Projective identification

Projective identification is a term introduced by Melanie Klein to describe the process whereby in a close relationship, as between mother and child, lovers, or therapist and patient, parts of the self may in unconscious fantasy be thought of as being forced into the other person.[1]

While based on Freud's concept of psychological projection,[2] projective identification represents a step beyond. In R.D. Laing's words, "The one person does not use the other merely as a hook to hang projections on. He/she strives to find in the other, or to induce the other to become, the very embodiment of projection".[3] Feelings which can not be consciously accessed are defensively projected into another person in order to evoke the thoughts or feelings projected.[4]

Projective identification may be used as a type of defence, a means of communicating, a primitive form of relationship, or a route to psychological change;[5] used for ridding the self of unwanted parts or for controlling the other's body and mind.[6]


Though a difficult concept for the conscious mind to come to terms with,[7] since its primitive nature makes its operation or interpretation seem more like magic or art than science,[8] projective identification is nonetheless a powerful tool of interpersonal communication.

The recipient of the projection may suffer a loss of both identity and insight as they are caught up in and manipulated by the other person's fantasy.[9] One therapist, for example, describes how "I felt the progressive extrusion of his internalized 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."[10] If the projection can be accepted and understood, however, much insight into the projector will be obtained.

Projective identification differs from simple projection in that projective identification can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby a person, believing something false about another, influences or coerces that other person to carry out that precise projection.[11] In extreme cases, the recipient may lose any sense of their real self and become reduced to the passive carriers of outside projections, as if possessed by them.[12]

Objects projected

The objects (feelings, attitudes) extruded in projective identification are of various kinds – both good and bad, ideal and abjected.

Hope may be projected by a client into their therapist, when they can no longer consciously feel it themselves;[13] equally, it may be a fear of (psychic) dying which is projected.[14]

Aggression may be projected, leaving the projector's personality diminished and reduced;[15] alternatively it may be desire, leaving the projector feeling asexual.[16]

The good/ideal parts of the personality may be projected, leading to dependence upon the object of identification;[17] equally it may be jealousy or envy that are projected, perhaps by the therapist into the client.[18]


Projective identification may take place with varying degrees of intensity.[19]

In narcissism, extremely powerful projections may take place and obliterate the distinction between self and other.[20]

In less disturbed personalities, projective identification is not only a way of getting rid of feelings but also of getting help with them.[21]

In an emotionally balanced person, projective identification may act as a bridge to empathy and intuitive understanding.[22]


Various types of projective identification have been distinguished over the years:

A division has also been made between normal projective identification and pathological projective identification, where what is projected is splintered into minute pieces before the projection takes place.[26]

In psychotherapy

As with transference and countertransference, projective identification can be a potential key to therapeutic understanding, especially where the therapist is able to tolerate and contain the unwanted, negative aspects of the patient's self over time.[27]

Transactional analysis emphasizes the need for the therapist's Adult to remain uncontaminated, if the experience of the client's projective identification is to be usefully understood.[28]

Wounded couple

Relationship problems have been linked to the way there can be a division of emotional labour in a couple, by way of projective identification, with one partner carrying projected aspects of the other for them.[29] Thus one partner may carry all the aggression or all the competence in the relationship, the other all the vulnerability.[30]

Jungians describe the resultant dynamics as characterising a so-called "wounded couple" – projective identification ensuring that each carries the most ideal or the most primitive parts of their counterpart.[31] The two partners may initially have been singled out for that very readiness to carry parts of each other's self; but the projected inner conflicts/division then come to be replicated in the partnership itself.[32]

Conscious resistance to such projective identification[33] may produce on the one side guilt for refusing to enact the projection,[34] on the other bitter rage at the thwarting of the projection.[35]

See also


  1. Patrick Casement, Further Learning from the Patient (London 1990) p. 177
  2. Projective identification
  3. R. D. Laing, Self and Others (Penguin 1969) p. 111
  4. Michael Jacobs, Psychodynamic Counselling in Action (London 2006), p. 109
  5. Quoted in Jan Grant and Jim Crawley, Transference and Projection(Buckingham 2002), p. 31
  6. Patrick Casement, On Learning from the Patient (1985) p. 100n
  7. Priscilla Roth, 'Projective Identification', in S. Budd/R.Rusbridger eds., Introducing Psychoanalysis (2005) p. 200
  8. Patrick Casement, Further Learning from the Patient (London 1990) p. 8
  9. R. D. Laing, Self and Others (Penguin 1969) p. 37
  10. David Cooper, The Death of the Family (Penguin 1974) p. 113–4
  11. Polly Young-Eisendrath/Terence Dawson, The Cambridge Companion to Jung (Cambridge 1977) p. 227
  12. T. Pitt-Aikens/A. T. Ellis, Loss of the Good Authority (London 1989) p. 120 and p. 133
  13. Patrick Casement, Further Learning from the Patient (London 1990) p. 121-2
  14. Michael Parsons, The Dove that Returns, the Dove that Vanishes (2000) p. 166
  15. R. Appignanesi ed., Introducing Melanie Klein (2006) p. 127
  16. Patrick Casement, Further Learning from the Patient (London 1990) p. 69–73
  17. Rosalind Minsky, Psychoanalysis and Gender (1998) p. 86-7
  18. Neville Symington, Narcissism: A New Theory (1993) p. 11–2
  19. Robert D. Hinshelwood, "Projective Identification"
  20. Hanna Segal, Klein (1979) p. 116–9
  21. Patrick Casement, Further Learning from the Patient (London 1990) p. 98–9
  22. Robert D. Hinshelwood, "Projective Identification"
  23. John Rowan and Michael Jacobs, The Therapist's Use of Self (Buckingham 2002) p. 42
  24. Grinberg L (1962) On a specific aspect of countertransference due to the patient's projective identification (In Classics of Psychoanalytical Technique)
  25. The Narcissistic/Borderline Couple: A Psychoanalytic Perspective on Marital Treatment (1st ed.). New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1992. ISBN 0-87630-634-2
  26. Hanna Segal,Introduction to the work of Melanie Klein (London 1964), p. 42-3
  27. Harold Stewart, Psychic Experience and Problems of Technique (London 1992), p. 134
  28. Petruska Clarkson, On Psychotherapy (London 1993), p. 180 and p. 184
  29. Adam Phillips, On Flirtation (London 1994), p. 5
  30. R. Skynner/J. Cleese, Families and how to survive them (1993) p. 47–54
  31. Polly Young-Eisendrath and Terence Dawson eds., The Cambridge Companion to Jung (Cambridge 1997) p. 237
  32. Polly Young-Eisendrath and Terence Dawson eds., The Cambridge Companion to Jung (Cambridge 1997) p. 227
  33. Polly Young-Eisendrath and Terence Dawson eds., The Cambridge Companion to Jung (Cambridge 1997) p. 227
  34. R. D. Laing, Self and Others (Penguin 1969) p. 111
  35. Neville Symington, Narcissism: A New Theory (London 1993) p. 101

Further reading

External links

R. M. Young, Benign and virulent projective identification

Wynn Schwartz Demystifying Projective Identification

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