Projective identification is a process whereby unwanted split-off parts of the self are forced into the object so as to control the object from inside. Psychoanalytic Terms and Concepts, Auchincloss & Samberg, ed. 2012
Here’s an example:
A supervisee, we’ll call him Jack, told me he found himself feeling hostile and dismissive toward a female client, we’ll call her Jill. Their session had begun, like many before, with her criticizing what had gone wrong in the last session, insistently pointing out failures in his sensitivity and errors in his therapeutic technique. She offered this to be helpful, she said, and reminded him that she had helped her many previous therapists this way. Although he had come to expect sessions to open like this, these comments annoyed him, but what especially disturbed Jack was that she then asked if he was sexually stimulated. At that moment, he described feeling stuck and struggled against an urge to humiliate her.
Jack told me that he did in fact feel unpleasantly and inappropriately aroused, and that he was angry about feeling “held in place” by Jill, which made him awkwardly self-conscious about his posture. It reminded him of his mother forcing him to stand still and listen in silence while she berated him. He was honestly surprised by both his self-conscious posture and his arousal, but after careful consideration, he suspected he was enmeshed in a pattern of projective identification.
Projection and projective identification are forms of transference that frequently color relationships with difficult people. Briefly, let’s call transference an expectation that one person has of another shaped more by the past than by the actual and relevant characteristics of the present encounter. (Although almost invariably, looking closely at the encounter, we’ll likely see something that triggers the expectation). It’s called transference because something from the past is transferred to the present and informs, in a serviceable or unserviceable fashion, the current encounter. Charles Brenner has pointed out that transference is ubiquitous in human relationships but in the psychodynamic therapies it is the job of the therapist to bring it into awareness so that it is not unconsciously acted out.
Projection is similar. A person transfers to another not just an expectation, but also a disposition of their own they find so problematic they defensively disclaim it. They indulge the feeling but in a self-deceptive fashion.
Projective identification is a variation of this with the added feature of the attempt to control the other’s behavior. Part of what is so uncanny about projective identification is that the receiver of the projection often reports inexplicitly feeling what the projector expects. Ray, you will recall, unexpectedly and uncomfortably was turned on.
But projective identification is not a mystery. It is not an emotional contagion that one person has placed inside another akin to the injection of some voodoo drug. But it may have features of a “spell” since the person who “receives” the projection may feel like it is happening to him, not like he is doing it. It might not be what he was trying to do at all, but he is still “stuck” with unexpected feelings. Keep in mind that people respond, one way or another, to the way they are treated including becoming a version of the way they are treated.
Consider the unfolding relational sequence between Jill and Jack:
Move 1. Jill and Jack’s interaction stirs up something unconscious and unacceptable in Jill.
Move 2. Jill is aware of this problematic feeling, but because it is unthinkable or intolerable, attributes it to Jack. He is, after all, the one that stirred up the feeling.
Move 3. Since Jill thinks Jack is harboring these problematic feeling towards her, she begins to treat Jack in an effort to defensively control him.
Move 4. Jack responds to Jill’s treatment of him. If Jill’s projectiondoes not match Jack’s conscious intent and feeling, Jack will feel something is askew. It matters whether Jill’s attribution is consistent with Jack’s assessment of his actual feeling toward her. Nonetheless, Jill responds in the way he responds when treated as such. Naturally, this will include elements of transference or counter-transference.
Move 5, etc. An ongoing improvisational pattern ensures. Each party responds to the other party’s move by incorporating the other’s response. The projected expectation becomes more relevant as it’s assimilated into the actions that follow. And so it goes.
Why is it unsurprising that projective identifications result in unexpected feeling? Remember that projection is the unconscious attribution of qualities onto another person. Since projections involve a person’s unthinkable and intolerable dispositions, it should come as no surprise that sexual, aggressive, and competitive urges, common among us, get involved. This often comes with the human condition as an undercurrent muted by more relevant features appropriate to the interaction at hand. If not brought to the forefront, these feelings would be ignored. Projection brings them to the foreground. When treated sexually, people get aroused, when treated with hostility or competition, it is no surprise when the other acts in kind.
People prone to projective identification find targets everywhere. Their vulnerability follows them but does not provide the opportunity to practice better self-control. It’s hard to control what can’t be acknowledged.
It is especially messy if both parties are not adequately aware. If both people engage in projection and reactive control, this usually produces a positive feedback loop of errors compounding errors. Matters easily get out of hand.
In contrast, if a person’s transferences, projections, and identifications are met with a mindful and tolerant response, the improvisational engagement may take on features of a negative feedback loop and self-correct. The dampening of the projection can set a stage for a kinder, gentler set of expectations to emerge. Under these circumstances, over time, the projection can become less necessary.
The engagement between Jill and Jack involved Jill identifying her problematic feeling in the guise of their being Jack’s feeling about her. It is as if she did not recognize herself in the mirror but was moved by the resonance. This gathers her attention since she knows these feeling present a hazard. She just doesn’t know she’s the one acting them out. Jill can’t competently master the issues she can’t recognize as hers to resolve.
This is where Jack’s job is crucial. Jack’s stance toward Jill’s projections offers her an opportunity to develop new perspective. Jack, “in possession” of the projected feelings, can provide a corrective response that demonstrates these otherwise difficult feelings can be managed.
Jack sought supervision to understand his role in this, wanting to be mindful not to act it out. His honest attention to what he was feeling and “remembering” (his counter-transference), served as a cautionary guide. Useful was his professional courage in sharing with the hope that his natural responses wouldn’t be condemned. Talking this over facilitated this. He didn’t need to rigidly hold himself in place, nor did he need to discredit or ignore the erotic stimulation. Instead, he needed to be careful and caring in the sessions that followed. He mostly was.
Written By Wynn Schwartz Ph.D
Demystifying Projective Identification was originally published @ Lessons in Psychology: Freedom, Liberation, and Reaction and has been syndicated with permission.
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