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Projective Identification (or PI) is a psychological term was first introduced by Melanie Klein of the Object relations school of psychoanalytic thought in 1946. It refers to a psychological process in which a person will project a thought or belief that they have onto a second person. Then, in most common definitions of projective identification, there is another action in which the second person is changed by the projection and begins to behave as though he or she is in fact actually characterized by those thoughts or beliefs that have been projected. This is a process that generally happens outside of the awareness of both parties involved, although this has been a matter of some argument. What is projected is most often an intolerable, painful, or dangerous idea or belief about the self that the first person cannot tolerate (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 first person to acknowledge for some reason.

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 is also thought to be the basis out of which more mature psychological processes like empathy and intuition are formed.

Many authors have described the process of projective identification. One notable, Ogden (1979, 1986) describes a process in which the part of the self is projected onto an external object. The external object experiences a blurring of the boundaries or definitions of the self and other. This takes place during an interpersonal interaction in which the projector actively pressures the recipient to think, feel and act in accordance with the projection. The recipient of the projection then processes or "metabolizes" the projection so that it can then be re-internalized by the projector.

Different definitions of projective identification exist and there are disagreements as to a number of its aspects. For example, where does the process begin and end, exactly "what" is projected and what is "received", is a second person required for projective identification to take place, does projective identification occur when it is within the awareness of either party involved, and what is the difference between projection and projective identification. Ogden (1982) describes the process of projective identification as simultaneously involving a type of psychological defense against unwanted feelings or fantasies, a mode of communication, and as a type of human relationship.

As a defense a psychiatric patient, for example, can use PI to deny the truth of unwanted feelings or beliefs by projecting them into the other person. Additionally, because the analyst begins to unknowingly enact these feelings or beliefs (even though they were originally alien to him or her), the patient is in a sense "controlling" the interaction with the analyst. This is often experienced by the analyst as a subtle pressure to behave or believe in a particular way; but it is an influence which the analyst usually is not attentive to or it is not experienced consciously. By influencing the analyst to behave in a particular way, more exploratory, original and vulnerable material is prevented from coming into the discussion. Recently, Luis de Rivera has described a volontary mental procedure, ecpathy, which allows appropriate dealing with feelings induced by projective identification

[[It is not clear to this reader--a psychotherapist and anthropologist--how the processes described in the preceding paragraph differ from those of "ordinary" transference and counter-transference. Also, based on his clinical experience, it seems unlikely that projective identification can succeed if the "feelings or beliefs . . . were [truly] alien to" the therapist. That is, habitual users of this defense seem particularly adept at identifying persons who really do have issues with the quality they need to project--e..g., projecting rage into someone who is genuinely struggling to contain his or her own rage. Hence, the disruptiveness of a projective identification upon even a well-trained therapist.]]

Projective identification functions as a mode of communication as well. The first person "gives" his or her unwanted thoughts or feelings to the second person. Instead of communicating these thoughts or feelings with words, the unwanted content is given directly to the second person. In this way the second person may understand what the first person is experiencing, even if the first person is unaware of such experience.

Projective identification is often experienced not as an isolated incident, but as a series of [[[projection]]s and identifications and counter-projections and counter-identifications that evolve in a relationship over time. An example of this might be the mother/infant dyad or a husband and wife pairing. In such cases there is an ongoing emotional economy or transaction between the partners that takes place over the course of an entire relationship.

Other authors have identified multiple motivations for projective identification including: to control the object, to acquire its attributes, to evacuate a bad quality, to protect a good quality, to avoid separation (Spillius, 1988, vol. 1, pp. 81-3). Here is a simple example of projective identification in a psychiatric setting:

A traumatized patient describes to his analyst a horrible incident which he experienced recently. Yet in describing this incident the patient remains emotionally unaffected or even indifferent to his own obvious suffering and perhaps even the suffering of his loved ones. When asked he denies having any feelings about the event whatsoever. Yet, when the analyst hears this story, she begins to feel very strong feelings (i.e. perhaps sadness and/or anger) in response. She might tear up or become righteously indignant on behalf of the patient, thereby acting out the patient's feelings resulting from the trauma. Being a well trained analyst however, she recognizes the profound effect that her patient's story is having on her. Acknowledging to herself the feelings she is having, she suggests to the patient that he might perhaps be having feelings that are difficult for him to experience in relation to the trauma. She processes or metabolizes these experiences in herself and puts them into words and speaks them to the patient. Ideally, then the patient can recognize in himself the emotions or thoughts that he previously could not let into his awareness. Another common example is in the mother/child dyad where the mother is able to experience and address her child’s needs when the child is often unable to state his own needs at all.

The above examples describe projective identification within the context of a dyad. However, PI takes place within a group context as well. Another notable psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion (1961) described projective identification in the following way: "the analyst feels he is being manipulated so as to be playing a part, no matter how difficult to recognize, in someone else's fantasy" (p. 149). This ongoing link between internal intra-psychic process and the interpersonal dimension has provided the foundation for understanding important aspects of group and organizational life. Bion's studies of groups examined how collusive, shared group phenomena such as scapegoating, group-think and emotional contagion are all rooted in the collective use of projective identification. In fact, sociologists often see projective identification at work on the societal level in the relationship of minority groups and the majority class.

See also Edit

References & BibliographyEdit

Key textsEdit

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PapersEdit

Agrachev, S. G. (1996). Identification with losers as a psychological phenomenon in contemporary Russia: Zeitschrift fur Psychoanalytische Theorie und Praxis Vol 11(4) 1996, 394-400.

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