental contents with a little added energy of my own.
Is Projective Identification Maladaptive?
When Klein originally introduced projective identification, it was primarily, if not exclusively, seen as a malignant process of avoidance. Just like all defense mechanisms, sometimes the world overwhelms and defenses processes provide a slight break from the pressure so we an recalibrate. Deborah Anna Luepnitz Ph.D., a member of the Clinical Faculty of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, wrote, “projective identification is not always a bad thing. On the contrary, at times we all need to banish overwhelming emotion, or to blame external sources, just to survive psychically” (2008, page 130). However, she later warns “if it becomes our way of being in the world, however, both feelings and judgments are compromised” (page 138).
Researchers and psychologists have identified similar healthy interactional processes to those involved in projective identification. Perhaps, projective identification is an outgrowth from normal communication that through environmental stresses and negative experience mutated into the malignant, maladaptive defense mechanisms originally identified by Klein.
Healthy Projection to Elicit Support
Thomas H. Ogden MD, a psychoanalyst and writer, theorized that projective identification “helps one to elicit another’s aid in processing difficult or important experiences” (Mendelsohn, 2009). Other researchers propose that in intimate moments of interpersonal interactions the boundary between self and object is lost. Anne-Marie Sandler and Joseph Sandler suggest that this process is “the essential basis of the process of projective identification, and that it occurs in a ‘reciprocal love relationship’ and is a significant basis for empathy” (Schore, 2003 Kindle Location 1,491).
Empathy is commonly misunderstood to mean warm, accepting, and sympathetic reactions to others. However, the formal definition is slightly different, referring to “feel with” another person. Mendelsohn explains that this means to “feel emotionally what the other person is feeling, whether these feelings are warm and loving, moody, hateful, and angry” (2009). Basically, empathy describes a process of one persons emotional state is projected onto another person. The empathetic person can receive the emotion and return it in a more manageable form. The child cries in discomfort, the empathetic mother absorbs the emotion, and helps sooth the child. IN psychology we refer to this as dyadic regulation.
Healthy relationships help each other soothe unruly emotions, bringing both partners back to a homeostatic balance. In these processes, the projection of internal states is a bid for help. We can view projective identification as “a dyadic, intersubjective communicative process.” Schore explains that “projective identification… is not a unidirectional but instead is a bidirectional process in which both members of an emotionally communicating dyad act in a context of mutual reciprocal influence” (Schore 2003).
These bidirectional processes were first identified in interactions between therapist and patient. Psychoanalyst were trained to receive the patient’s projections “contain the projection, process it, and then feed it back to the inducing patient in a more manageable form.” Nielsen continues, “in the same way, people who remain empathetic and emotionally capable can assist when their partners become overwhelmed inner states of distress” (2019).
We receive, contain and return detoxified. This is the healthy process compared to receive, react, and return magnified with an intent to hurt. Joseph Sadler explains that it is “the capacity of the caretaking mother to be attentive to and tolerant of the needs, distress, and anger as well as the love of the infant, and to convey, increasingly, a reassurance that she can ‘contain’ these feelings and at an appropriate time, respond in a considered and relevant way (2018, p. 23). Or as Neville Symington puts it the mother is able to contain these projections and “she does not hersel become so depressed that she is unable to respond to her baby, or that she fears her baby, or that she is disgusted by her baby or envious of the baby…” (1992).
Containment is difficult. It requires an inner source of regulation. A child’s unresolvable fussiness frustrates. Unfortunately, disconnection and abuse sometimes follows. In secure attachment, “the caregiver contingently responds to the child’s projective identifications.” However, when the caregiver is unable to receive or contain these projective identifications, the failed communication “prevents the establishment of a dyadic system in which the infant can safely project “valued” parts of the self into the mother (i.e., aspects of adaptive projective identification)” (Schore, 2003).
A Few Words by Psychology Fanatic
when our partner feels sad, or reflective, do we absorb the state, and contain it? Or does it spike our own insecurities? Do we receive the projection, and detoxify, and dyadically work through the emotion, or do we compound it? The concepts and research on projective identification provide a profound and insightful framework for looking at human interaction, integrating Freudian mechanisms, attachment theory, and complex system theory.
Heller, Lawrence; LaPierre, Aline (2012). Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship. North Atlantic Books; 1st edition.
Luepnitz, Deborah Anna (2008). Schopenhauer’s Porcupines: Intimacy And Its Dilemmas: Five Stories Of Psychotherapy. Basic Books; 1st edition.
Mendelsohn, Robert (2009). The Projective Identifications of Everyday Life. The Psychoanalytic Review, 96(6), 871-894.
Murphy, T. Franklin (2022). Projection: A Defense Mechanism. Psychology Fanatic. Published 1-31-2022. Accessed 6-29-2023.
Nielsen, Arthur (2019). Projective Identification in Couples. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 67(4), 593-624.
Pines, Ayala Malach (2005). Falling in Love: Why We Choose the Lovers We Choose. Routledge; 2nd edition.
Sandler, Joseph (2018). Projection, Identification, Projective Identification. Routledge; 1st edition.
Schore, Allan N. (2003). Affect Regulation and the Repair of the Self (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). W. W. Norton & Company; First Edition.
Symington, Neville (1992). The Analytic Experience-Lectures from Tavistock. Free Association Books.