||This article may be too technical for most readers to understand. (May 2011)|
Projective identification is a term first used by Melanie Klein (1946) to describe a process whereby parts of the ego are thought of as forced into another person who is then expected to become identified with whatever has been projected.
A concept increasingly referred to in psychodynamic work, projective identification occurs in circumstances where A experiences feelings that belong to B but that B is unable to access; and instead "projects" them into (not just onto) A.
Projective identification thus designates a psychological process in which a person engages in the ego defense mechanism of projection in such a way that their behavior towards the object of projection invokes in that person precisely the thoughts, feelings or behaviors projected.
Projective identification differs from simple projection in that projective identification can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby a person, believing something false about another, relates to that other person in such a way that the other person alters their behavior to make the belief true. The second person is influenced by the projection and begins to behave as though he or she is in fact actually characterized by the projected thoughts or beliefs, a process that may happen outside the awareness of both parties involved.
The recipient of the projection can suffer a temporary loss of insight, a sense of experiencing strong feelings of being manipulated so as to be playing a part, no matter how difficult to recognise, in somebody else's phantasy. One therapist, for example, describes how "I felt the progressive extrusion of his internalised mother into me, not as a theoretical construct but in actual experience. The intonation of my voice altered, became higher with the distinctly Ur-mutter quality."
In everyday life, it can happen that the recipient feels almost kidnapped or coerced into carrying out the unconscious phantasy of the projector. In extreme cases, the recipient can lose any sense of self - to become inhuman, a moving bag of skin, with important symbolic messages rattling about inside - and may find themselves acting out in attempts at self-exorcism; the attempt to rid the self of projections or possession.
Wounded couple 
Projective identification is frequently the major suffering of a wounded couple. Each member enacts the most ideal, dreaded, and primitive aspects of the other in a way that drives both partners crazy. The partners may have been initially chosen because of their willingness to carry idealized or devalued parts of the self: unfortunately what is projected into and rediscovered in the partner is then treated in the same way as it was treated in the self. What you cannot stand in yourself, you locate and attack (or nurture) in the other.
Such projective identification can have very damaging effects on the person's sex life. Feelings of sexual inadequacy will be projected onto the partner and cause them to feel inadequate. This inadequacy will cause poor performance and subsequently result in the fulfillment of the initial projection. This is particularly common in cases of borderline personality disorder.
Only through a struggle to be conscious and differentiated can the recipient resist the pull and symbolize the experience, essentially making the projection available to be recognized by the projector. However, such resistance can produce a peculiar form of guilt...guilt for not being or not becoming the embodiment of the complement demanded by the other; while conversely for the projector, when an outer figure resists this powerful projective pressure, the individual bursts out in rage.
In action 
An example of projective identification is that of the paranoid schizophrenic who develops the delusion that he is being persecuted by the police; fearing the police, he begins to act furtively and anxiously around police officers, thereby raising the suspicions of police officers, who then begin to look for some grounds on which to arrest him. In such instances, they unknowingly project bits of their parents in their negative, punishing, powerful aspect on to the police...the family policeman in their heads.
What is projected most often is an intolerable, painful, or dangerous idea or belief about the self that the projecting person cannot accept (i.e. "I have behaved wrongly" or "I have a sexual feeling towards ..." ). Or it may be a valued or esteemed idea that again is difficult for the projecting person to acknowledge. Projective identification is believed to be a very early or primitive psychological process and is understood to be one of the more primitive defense mechanisms. Yet it is also thought to be the basis of more mature psychological processes like empathy and intuition.
In her book Psychoanalytic Diagnosis, Nancy McWilliams points out that projective identification combines elements of projection (attributing one's own feelings, thoughts, and motives to others) and introjection (incorporating the feelings, motives, and thoughts of others). Projective identification, in a way, validates one's projection by making the projection real. This is the benefit of the defense. By inducing the projected experience in another, one is more able to avoid the reality that the projected content is part of one's own experience. For example, a psychotherapy client who has unacceptable erotic feelings toward a therapist might behave in a highly seductive manner. Once the therapist began to feel attracted, any behaviors on the therapist's part that betrayed the attraction could help the client focus attention on the therapist's feelings and behavior. This could prevent the client from attending to his or her own erotic impulses, thereby keeping them out of awareness.
A similar defensive function may be seen in everyday communication, as in circumstances where through projective identification there was a division of emotional labour in relationships, with one partner carrying projected aspects of the other.
In psychotherapy 
Thus in object relations theory, when projective identification is seen to be used as a form of affective communication, it has become accepted that projective identification may unconsciously aim to get rid of unmanageable feelings but it also serves to get help with feelings. As a result, the therapist's capacity for the toleration and containment of the projected identifications of unwanted aspects of the patient's self, particularly the negative aspects, for very considerable periods of time is considered an essential therapeutic resource.
Similarly in transactional analysis, where projective identification may be seen to have the force of hypnotic inductions when a person's Adult is decommissioned, drawing the recipient into the projector's script drama, the same process equally provides very useful information if the therapist's Adult is unimpaired.
Theoretical complications 
Something of the richness of Klein's initial formulation may be seen in the variety of ways the concept has subsequently been developed. W. R. Bion early made an important distinction between normal projective identification and pathological projective identification. The projected part is splintered and disintegrated into minute fragments, and it is these minute fragments that are projected into the object.
Another distinction has been made between:
- acquisitive projective identification - when someone believes they are Napoleon
- attributive projective identification - making someone take in and in some sense "become" the projection.
- used for communication
- used for ridding the self of unwanted parts
- aimed at controlling the analyst's body and mind.
Others identify four kinds of projective identification:
- a type of defence
- a mode of communication
- a primitive form of object relations
- a pathway for psychological change.
Anglo-American conflict 
A theoretical breach divides those who think in terms of projective identification as only affecting external objects, and those who think both in terms of projective identification into an external object, and in terms of projective identification into parts of one's own mind.
The key issue here is whether or not a real, external Other, who has been affected by the projection, is essential to the concept. British Kleinians say no; some American interpreters say yes.
See also 
- Patrick Casement, Further Learning from the Patient (London 1990) p. 177
- R. D. Laing, Self and Others (Penguin 1969) p. 111
- Michael Jacobs, Psychodynamic Counselling in Action (London 2006), p. 109
- W. R. Bion, quoted in Laing, p. 37
- David Cooper, The Death of the Family (Penguin 1974) p. 113-4
- Polly Young-Eisendrath/Terence Dawson, The Cambridge Companion to Jung (Cambridge 1977) p. 227
- T. Pitt-Aikens/A. T. Ellis, Loss of the Good Authority (London 1989) p. 120 and p. 133
- Polly Young-Eisendrath and Terence Dawson eds., The Cambridge Companion to Jung (Cambridge 1997) p. 237
- Young-Eisendrath, p. 227
- Laing, p. 111
- Neville Symington, Narcissism: A New Theory (London 1993) p. 101
- Cooper, p. 22
- Adam Phillips, On Flirtation (London 1994), p. 5
- Patrick Casement, On Learning from the Patient (London 1990), p. 81
- Patrick Casement, Further learning from the patient: The analytic space and process (London 1997), p. 99
- Harold Stewart, Psychic Experience and Problems of Technique (London 1992), p. 134
- Petruska Clarkson, On Psychotherapy (London 1993), p. 180 and p. 184
- Hanna Segal,Introduction to the work of Melanie Klein (London 1964), p. 42-3
- John Rowan and Michael Jacobs, The Therapist's Use of Self (Buckingham 2002) p. 42
- Casement, On Learning p. 100n
- Quoted in Jan Grant and Jim Crawley, Transference and Projection(Buckingham 2002), p. 31
- R. M. Young, Benign and virulent projective identification
- R. M. Young
Further reading 
- R. D. Hinshelwood, A Dictionary of Kleinian Thought (London 1989).
- E. B. Spillius, Melanie Klein Today, 2 vols. (London 1988).